Last fall, Oscar-winning filmmaker Steve McQueen graced us with five new movies, released as a collection known as “Small Axe.”
The title comes from an African proverb: “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe.” In these movies, the big tree is a system of oppression in England from the 1960s1980s, and the small axe is the British African-Caribbean community.
These stories are personal to the talented director, McQueen, who’s of Indo-Caribbean descent and grew up in London during the 1970s. McQueen doesn’t shy away from difficult subjects but confronts them directly and asks the audience to do the same. He’s known for holding a shot on something that’s simultaneously hard to look at and also difficult to peel your eyes away from. His prior movies have dealt with issues such as hunger strikes (Hunger), sex addiction (Shame), and slavery (12 Years a Slave).
Small Axe tells five separate stories, but they all share the throughline of giving a voice to an underrepresented community. There’s a common visual language throughout these movies. The camera doesn’t balk at the sight of tragic imagery, and urges the viewer to sympathize and empathize with the characters as they experience their tribulations.
McQueen often uses the image of characters framed behind vertical bars. This imagery was popularized with Film Noir movies in the 1940s to symbolize a character feeling trapped or “imprisoned” by their environment.
Mangrove Runtime: 127 Minutes
“Mangrove” tells the true story of The Mangrove Nine, a group of individuals who conflicted with London police in 1970. The majority of the film is a courtroom procedural, and the case was notable in England for being the first judicial acknowledgment of behavior motivated by racial hatred within the Metropolitan Police. The breakout performer from the film is Shaun Parkes, giving a multilayered performance that often says so much without even saying a word.
"Lovers Rock" Runtime: 70 Minutes
While “Mangrove” is sprawling and takes place across several weeks, “Lovers Rock” is the inverse: a finely tuned tone poem that takes place during one evening at a house party in the 1980s. The plot is scant, but the movie intermixes various relationships against a backdrop of music, violence, and love. The film is the most experimental in the series, the camera often free-floating and immersive, moving between the characters as they dance the night away. McQueen described the film as a “fairy tale” and an expression of pure joy. The film is based on a story told to McQueen by his aunt.
"Red, White and Blue "Runtime: 80 Minutes
“Red, White and Blue” tells the true story of Leroy Logan, who at a young age saw his father assaulted by two policemen, motivating him to join the Metropolitan Police and facilitate change of racist attitudes from within the force. StarWars fans will recognize John Boyega as Logan. Boyega gives the best performance of the entire series, portraying a complex and conflicted individual.
"Alex Wheatle" Runtime: 66 Minutes
“Alex Wheatle” tells another true story: the early life of award winning writer, Alex Wheatle, from his youth in foster care to early adulthood in and out of prison. It’s a chronicle of someone discovering their identity and passion. The film jumps around chronologically, showing how Wheatle’s past has affected his present, and his difficult path towards healing. The film is one of the most tragic in the series, but its story of overcoming the odds is ultimately an inspiring one.
"Education" Runtime: 64 Minutes
While the first four addressed the conflict between the police and British African-Caribbean people, the last film “Education” takes a critical look at England’s education system. The story follows 12-yearold Kingsley, who has a fascination with outer space. The movie focuses on segregation policies during this time, and the prevention of many Black children from receiving the education they deserve. The movie is heartbreaking but empowering in the way the community comes together to fight for their children’s rights.
The Small Axe film series can currently be streamed on Amazon Prime.
Bobby Styles studied Film at UCLA, and worked as an editor and producer on several film, commercial, and music video projects in Los Angeles. He currently teaches the intermediate and advanced Video Production courses in the Multimedia & Technology Academy at Monache High School. His column appears in The Recorder every Monday.