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Steve McQueen is loosening up his style, and he’s chosen the best time to do it. The Academy Award-winning director, best known for serious, violent thrillers like Widows, has had a unique trajectory. His first two films, Hunger and Shame, were dramatic showcases for his former muse Michael Fassbender. Then came his third, 12 Years a Slave, which seemed to signify a change of course with his storytelling. This paid off as the film went on to become the first directed by a Black person to win an Oscar for Best Picture, setting the stage for Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight to win a few years later. Now, amid the pandemic-induced streaming boom, McQueen has taken another unexpected turn, into television anthology with his new Amazon series Small Axe, which recently premiered at the 2020 New York Film Festival.
Small Axe refers to the African proverb popularized in Jamaica by Bob Marley with his lyrics “If you are a big tree, we are the small axe.” And you can feel that sense of collective strength in each of the three films released so far — Mangrove, Lover’s Rock, and Red, White and Blue. (The remaining two, Education and Alex Wheatle, will debut on Amazon in December.) McQueen directed all three films, sharing writing credits with Alastair Siddons (Mangrove) and Courttia Newland (Lover’s Rock and Red, White and Blue).
Most of the characters are Caribbean immigrants living in close-knit communities in London from the late ’60s to the mid-’80s. As a second-generation Jamaican-American, I felt right at home, immediately protective of their peace and happiness. And it’s clear from the direction that McQueen made these films as an act of love for his own hometown and heritage. The way the camera lingers on each face, moving at a slow, measured pace, allows the audience to get to know the characters through small movements and micro-expressions. Such tenderness from McQueen yields an odd viewing experience until you learn that each film is based on real-life stories, told to him by his parents during his youth.
The first film, Mangrove, tells the story of the Mangrove Nine, a group that stood trial in 1970 for demonstrating against racist police brutality. The drama centers around Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), who opened the Mangrove restaurant in London’s Notting Hill in 1968. A haven where the Caribbean community could talk, eat, and feel at ease, the restaurant endured constant police raids. Crichlow quickly finds himself at the center of a fight for Black lives, led by Trinidadian Black Panther Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright). Wright gives a career-best performance, exuding strength, authority, and righteous anger.
McQueen, never shying away from brutality, depicts the aimless cruelty of the police in excruciating detail. But where the film really shines is in its few calm moments in the Mangrove, before the police arrive. These scenes emphasize the vibrancy and resilience of the Caribbean community, lending depth and yielding moments far more inspiring that those of the landmark trial, which unfolds over the final third of the film.
Red, White and Blue, the third film in the anthology, tells the story of real-life London police officer Leroy Logan who left a career as a forensic scientist to join the force in hopes of becoming a cultural liaison between the Caribbean population and the majority-white police department. Logan, played with impressive intensity and control by John Boyega, has assimilated into British society much more easily than his father (Steve Toussaint) who is often harassed and even brutally beaten by the police.
While this father-son relationship is compelling, McQueen’s focus on the police speaks to an exhausting recent trend in film that centers Black cops and the struggles they face within their profession. At this point in cinema, we have seen countless American stories about Black cops trying to combat racist attitudes from the inside. And though Logan’s specific story isn’t one we’ve seen translated to film before, the sentiment it expresses fall in line with recent films like BlackKklansman, Monsters and Men, Black and Blue and even older films like Charles Burnett’s The Glass Shield. In each of these stories, any victory is always short-lived, because we know nothing has really changed. While a vehicle for strong performances — including from Antonia Thomas as Logan’s wife — Red, White and Blue is largely formulaic.
Positioned in the middle of these two brutal narratives is Lover’s Rock, a tender, jewel-toned balm for the soul in the form of a house party. Focused on a fictional birthday party in London in 1980, the film is filled to the brim with young, beautiful British Caribbean people drinking, dancing, and having a good time. As two young people (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn, Michael Ward) play out a blossoming love story, the party comes alive with a soundtrack of lover’s rock reggae of the era.
But the real star of the film is choreographer Coral Messam, who instructed the actors to commune with the music in a way that would bring truth to the screen. The song most prominently featured is Janet Kay’s joyful 1979 single “Silly Games,” first sung by the birthday girl’s aunties in the kitchen before the party begins and then again at the climax of the film, as everyone on the dance floor belts the words. There’s something so loose and beautiful about Lover’s Rock — rare qualities in Black cinema recently. It’s a tribute to Black people that centers our joy, our style, and the beauty of our movements.
Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology will debut in weekly installments on Amazon Prime starting November 20 with Mangrove.