NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).-
It took Steve McQueen a long time to make a film about Black life in Britain.
I needed to understand myself, where I came from, the director said of his new project, Small Axe. Sometimes, youve got to have a certain maturity, and I wouldnt have had that 10, 15 years ago.
McQueen, who was born in West London to Grenadian and Trinidadian parents, is one of Britains most gifted and garlanded Black filmmakers. Hes best known to American audiences as the director of the star-studded Widows from 2018 and 12 Years a Slave, in 2013, for which he became the first Black director of a best picture Oscar winner. When he collected that trophy, McQueen was already developing the drama project with the BBC that would become Small Axe.
Six years later, McQueen is debuting not one, but five films about various aspects of Londons West Indian community, set between the late 1960s and the mid-1980s, airing in the U.S. as an anthology series on Amazon Prime Video, starting Nov. 20.
When Small Axe began development, the project was pitched to the BBC as conventional television, telling one story over six hours or so (Amazon signed on as a producing partner last year.) To get my foot in the door, it started off as a sort of episodic situation, McQueen said in a phone interview from Amsterdam, where hes lived since 1997. But then I realized they had to be individual films because theres too much interesting material.
Today, the finished product comprises five discrete works of varying lengths (the shortest is 70 minutes; the longest 128 minutes), all directed and co-written by McQueen. (Courttia Newland co-wrote two episodes and Alastair Siddons co-wrote three.)
The installments were shot in a variety of formats (including 16 mm and 35 mm film) by emerging Antiguan cinematographer Shabier Kirchner the first three premiered at this years New York Film Festival. The films include an epic scale, fact-based courtroom drama (Mangrove), a delicate semi-autobiographical portrait (Education) and an intimate dance-party mood piece (Lovers Rock), with myriad tones and textures in between.
The series will air in Britain on BBC One, which is a matter of significance for McQueen. It was important for me that these films were broadcast on the BBC, because it has accessibility to everyone in the country, he said. These are national histories.
Mangrove, the series opener, focuses on the sensational trial of a group of Black activists in 1971. They were accused of inciting a riot during a protest against the targeted police harassment of patrons at The Mangrove, a Caribbean restaurant in Londons Notting Hill district that was a thriving hub for Black intellectuals and artists. (The film offers a corrective to the whitewashed fantasia of Notting Hill, Richard Curtis 1999 romantic comedy.) Not only did the nine including Trinidadian-British activists Darcus Howe and Altheia Jones-LeCointe, key members of the British Black Panther Party beat the rioting charge, they forced the first judicial acknowledgment of racism from British police.
This installment is particularly resonant in the light of Britains recent Windrush scandal, which saw hundreds of Commonwealth citizens detained, deported and denied legal rights as a result of a 2012 government policy to create a hostile environment for immigrants.
The majority of victims of the scandal were part of the Windrush generation of largely Caribbean people who were invited by the colonial British government to help rebuild the economy in the aftermath of World War II. (The name comes from the Empire Windrush, a ship that brought an early group from the Caribbean to Britain in 1948.) After arriving in Britain, many members of this cohort faced hostility, discrimination in employment and housing, and police harassment. Yet, as Small Axe demonstrates, they found ways to organize and resist.
In Mangroves climactic sequence, Darcus Howe (a magnetic Malachi Kirby), representing himself in court, declares that the case has seared the consciousness of the Black community to an extent that the history of Britain cannot now be written without it. Its a rousing line that left me feeling rueful: In reality, mainstream histories of Britain have largely excluded the story of the Mangrove defendants, as well as the stories of other pioneering Black figures.
Actress Letitia Wright, who was born in Guyana and moved to London at 7, said in a phone interview she was unaware of the Mangrove story before researching the project, for which she was cast by McQueen and casting director Gary Davy after one meeting, and no conventional audition.
To be honest, I had no clue its not in the textbooks at school. The stronghold of Black History Month [October] in the U.K. is American history, said Wright, who plays Altheia Jones-LeCointe, a founder of the Black Panther Movement in the U.K. You have mostly and I honor and respect them always Martin Luther King and Malcolm X on the posters, but you dont have the Altheias.
The role allows Wright, who rose to blockbuster-level fame as Shuri in Black Panther, to play a real-life Black Panther. Jones-LeCointe, who was born in Trinidad and moved to England in 1965 to study for a doctorate in biochemistry, has been described as the most remarkable woman Ive ever met by poet Linton Kwesi Johnson.
Caribbean pride underpins Small Axe and an animated McQueen rattled off a roll call of resistance icons with West Indian heritage that have informed his life and work: Stokely Carmichael, from Trinidad, coined the phrase Black Power. Look at Marcus Garvey. Malcolm Xs mother was from Grenada. C.L.R. James, he said. This is nothing new, people from the West Indies and our influence. Thats where we come from: rebel country.
The anthologys title comes from an African proverb popularized in Jamaica by Bob Marleys eponymous 1973 song (If you are the big tree, we are the small ax), and British-Guyanese scholar Paul Gilroy who developed the idea of trans-Atlantic Blackness, a culture that is at once African, American, Caribbean and British was series consultant. For me, a grandson of the Caribbean whose paternal grandparents were part of the Windrush generation, the latticework of respect and representation for the islands offered by Small Axe, on such a grand scale, at times felt overwhelming.
Equally overwhelming, however, are the more harrowing aspects of Small Axe, especially in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota and the protests and intensified public conversations around police brutality and police abolition that followed. The third film in the series, the early 1980s-set Red, White and Blue, stars John Boyega as the real-life figure Leroy Logan who, following the vicious police beating of his father, abandoned a career in research science to join the London police force. Logan believed the force could be reformed from within at a time when tensions between the police and Britains Black communities had never been higher.
Its arresting and slightly surreal to watch this earnest, arguably naive character being portrayed by an actor who made headlines in June for delivering a fierce speech in Londons Hyde Park condemning police brutality. Its been crazy, Boyega said in a phone interview, adding that people have asked him if he was cast in Small Axe because of his role in the Black Lives Matter movement, even though the project wrapped before the protests.
People talk about the different types of racism Black people deal with, and often expect that the racism in America is quite outward and in-your-face, whereas in the U.K. theres subtlety, layers to it, Boyega said. To explore that conversation in a healthy way is kind of cool.
When asked about Floyd and the protests, McQueen replied wearily. Im just tired, he said. In Britain it took a long time for people to believe the West Indian community about what was going on. All of a sudden were being believed. Its taken a man to die in the most horrible way. Its taken a pandemic. And its taken millions of people marching in the streets for the broader public to think possibly theres something about this racism thing.
If you dont laugh, youd cry, he added. Thats how we deal.
Near the end of Mangrove, Jones-LeCointe and a fellow defendant, Barbara Beese (Rochenda Sandall), collapse into exhausted laughter at the absurdity of their trial. McQueen acknowledged that making Small Axe, too, has been an emotional roller coaster, one hes still processing.
I just cried the other day thinking of my father, he said. My father is not here to see this a lot of West Indian men of that generation lived and died without having that acknowledgment. And its heavy still.
But we have a future! he exclaimed, brightening. Thats the main thing. In the beautiful Small Axe, the past is the future, and that future is now.
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