To cover Steve McQueen’s ambitious Small Axe series, we have assembled one of our most ambitious episodes of the year. We discuss each film (or episode?) of McQueen’s series and how they work together to form a cohesive whole.
This episode features Editor-in-Chief Alex Heeney, Executive Editor Orla Smith, Associate Editor Brett Pardy, and special guests Andrew Kendall and Debbie Zhou.
Small Axe chronicles stories from London’s West Indies community between the ‘60s and ‘80s, and all of them but Lovers Rock are true stories that tackle racism
Mangrove demonstrates both the physical brutality and the brutality of the justice system, before going on to illustrate what it actually means to fight against it. McQueen places the subtler systemic racism faced by The Mangrove Nine in the High Court on the same level as the racist physical abuse of the police. He dedicates the whole second half of the film, which is set almost entirely in a courtroom, to exploring this.
Read the rest of Orla’s Review
Mangrove stars Shaun Parkes, Letitia Wright, Malachi Kirby, Rochenda Sandall, and Jack Lowden
Lovers Rock stands apart as the most lighthearted of the films, the only fictional story, and the only one with a female protagonist. The entire 70-minute film is set over one night, at a raucous and joyous house party run and attended by Black Londoners, where Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) dances with her best friend, Patty (Shaniqua Okwok), and falls for a charming stranger, Franklyn (Micheal Ward). It’s a love story, but one with a keen eye for the racial and gendered violence in the periphery while Martha and Franklyn pursue a sweet courtship.
Read the rest of Orla’s review
Alex Wheatle begins with Alex (Sheyi Cole) in prison, serving time for participating in the 1981 Brixton Riot. After a fight, his cellmate, Simeon (Robbie Gee) asks him “what’s your story?” In flashback, McQueen tells the story of Wheatle’s youth, from growing up in foster homes, reconnecting with Caribbean culture, and forming a reggae group.
Alex Wheatle also stars Jonathan Jules and Elliot Edusah
Red, White and Blue
John Boyega stars as Leroy Logan, the son of Jamaican immigrant parents who leaves behind his career in science to joins the police in the belief he could change the system from within. Logan’s father, Ken (Steve Toussaint) has been a victim of police brutality and is furious at Leroy’s career change. Leroy also finds changing the system is much harder than he imagined.
Red, White and Blue also stars Tyrone Huntley, Nadine Marshall, and Assad Zaman
McQueen’s five-film series, Small Axe, closes out with Education, the most personal installment to McQueen, and the one with the youngest protagonist. Although 12-year-old Kingsley (Kenyah Sandy) isn’t a direct analogue with McQueen’s childhood self, McQueen has said the film was based partially on his own hellish experience in the British secondary education system. Education is a fitting end to Small Axe: it continues many of the series’ themes, from Black people creating safe spaces away from a hostile white society, to the sacrifices the older generation makes for the younger. It also leaves the series on a hopeful note: despite the trials Kingsley goes through at school, there’s the promise of greatness in his future, especially if we see him as a McQueen surrogate.
Read the rest of Orla’s review
Education also stars Sharlene Whyte, Tamara Lawrence, Josette Simon, and Naomi Acki
- Lover’s Rock and Mangrove were among the most popular choices on our best films of 2020 critics survey. Education and Alex Wheatle also were among the over 100 films selected. See the full list.
- Follow Andrew on Twitter @DepartedAviator
- Read Andrew’s interview with Steve McQueen for Stabroek News
- Follow Debbie on Twitter @debbie_zhou and listen to her on our episodes about Sam Mendes’ war films and Australian westerns
Small Axe is streaming on Amazon Prime in Canada and the US, BBC One in the UK, and Binge in Australia