Steve McQueen's Small Axe anthology is both a record and a celebration of the British black community
Steve McQueen's Small Axe anthology, with three films – Lovers Rock, Mangrove and Red, White and Blue – premiered at the 58th New York Film Festival.
"If you are the big tree, we are the small axe". A Caribbean proverb popularised by Bob Marley ("if you are the big tree, we are the small axe, ready to cut you down"), adopting the not so veiled meaning into his own politically charged song. Steve McQueen returns with not one, not two but five films as part of the Small Axe anthology, all of them set in the United Kingdom and based around the West Indian community dating from the 1960s to the early 1980s. Three films — Lovers Rock, Mangrove and Red, White and Blue — premiered at the 58th New York Film Festival. McQueen shares writing credits with Courttia Newland in Lovers Rock and Red, White and Blue. Mangrove is co-written with Alastair Siddons.
McQueen has dedicated the anthology to George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. While he has been working on these films for years, their arrival underscores an epochal moment. In Mangrove, McQueen places the camera under the table as the Mangrove Nine, their lawyers and fellow activists pull the chairs, take their seats, the legs of the chairs and bodies shuffling with one another. It's almost a dance, the seeds of a revolution sown, a racially abused immigrant community takes charge in its civil rights movement. Lovers Rock – sole fictional entry in Small Axe — is both literally and metaphorically a dance, a house reggae party where bodies caress one another and the camera brushes over them, slipping into the small gaps between couples in tight embrace. The camera acts as the third wheel, a lone dancer finding her groove across the floor towards the film's highlight piece — Janet Kay's 'Silly Games' sung a cappella by the lissom dancers as the DJ halts the record. The film floats on a sea of gentle comfort, even when McQueen films Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and her new companion Franklyn (Michael Ward) on a bicycle at dawn, it's a low angle shot, the bike invisible and the couple drifting under the blue sky like they are mid-air, swept up in love. In Red, White and Blue, the camera dances once again during a long take as it follows constable Leroy Logan (John Boyega bottling anger in his career best performance) as he chases a suspect through a factory with heavy machinery, it darts around the equipment and catches up with Leroy, building desperate tension for backup.
Music and food are essential tools in McQueen's anthology. It registers history and shared congenital culture that engulfs a community in a home away from home. Lovers Rock might be one of the greatest, most affecting music videos in recent times, an ode to young love, living it up in delirious romance (not without its fault lines), and reggae. Almost as soon as the premiere at NYFF was done, there was a frantic hunt for a Lovers Rock Spotify playlist (good news: it's available). The first few scenes of Lovers Rock close in on the dishes being prepared for the party. Mangrove is a restaurant for spicy palette, "West Indian cuisine for people who eat that food", declares Frank Crichlow (a terrific Shaun Parkes) as the Metropolitan Police arrive at his doorstep to raid his establishment again. A tense dinner table moment is knifed with recipe secrets and a longing for Jerk cooking, believed to have originated from runaway African slaves in Jamaica. When the last order is done in Mangrove, chairs turned over, they break into song, Mighty Sparrow's 'Jean and Dinah', a song made to celebrate the departure of US troops from Trinidad. In Red, White and Blue, Leee John, the lead singer of Imagination is Leroy's friend and they dance impromptu in Leee's living room, Leroy spilling his drink on Leee's £500 carpet.
The anthology encompasses the Caribbean, the characters mention their heritage, pride brimming in their voice. “Jamaica” says Martha in Lovers Rock making conversation at the party. "This is not Trinidad, this is Notting Hill", screams Frank Crichlow, content to bargain his rights and freedom if it allows him to run a respectable business like he calls it. He used to run an illegal gambling den and those days have passed, Crichlow in Mangrove feels that if he has a legal business, the white establishment will leave him in peace. Around him are historic figures, Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) under the tutelage of CLR James, Altheia Jones-Lecointe (Letitia Wright) of the British Black Panther and Barbara Beese (Rochenda Sandall), their collective energy combustible, owing to their legacy and also to the actors' performances. They tell him that this white government will never take up their cause unless they get on the streets. A wonder that Mangrove begins with the year 1968 imprinted on screen, the year of the Black Power salute at the Olympics.
The socio-political theme does not mean that McQueen withholds form or is humourless in his steering of the ship. The three films premiered so far are swashbuckling, mad kinetic and funny when they want to be. As the Mangrove Nine are informed of their rights in a meeting, to remain silent and always have a lawyer present, there is a poster at the back that reads "bullshit". When Leroy tells Leee about his wish to join the force, Leee wonders, "You are going to be a jedi or something?". To John Boyega! While Small Axe intends to document the systemic racism faced by the West-Indian community, the specific period, according to McQueen in an interview, harks back to a time in British history when black artistes weren't given the opportunity to be filmmakers, editors or any top drawer credit in cinema. Therefore, the anthology is both a record and a celebration of those lives. Leroy wears a FESTAC '77 t-shirt. McQueen doesn't discount anyone in the process, Altheia gives a talk to a workers' trade union of South Asian immigrants, their families meeting at a Sikh household where she says, "If colonialism is good for anything, it brought us together on this table." Leroy's only friend is another rookie constable like him from Pakistan, who converses in Urdu with a Pakistani restaurateur whose property has been vandalised in a racist attack. He invites Leroy for a wedding in his family and boasts about their wild parties. "Hey, we Jamaicans are the original party people, remember that." Just watch Lovers Rock.
McQueen has centred the British black community in every respect possible. Behind the camera, in front and to charm our aural senses, with music by black artistes. Billy Joel's 'Uptown Girl' is the exception, faint in the background from a food truck, just before the police attack Leroy's father and the white food truck owner is stopped from attempting a rescue. Like a character says in Mangrove, "We must not be victims, we must be protagonists in our own stories." McQueen abides by that statement in every film. Small Axe's high points arise out of conversation free moments accompanied by a song as a soothing balm. Leroy's father drives him to the police academy. Leroy steps out, fetches his bags and walks off without a goodbye. After a few long seconds behind the wheel, the father steps out, and they hug. From the drive to the hug, our view is that of the passenger on the backseat. With Al Green singing 'How Can You Mend a Broken Heart', a reconciliation witnessed through the windshield.
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