• Post category:Television
  • Post last modified:March 11, 2021

Small Axe: Chopping at the Big Tree

Britain and the United States are indeed two different countries. But as I started watching the fifth and last of Steve McQueen’s films for this anthology, Education, I was reminded of a book I’m reading about the history of the U.S. Supreme Court and the 1954 landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. That case ended the lie of ”separate but equal” and required schools to stop segregating children. Education is based on an actual case where London councils transferred primarily Black children to schools for the so-called ”educationally subnormal”. These institutions were a dead end for the children, offering them no chance to get a real education and were eventually exposed in the 1970s as shams. Racism keeps finding new ways to thrive. This TV anthology is an invaluable document by Steve McQueen.

Capturing the experiences of West Indian immigrants
All films have one thing in common: an attempt to capture the experiences of West Indian immigrants in Britain from the 1960s to the 1980s. The first film is Mangrove, telling the story of how a Notting Hill restaurant became the center of an important legal case in 1970 where nine protesters were charged after a march that turned violent; for the first time, racial hatred within the Metropolitan Police was proven in a court. The second film is Lovers Rock, a romantic portrait of a reggae house party in 1980 where a young man and woman (Micheal Ward, Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) meet. The third film, Red, White and Blue, returns to the reality-based stories, depicting a young Black man’s (John Boyega) attempt to change the Metropolitan Police from within, as an officer.

The fourth film, Alex Wheatle, shows the future novelist (Sheyi Cole) at a time when he was locked up after the 1981 Brixton uprising and found a mentor in a fellow prisoner. And Education shows how an illitterate boy (Kenyah Sandy) is made to disappear within the British school system, until the day his mother (Sharlene Whyte) learns that she’s been conned.

Most personal project so far
Is this cinema or are the films part of a TV project? Steve McQueen is primarily a film director and a few of the Small Axe films premiered at festivals (resulting in some critics putting them on their year-end best movie lists), but one of McQueen’s primary goals was to have Small Axe premiere on BBC so that it would be shown in his mother’s home. Regardless of how you watch Small Axe, it is without a doubt the director’s most personal project so far. He co-wrote the whole thing and there are traces of his upbringing (he’s of Grenadian and Trinidadian descent) throughout, not least in the most emotional and powerful of them all, Education; McQueen struggled in school, because of his dyslexia and because of structural racism.

That last part is a key ingredient in each of the five films, making the whole project simmer in anger. There is clearly a need to tell these stories, about the aggressive racism within the police force, about the incredibly challenging uphill battle for talented young Black men and women to earn the same opportunities as their White counterparts. Those stories are compelling, as we follow the Mangrove trial and Leroy Logan’s experiences at the Met.

At the same time, Small Axe crafts a loving portrait of the West Indian community in Britain, its people, food, culture, language and music, most beautifully and passionately conveyed in Lovers Rock where the music takes center stage alongside the sheer sexuality of the dancing, the power of losing yourself in the moment.  

Small Axe 2020-Britain. Made for TV. 5 episodes. Directed by Steve McQueen. Teleplays: Steve McQueen, Alastair Siddons, Courttia Newland. Cinematography: Shabier Kirchner. Editing: Chris Dickens, Steve McQueen. Cast: John Boyega (Leroy Logan), Micheal Ward (Franklyn Cooper), Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn (Martha Trenton), Letitia Wright (Altheia Jones-LeCointe), Kenyah Sandy, Sharlene Whyte, Robbie Gee, Steve Toussaint, Shaun Parkes, Sheyi Cole.

Golden Globe: Best Supporting Actor (Boyega).

Last word: “I thought I would follow a family from ’68 to ’84, that was always my trajectory. And I just got more into it. I started a writers room, and I was auditioning writers I wanted to work with. It started off as one thing and ended up as another thing. When I started to do the research, these true stories kept coming to the surface. The majority of these are true stories: ‘Mangrove’, ‘Red, White & Blue’, and ‘Alex Wheatle’. Alex Wheatle is someone I met in the writers room. He didn’t want to write it, because he was too close to it. A lot of things happened organically.” (McQueen, Rolling Stone)

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