New to BBC One and iPlayer this month is Small Axe, a series of brand new films from Steve McQueen, the Turner Prize and Oscar-winning director of 12 Years a Slave. The anthology is made up of five films, each exploring various aspects of London’s West Indian community and set between the late 1960s and mid-1980s. Scheduled for each Sunday from 15 November until 13 December, the films are all directed and co-written by McQueen, who has been allowed the freedom to vary tone, genre, style and runtime (the films range from 70-128 minutes long) to match the stories he is telling.
Small Axe opens with Letitia Wright and Malachi Kirby in Mangrove (15 Nov), an electrifying account of a 1970 protest sparked by the repeated police raids of Notting Hill’s Mangrove restaurant — a key space in the local Black community — and the subsequent trial of a group of Black activists. The film depicts police racism and the pulsating twists of the court case with fury and horror, but McQueen excels at finding joy in the specifics — a curry, a bunch of flowers or the sounds of The Harry J All Stars.
Music is central to Lovers Rock (22 Nov) too, the second and shortest film in the anthology. In contrast to the dialogue-heavy Mangrove, the astonishing Lovers Rock follows the course of one house party from the stripping of speaker wire to the early morning bus home. It’s a film of supreme sensuality built from music, colour and movement, with which McQueen, working with cinematographer Shabier Kirchner, captures the ebb and flow of the dancefloor with all of its rules, rituals, raptures and risks — including an unforgettable, bravura sequence set to Janet Kay’s “Silly Games”.
While the remaining three entries in the series have yet to screen for press in the UK, they see McQueen continue to explore the personal experiences and political struggles of the West Indian community. Red, White and Blue (Nov 29) stars John Boyega of Star Wars fame as Leroy Logan, the first chair of the National Black Police Association who joined the police force in an effort to enact change from within after his father was brutally beaten by two officers.
McQueen has spoken of Small Axe as a kind of cinematic corrective, a new body of work made by and about the Black community
Alex Wheatle (6 Dec) tells the story of the eponymous, award-winning writer, here played by newcomer Sheri Cole, and his extraordinary life including his upbringing in the care system, and his imprisonment following 1981’s Brixton Uprising. The final film, Education (13 Dec), is a coming of age story featuring 12-year-old Kingsley (Kenyah Sandy), one of many young Black boys sent to a school for “special needs” when his headmaster decides he is disruptive.
McQueen has spoken of Small Axe as a kind of cinematic corrective, a new body of work made by and about the Black community, which goes a little way towards plugging the gaps in British film history. The work can be seen as timely and necessary in the light of the recent Windrush Scandal, while in June the filmmaker dedicated the project to George Floyd and “all the other black people that have been murdered, seen or unseen, because of who they are.” While this context makes the histories of Small Axe increasingly pertinent, the project stands on its own as a substantial, landmark achievement in British television.