Coming late to the party and choosing to binge all of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series of films in one week in early January it was impossible not to notice how wildly different each story told here was from the other. While sometimes it made the experience as a whole inconsistent, it meant that the scope and far reaching scale of the stories told here really stood out. That isn’t to say that Small Axe is a complete triumph with a few stumbling blocks among the five differing stories it tells but the heart and soul of the different communities it depicts carries you through. Here are a few thoughts on each of McQueen’s tales in ranked order.
5. Lover’s Rock
The 2nd instalment of Small Axe, while lauded by critics and audiences alike doesn’t linger the same way the others do. Instead McQueen frames this story of passion and youthful optimism around one evening full of dancing, courtship and food, one with extended sequences of musical togetherness and deftly selected and resonant music. Described as a tone poem, a feeling instead of film, Lover’s Rock meanders between the two ideas, never devoting itself to one or the other. Often cutting away from character moments in favour of a moment of musical romance, then jarringly bursting back into conventional storytelling when the evening runs the risk of going awry. Disjointed yet warm and inviting, the feeling of camaraderie only takes this tale so far and by the end of the night this romance wears thin and honestly, it felt like a welcome relief to see the cold light of day.
4. Alex Wheatle
The 4th entry in the series, telling the true story of British novelist Alex Wheatle and his time spent in Brixton leading up to the 1981 riots which led to his imprisonment. While featuring a compassionate and focused performance by Sheyi Cole that brings the silenced anger of a young man constantly told what his place is in the world, Alex Wheatle is narratively weak in comparison to McQueen’s other entries. The film isn’t so much open ended as it is incomplete. Flipping between Wheatle’s time in prison telling his story to his empathetic but no nonsense cell mate and his early days in Brixton, fitting in with a society he had been kept apart from, one that now saw him as other because of how he spoke and what he had been taught to believe. McQueen’s film feels like an introduction to a deeper story, not one that stands on its own and while well intentioned and diligent in its retelling of Wheatle’s story, it loses sight of the man in favour of the feeling of the time and the place making what is meant to be a hard earned new direction feel a little contrived.
Mangrove, the longest of McQueen’s Small Axe entries is both the perfect opening choice for the series as a whole but also a solid and eye opening look back at British history swept under the rug or forgotten in time. When developing Small Axe, McQueen even said the window for telling these stories was quickly closing and Mangrove faithfully retells a embarassing time in British history as one of triumph and unity for a community all too often stepped on. While mostly a courtroom drama about the trial of the Mangrove 9 in 1971, the opening hour glacially welcomes you to the world of the Mangrove restaurant and its owner Frank (Shaun Parkes) and the constant abuse thrown at him and his patrons by a police force out to wreak havok based solely off of race. Lingering shots of a shaking colander left to rock back and forth during a raid or the extended moments when peaceful protesters are arrested for using their voice, Mangrove’s message is clear but at a point the repeat offenses become expected and while seemingly intentional, it robs the film of pace before the real meat of McQueen and co writer Alastair Siddons film hits.
When the film reaches the docks Mangrove really finds its grove, thanks to witty and scathing dialogue, searching and downtrodden performances by Parkes, Letitia Wright and Malachi Kirby and a sense of possible optimism for once in a 70s Notting Hill stripped of it by a corrupt police force. Not only does it convey hope for Frank and the other 8 defendants but of a Britain capable of seeing right from wrong and holding itself accountable. Here McQueen’s long takes feel more pertinent as Frank yells at the hand he has been dealt from the claustrophobic prison cell he has been beaten into, finally unwilling to hide his righteous anger from an apathetic white audience. It sets the tone for Small Axe as a whole and is a chilling and impassioned feature in its own right.
2. Red, White and Blue
The John Boyega led 3rd outing is a contemplative film about the future, a father and son tale about tradition, legacy and casting your own shadow, not living in someone else’s. Boyega is excellent as Logan Leroy, the founder of the Black Police Association, as the film follows his early experiences after he signed up to be one of the first Black officers in the Metropolitan Police Force. Seen as a traitor by those that once supported him and clashing with his own father (a quietly superb Steve Toussaint), someone victimised by the very institution Logan now serves, he also sees himself ostracised from his fellow officers. Less about institutional racism, Logan’s story is one of conflicting ideas of honour with Logan seeking it within the organisation he seeks to reform and his father finding it in raising a family and living by the letter of the law.
Constantly in tune with the frustrations Logan’s position brings thanks to Boyega’s proud and intelligent choices, internalising many of the issues he faces, seeking to influence people with actions instead of words, McQueen’s picture underutilises a vibrant performance by Antonia Thomas to fully flesh out Logan’s home life instead finding tension and drama in the push and pull of silently taking abuse and fighting back, Red, White and Blue explores Logan’s sense of self and his place within a force unwilling to bend to just one man . Full of slow imperceptible shifts in mindset, this is Small Axe at its most subtle and unfortunately one I caught too late for my end of year lists.
The final instalment of McQueen’s lauded exploration of Black British heritage is not just a look at the detestable practices of school administrations on Black students but a joyous exploration of binding and shifting familial ties and a family defying expectations and coming together amid a family crisis. Ending on a sweet touch with this Kenyah Sandy led, hour long tale of Kingsley (Sandy), a child falling through the cracks of a school system trying to whittle out what they deem the ‘sub-normal’ by shunting them to sub-standard schools where Kingsley and other Black kids can never catch up. Struggling to read and connect with his school work and hiding his struggles from his family, his inquisitive nature runs the risk of being squashed by the indifference of those tasked with teaching him.
Not just the best this series has to offer because of an intimate and specific story, one that really zeroes in on changing values not only in society as a whole but also within this fictionalised family dealing with a very real practice that shockingly took place in the 70s. The victories and changes here are hard fought through layered indifference and set values in need of breaking down and Kingsley’s story permeates into this family unit so seamlessly it feels improvised in its realism while McQueen with his determined and specific shooting style reminds you that it isn’t, its just that good. Education is the light at the end of a very bleak and long tunnel and is full of warmth and heart by reminding us there are reasons to be optimistic, even in the face of something bad.
If I have noticed one thing about this quintet of features is that there really is no telling how people are going to perceive them. McQueen has created something unexpected here, something that never feels anything but constantly authentic. Each film is different, be it through a feeling or an issue, McQueen lets his stories lead his camera and while it might lead him down a couple blind alleys it is in the experiences that Small Axe finds it’s stories.