‘Small Axe’ is an epic undertaking based on real people—excluding the ‘Lovers Rock’ entry—who lived in the West Indian community of London. And though no exact date is given with each entry, the series takes place between 1969 and 1982, though not necessarily in a linear fashion.
I have written reviews for all five entries in this anthology series that director Steve McQueen calls a series of films, though Amazon, the streaming channel that ‘Small Axe’ is streaming on, has entered it into the runnings for the Emmy’s, even though the Academy’s official rules for a feature length film are anything over 40 minutes.
Each entry in this series varies at length. Only two are close to or exceed the length of what most movies are timed at, while the other three run at a little over an hour.
There is also no narrative thread throughout the series, as each film is a standalone film, but you may be doing yourself the disservice of what was intended by McQueen and his co-screenwriters, Alastair Siddons and Courttia Newland, if you only watch one or two of them, as the intentions and impact of this series is to be able to view a community as a sociological whole.
Fair warning: you may want to turn on subtitles.
Why make a film like this? It seems quite obvious in this day and age that racism is a prevalent thing. All I have to do is turn on the news or scroll through any social networking feed to come across the fact that there is racial injustice going on all over the world. Granted something like this may have tried to get made years before, or it had possibly been in development for some time. And when McQueen actually directed this project, the Black Lives Matter movement had not quite yet come to its full fruition like it has this past year.
But who are the people that are actually watching this program? Who is the audience? I doubt some white nationalist out there is gonna be turning on ‘Mangrove’ for a night of evening splendor, only to be enlightened and realize that their ways were wrong this entire time. So you could say, this is just preaching to the crowd, preaching to the people that already feel this way. And the production and the people watching it are just giving themselves one big “pat on the back” for fighting the “good fight”.
And if you are actually going to make something like this, let’s at least do the real people justice by not making them stereotypes and caricatures. I could literally sum up this movie in one sentence: Black people poor, white cops racist. McQueen has spread himself too thin by attempting to balance this many characters without giving any of them their true due. I felt like I got to know the main character Frank Chrichlow (Shaun Parkes) more in the addendum than I did the entire film. And when that end summary did indeed come up, it was my first realization that Frank was indeed the main character of this story, as he wasn’t necessarily given more screen time than any of the other characters. And Barbara Beese (Rochenda Sandall) was so bitchy that when she got dragged away by the police during a riot, I was really hoping I would never have to see her character again. That’s how annoying she was.
Things do begin to get interesting once they enter the court of law and it becomes a court room procedural, but by this point I’ve already been in an onslaught with the evil empires of racism. Look I get it, it’s important to address these issues. But at this point I feel like I am just constantly getting scolded everywhere I turn for crimes against humanity that I did not commit. I guess we just happen to be the unfortunate ones that happen to be living in a time of great change. Let’s hope we get to a place one day where racism becomes obsolete and we won’t have to even talk about these things at all.
McQueen, no stranger to the dynamics of psycho sexuality—as he made an entire film called ‘Shame’ about the subject matter—also seems to be alluding that the police are only really mad, as one constable puts it, that they are “fucking their women”. And McQueen further enforces this idea in two particular shots where a white woman makes eye contact with a black character. And then later on shows them in bed together. Could the key to why there is racism in this world just come down to who is fucking who? It seems Steve McQueen may think so.
I was a bit worried with how the premier entry in this series started off that I was going to be in for a grueling six hours of punishing diatribe about social injustices, but thankfully McQueen sidesteps the issues for a night out at a do-it-yourself dancehall.
It is quite joyous to see the preparations of what is put into getting a d.i.y. dancehall set up for a night at someone’s home; the moving of furniture, the removal of the gear from the van, the pre-warm up sesh for the DJ, the cooking of food, and the handwritten signs of how much the beverages and cost of entry would be for the night. It reminded me a lot of my time spent playing in underground d.i.y. hardcore bands, as there are many similarities between how each function is set up.
When the party kicks off, much of the action takes place in the living room area where the DJ is, with minor interludes for bathroom breaks, bitter rivalries, and a potential rape. But have no fear, these instances are brief and unthreatening, as we are here to par-tay!
We start out grooving with mostly ladies at first and it’s kind of like a school dance where the boys are on one side of the room and the girls are on the other. The focus on the ladies on the dance floor adds a soft and sensual sensibility to the proceedings. But at one point during the dancing, as things begin to ramp up, there is a fifteen minute sequence that doesn’t seem like it’s going to end, and things begin to teeter on the edge of Jaque Rivette’s ‘Out 1’ territory. There is an episode in that twelve hour series, that has a non-stop forty-five minute sequence of performance artist’s that are entranced and enmeshed with each other’s bodies, that is excruciatingly boring. So depending on your patience threshold during this extended sequence in ‘Lovers Rock’, you may be inching for the remote control and the fast forward button. But luckily we’ve got a room full of characters with some dashing threads on that are grooving along to some super cool dancehall tunes to keep our attention.
Things also seem to get a little “wet” for our main character, Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn), as she grinds along on her dance partner’s leg. McQueen cuts to a shot of water spurting out of the wall, and then cuts back to the same shot of the couple dancing, insinuating that Martha is getting turned on.
And I only hope that McQueen is giving a slight tip of the hat to Wong Kar Wai’s ‘Chungking Express’, as Dennis Brown’s “Things in Life” plays during the background of an outdoor scene.
As the night enters its wee hours, and everyone has loaded up on weed and alcohol, the testosterone begins to take over the dance floor, and the room seems to be overflowing with people getting hype for that Mercury Sound. It’s any wonder how the DJ was able to not have any of his records skip during this sequence of men jumping up and down in a tribal like fashion.
Before ya know it, the night has ended and we are treated to an extended marvelous shot of Martha and her man, Franklyn (Michael Ward), sharing a morning bike ride home as well as a spliff.
Near the beginning of this entry, when Martha and her pal, Patty (Shaniqua Okwok), are boarding a bus to get to the party, there is a curious shot of an older gentleman in a raggedy suit carrying a giant white cross on his back. And then near the end of this entry, when Martha boards the bus to go home, we again encounter this gentleman and his giant cross. Music can have a spiritual meaning to people that doesn’t necessarily have to do with religion. Sometimes it can be a cathartic way of dealing with the stress and difficulties of life. While other times, it can be like a cathedral that doesn’t necessarily have to take place at a church, and on occasion, can be in the confines of someone’s home, or wherever that spirituality may take you.
RED, WHITE, AND BLUE
Okay, we are back into the racial territory again, but this entry in this anthology takes on a much more interesting angle than in ‘Mangrove’.
John Boyega plays a promising young man named Leroy Logan. He has a PhD, he works as a scientist at a laboratory, he has a wife, and a baby on the way, when his father experiences a brutal beating from the police over an “illegal” parking matter. Leroy turns to his aunt for some guidance who was a former police liaison and she encourages him to join the force to make a “real change” in this world.
It’s quite an interesting turn of events that Leroy would actually consider joining the police force. He has a cushy job, a loving wife, and a family that loves him. But Leroy understands that the only way for there to be actual change, he needs to “infiltrate the system” to show that black people aren’t what white people are making them out to be. And if there is a man on the inside, then maybe he can show his community that the police, aren’t what they are made out to be. He is trying to be a bridge. It’s a very honorable and selfless thing he is attempting. But he will unfortunately be met with great resistance and alienation almost every step of the way.
This entry really had me infuriated in moments while I also found other parts to be absolutely soul stirring. It’s refreshing to see Boyega step out of his boyish roles that he has established himself with thus far. He gives one of the great performances of the year showcasing his range; from kindness, to having spirit, tenderness, charisma, charm, confidence, and strength, to someone who is primed to explode with his passionate fury at any moment. You really feel for what Leroy Logan is going through. He wants to do the right thing and help change this world. But the path to change can be a lonely one and sometimes in the face of change, you are standing on your own alone.
This seems to be the penultimate entry in this anthology series, as it has elements of everything we have seen thus far; racial injustice, corrupt police, the criminal justice system, and reggae music. But this is the first entry to tackle a youth.
Alex Wheatle (Sheyi Cole) was raised in an orphanage and left to fend for himself at the ripe age of three years old. As a young adult he finds himself under the wing of the jolly older brother-like, Dennis Isaacs (Jonathan Jules), who shows him the ropes of the streets; how to dress, how to act, how to talk, and how to sell weed. Alex rediscovers through this culture that he has a deep love for the music and the music is what gives his soul motivation.
As a troubled youth with nowhere to turn, Alex can’t be blamed for being led down the road he has taken. But this lifestyle he has chosen isn’t necessarily a harmful one. He is really only doing misdemeanor types of deeds. And you only have to look at the world today with how marijuana is now regarded as medicinal.
McQueen got his first big laughs outta me in this entry when Denis invites Alex over to his family home for Christmas dinner. Right when Alex is being introduced to the family, he has a baby shoved in his lap without him even acknowledging that is was okay that he wanted to hold the baby. And when Alex gets his plate of food and starts to scarf it down like it’s the first home cooked meal he has ever had, Dennis’ mother is quick to point out that the food doesn’t have any legs.
Like many young people who have been abandoned by their biological parents, Alex intuitively seeks surrogate parents. And of all places, prison is the space that Alex is able to find a surrogate father that will help to show him a path that will lead to a life changing event of futuristic redemption and hope.
You know you’ve reached an all time low in public education when there is a wanna be mod teacher singing a jacked up rendition of “ The House of the Rising Sun” to his supposedly “mentally not-up-to-fit” classroom.
‘Education’ is a graceful capper to this series of films, and unlike anything McQueen has done up to this point in his feature length filmmaking career. It’s like he went through the arduous process of giving birth to ‘Small Axe’ and ‘Education’ is the baby that came out of the womb. McQueen is a changed person. We are a changed people.
It’s thrilling to see Kingsley’s mother Agnes come to the realization from her cluttered and compact life, that her son needs help in his education and that she can’t just rely on the public school system to handle it for her. Fortunately there is an infrastructure within the community who act like education assassins that can guide her and provide a future for kids who aren’t receiving the proper attention that they need. Everyone in this world is not so lucky. Everyone learns, thinks, and sees in a different way, and some people need a particular type of guidance to get them to the place that they need to go.
McQueen and Siddons seem to be giving us a wink by simply titling this last entry, “Education”. If we can all become more educated about what ails us as a human race then maybe someday we can transcend the echelons of this Universe and ascend into infinity.
After viewing the entire series, I have warmed up a little more to the first entry ‘Mangrove’ within the grand scope of this series, not so much as a narrative story but more so in the way of it being a device. Though I still stand by my initial reactions and thoughts, I now see ‘Mangrove’ as a vessel for McQueen to come out swinging.
I realize the focus of this series is on black people but I kinda wish the focus of the last entry ‘Education’ would have been on the little white girl that made animal noises in response to questions. I mean, how interesting was that girl!? Once she came on screen, I just wanted to follow that girl around and know more about her. I have a feeling that she may have made for a more compelling story than some kid who couldn’t read. But it looks like the tables have turned, when a more interesting character isn’t the focus of the story just because of the color of her skin.
I will also be working effortlessly to perfect the squeak from my teeth.