Small Axe

UK (2020) Dir. Steve McQueen

In 2010, British director Steve McQueen had the idea of making a TV series for the BBC about the lives of black people in Britain, but after he started writing, McQueen realised he had enough material to tell individual stories instead. The result is Small Axe, five feature length films, fictional and based on real events.

Mangrove is based on the true story of a landmark court case of 1971 in which a group of black defendants brought to light the inherent racism of the metropolitan police. The eponymous restaurant in London’s Notting Hill, bought by Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) in 1969 was to be a hub for the black community but racist police constable Frank Pulley (Sam Spruell) decided to launch a campaign against Crichlow with frequent raids.

With the support of the Black Panthers UK, fronted by Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) and Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright), a protest march was held but police intervention turned it into a riot, blaming the protestors for the violence the police instigated. In court, Howe and Jones-LeCointe decided to represent themselves, a first for the UK, up against a clearly biased system, including the judge.

Starting the series with a bang, this is a gnarly, intense and emotionally galvanising film is a much a mission statement for McQueen’s intention for this project as it is a shameful dissertation of how destructive institutionalised racism is. There is an irony that this was set in 1971 yet the same thing – protesting police brutality begets more police brutality – was a major issue in 2020, with the death of George Floyd in the US.

Next up was Lovers Rock, the film I enjoyed the least in this series. There is no real plot – a group of black teens and 20-somethings attend a house party in the early 1980’s, some looking for love, others there for the music. I couldn’t get into this one at all, yet it is popular with many others. I guess they enjoy 15-minute renditions of Janet Kay’s Silly Games and experimental psychedelic Reggae explorations more than I do.

Back on track for this writer, Red, White And Blue sees black forensic lab assistant Leroy Logan (John Boyega) join the police force after his father is attacked by two police officers to improve relationships between white police in the black community. Instead, Logan suffers racial discrimination and abuse from within the force whilst the black community reject him for being a sell out by joining their enemy.

Another true story, this seethes with a different type of anger from Mangrove though the cause is the same. Logan doesn’t see himself fighting a battle against white police, he hopes to fight with them to combat racism, but despite the apparent shared sentiment of the top brass, those in Logan’s constabulary reject this ideal and continue with their bigoted agenda.

Logan eventually became Superintendent and in 1999 formed the National Black Police Association of which he is still chair, but this film deals with his first year of vicissitudes and obstacles in his quest to stamp out racism. John Boyega carries himself with dignity as Logan but also embodies the frustration and disappointment of a man let down by the people and a system he has put so much faith in with similar aplomb.

Film number four is Alex Wheatle, a compact biopic of the black British novelist played by Sheyi Cole. An orphaned child, he went from care home to care home until he was old enough to live on his own and moved to Brixton. There he befriends others in the black community and becomes entrenched in their ways, but this leads him down a dodgy path and Wheatle ends up in prison following the 1981 Brixton Riots.

Of all the films, this one is the most insightful in exploring British black culture, their bespoke slang, unique sense of togetherness, and their own rules and codes by which they live, which happens to be outside of the law. Wheatle is a boy corrupted but he also finds his own identity after leaving prison and turning his life around, a nuanced and storied change captured with great sensitivity by Sheyi Cole.

Rounding off this collection is Education. Set in the 1970s, 12-year-old Kingsley (Kenyah Sandy) is removed from his school by his headmaster for disruptive behaviour, and sent to a special needs school. Underfunded and in the middle of nowhere, many of the pupils at this school do have issues but Kingsley is only unable to read – he’s another black child the schools decide aren’t going to amount to anything so they get them out of the way to let the white kids prosper.

Exposed by Bernard Coard in 1971, McQueen’s fictional account of this practice is the most Ken Loach-like of the series in tone and texture, yet still fits in with the general feeling of opprobrium of the other films. Yet, it is arguably the most hopeful, ending on a positive note that can be seen as a genuine triumph and not a moral or pyrrhic victory for the black protagonists. And Kenyah Sandy is a young actor with promise to boot.

Detecting the pent up fury of the discrimination endured by black British communities in these films is a key intent of McQueen, but he is also canny enough to show that some do have chips on their shoulders that help fuel the fire. Not every white person or white policeman is a racist scumbag, but it is hard to ignore the narrative suggestion these are exceptions to the rule.

Yet for all the bleak, uncomfortable hours of incendiary viewing Small Axe delivers, it also works as a celebration of black British culture and its resilience against a lifetime of discrimination. McQueen has created a profound, lyrical, and urgent series that demands everyone’s attention, black AND white, boasting stories that move, inspire, and entertain whilst flying the flag for British filmmaking.