Small Axe: ‘The most exhilarating director working today’
Steve McQueen has followed 12 Years a Slave and Widows with a five-part anthology. It shows that he is ‘the most exhilarating director working today’, writes Caryn James.
It’s rare when a political film can make you want to get up and dance, but that happens over and over in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series.
These five standalone films are connected only by a broad subject, the West Indian community in the UK from the 1960s to the 1980s, and by McQueen’s uncommon artistry. Most are fact-based recent histories, full of social commentary about racial justice more relevant now than ever. And as few movies do, they take us viscerally into the action, into the middle of dance parties, street protests and the lives of ordinary but memorable people. They draw on McQueen’s strengths, from his beginnings as a visual artist, to making films of unblinking realism including Hunger and 12 Years a Slave. With Small Axe, he stands as the most exhilarating director working today.
Of the three instalments shown at the New York Film Festival, the standout is Mangrove – which will also open the London Film Festival – a gripping, revelatory account of the police harassment of a restaurant owner and of his supporters in the Black Power movement of the 1960s. Red, White and Blue is equally fierce but less fleshed-out, with John Boyega as Leroy Logan, who joined the police force in the 1980s to reform it from within. Both films, set in a world of police brutality and inequality for black people, are shaped by the characters’ anger and determination to change things. They clarify the series title, which comes from a West Indian proverb about taking on the power structure: “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe.”
At the centre of Mangrove is the real-life story of Trinidad-born Frank Crichlow, who in 1968 opened a modest restaurant called The Mangrove in a West Indian neighbourhood in London’s Notting Hill. With a hand-lettered sign reading ‘Black Ownership’ in the window, it is a place of warmth, celebration and music. The police begin to harass Frank from the time the restaurant opens, and never let up, falsely accusing him of allowing gambling. McQueen roots the film’s political observations in the life of the community, which includes spending screen time luxuriating in a vibrant block party outside The Mangrove, with dancing and a steel band on the street. In contrast, a few stark scenes from the white police officers’ point of view are enough to reveal their racism. The loser of a card game, for instance, has to arrest the next black man he happens to see.
The Mangrove becomes a gathering place for the local community, including Altheia Jones-LeCointe, the leader of the British Black Panther movement. Letitia Wright’s sharply-drawn performance depicts Altheia as a passionate idealist who can also think strategically. As Frank, Shaun Parkes’ face is stern, with angry, contained rage. These two actors have stirring and eventually explosive scenes together, as Altheia encourages an activism that doesn’t come naturally to Frank. One of the strengths of McQueen’s films is the way they find room for different attitudes among characters who agree about the need for justice but not about the means of achieving it.
Lovers Rock is practically a masterclass in filmmaking that can transport us to a different place and time
The Small Axe series is loaded with set pieces, and a protest rally in Mangrove, with all its ’60s rhetoric, is among the most effective. Marchers fill the street, and Altheia takes a bullhorn to lead the chant, “The pigs! The pigs! We got to get rid of the pigs!” McQueen put us among the protestors as the police move in, dragging Altheia along the ground, beating others with clubs. The violent scene is short, horrifying and intense. All five films were shot by cinematographer Shabier Kirchner, whose camera can glide into a crowd with amazing clarity and agility. You don’t have to analyse the camera angles or edits to feel that immediacy.
When Frank, Altheia and the others who became known as the Mangrove Nine face charges including incitement to riot and assaulting the police, the focus turns to their trial. Even then, McQueen reimagines conventional courtroom tropes. A montage of court scenes is shaped as much by sound as by image, with reggae music and an undertone of dialogue on the soundtrack.
[Lovers Rock (credit: BBC/Amazon Prime)]
Music is important in the entire series, but it is almost wall-to-wall in Lovers Rock (which is also in the London Film Festival), the only film among the five that is entirely fictional. Taking place over one night in the 1980s, at a dance party where two young people fall for each other, it is lighter in content, with an exuberant tone. And it is practically a masterclass in filmmaking that can transport us to a different place and time.
Teenaged Martha sneaks out of the house for the party in a modest, shimmery homemade dress. There, she and handsome Franklyn meet for the first time, in a crowded living room often filled with red light, and with music that moves from the energetic Kung Fu Fighting to the gently romantic. McQueen captures the sense of possibility felt so intensely in your teens and 20s, as girls and boys at the party are constantly sizing each other up, flirting, choosing, dancing. Amarah-Jae St Aubyn as Martha and Micheal Ward as Franklyn give stunningly natural performances that convey the excitement of new love, and keep us with the film, even though it has the slightest of narrative threads.
At the centre of Lovers Rock is another major set piece, as the camera closes in to show hands on hips and bodies swaying while we hear the smooth song, Silly Games. Danger is still lurking, as we see when four white men ominously approach Martha on the street. Lovers Rock might be sweet and sensuous, but it is not blind to reality.
All three of these films begin with stunning opening shots. In Lovers Rock, a train moves sinuously on curving tracks. Mangrove finds Frank in the yellow-brown light of a gambling club. In Red, White and Blue, we see a boy in a school uniform standing on the pavement, waiting, on a crisp autumn day. In a brief prelude showing Leroy as a child, the police search him because there have been burglaries by “young black lads like yourself”, even though you couldn’t imagine a more polite or innocent-looking child. His father, Kenneth (Steve Toussaint), shows up at that moment and is rightly furious.
The film follows the adult Leroy as he decides to leave his job as a forensic scientist to join the Metropolitan Police, a decision especially fraught because police officers have beaten Kenneth badly over a possible parking violation. Boyega is calm and determined as Leroy, and holds the screen as well as ever. But at an hour and twenty minutes, the story and character feel skimpy. The story rushes along as Leroy argues with his father and goes through police training. In his days as a policeman on patrol, a black kid calls him a traitor.
Scene for scene, though, the film is emotionally and politically strong, with the best episodes between father and son. When the disapproving Kenneth drives Leroy to the training centre, the camera puts us inside the empty car, looking through the windshield as Kenneth hugs his son goodbye. Al Green’s cover of the BeeGees’ How Can You Mend a Broken Heart plays, but we hear no dialogue. In that perfectly conceived visual, we see the gesture toward reconciliation yet feel the distance that remains between them.
Their differences are stated out loud in the film’s final scene, as they drink and clink glasses. “Big change – that is a slow-turning wheel,” Kenneth says about social progress. Leroy answers, “Sometimes I think the earth needs to be scorched, replanted, something good will come of it.” That conversation goes to the heart of McQueen’s urgent, brilliant series.
The Small Axe series premieres on 20 November in the UK on BBC One, and elsewhere on Amazon Prime Video.