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Play the Tune: A Review of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe

By Sasha Ann Panaram | @SashaPanaram | With thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)


Sunday, December 27, 2020.


Music anchors acclaimed filmmaker Steve McQueen’s five-part anthology Small Axe (2020) in a particular time and place: the West Indian community in Britain in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. From the steelpan drums that usher in the opening night of The Mangrove restaurant in 1968 in London’s Notting Hill, to the sweet tunes that comprise the reggae subgenre lovers rock, from the Jim Reeves melodies such as “The World is Not My Home” that bubble up in heated moments of confrontation between Black-British people and the police, to reggae that dominates the latter films in the series, you cannot watch Small Axe without also listening to the history it records and retells. 


Through all this sound and fury, all this rhythm and rhyme, it is the subtle yet necessary first song that initiates the anthology – “Long, Long Time” by the Jamaican trio reggae group The Versatiles – that in many ways reveals exactly what we need to know about McQueen’s latest production: it’s been a long, long time coming. Indeed, as McQueen recently told TIME magazine, he started conceiving of this collection of films on the Black-British West Indian experience 11 years ago, admitting he needed to cultivate the maturity necessary to address a subject so close to him. 


Born in West London in 1969 to Philbert and Mary McQueen, the filmmaker is of Trinidadian and Grenadian descent. His parents belonged to the first generation of West Indians to settle in Britain between 1948 and 1970. Whereas McQueen’s previous films including Hunger and 12 Years a Slave address the plight of other nations like the 1981 Irish hunger strike and the life of a free African American man, Solomon Northup, caught and sold into bondage in 1841, Small Axe turns its attention to the director’s own familial and cultural history. In five standalone movies co-commissioned by BBC and Amazon, that premiered on November 15 in the United Kingdom, McQueen focuses on the lives of individual Black-British people and larger West Indian communities. According to him, “It is important for me that these films were broadcast on BBC, because it has accessibility to everyone in the country. These are national histories.” The anthology takes its name from a proverb made popular by the Jamaican reggae singer Bob Marley who once bellowed: “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe, ready to cut you down.” 


Taken together, each of McQueen’s films capture the brutal interruptions that marked Black-British life in the mid-twentieth century: police-orchestrated raids, sexual harassment, and verbal abuse, for instance. However, where the films really succeed is in their documenting of the more subtle yet no less devastating ongoing attacks waged on Black-British people such as the demand for European cuisine in a West Indian restaurant (to which Frank Crichlow, the owner of The Mangrove indignantly replies, “We serve spicy food here!”), the mocking of accents, the endless surveillance, and the everyday dismissal, to name a few moments. As Doreen St. Félix keenly observes, “McQueen wants to vanquish any idea that British racism is somehow more repressed and less violent than the American kind; he spotlights the myth of the country’s politesse in order to do some smashing of his own.” 


Mangrove, the first film in the anthology, examines a landmark case in British history that lasted 55-days where nine Black Londoners were tried for incitement to riot at London’s Old Bailey following protests that accompanied the closing of Frank Crichlow’s (Shaun Parkes) The Mangrove, an all-night Trinidadian restaurant that served as a hub for British West Indian people. The jury eventually acquitted all of the defendants of the main charge and the trial resulted in the first acknowledgment of racial hatred in the Metropolitan police. 


As McQueen shows, several of the Mangrove Nine were British Black Panther members including Altheia Jones-LeCoint (Letitia Wright) and Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby), but Crichlow was not. Whereas Jones-LeCoint and Howe studied at the feet of C.L.R. James – a scene literally and lovingly depicted in the first installation when young people gather at the home of C.L.R. and Selma James – Crichlow was not drawn to politics in the same way and failed to realize the significance of The Mangrove in providing Black-British people a place to develop their Caribbean-British identities. However, as Howe stated in the trial, “Wherever a community is born it creates [the] community that it needs” and in this case, that community happened to revolve around Crichlow’s restaurant. Although the Mangrove Nine ultimately beat the charges, McQueen cautions against viewing the victory as a wholesale win. The final captioning of the film discloses that the Metropolitan police harassed Crichlow for 18 years following the trial and only in 1989 did they clear his name from the High Court. 


Two other films, Red, White, and Blue and Alex Wheatle take their inspiration from true stories like Mangrove, but whereas Mangrove focuses on a group of people, these films spotlight certain individuals. The third installment traces the life of Leroy Logan (John Boyega), a British-Jamaican who leaves his lucrative research job in forensics to join the Metropolitan Police. The film begins with Leroy, a young boy, waiting for his father Ken Logan (Steve Toussaint) to pick him up from school. In the interim, the police harass Leroy claiming he fits the description of a robber. When Ken arrives, he chastises the police. Then during the car ride home, he adamantly declares to Leroy, “I am the only authority you need” before warning his son to never give the police a reason to enter his yard. Later, when the police viciously and unnecessarily attack Ken, his son does not shun the Metropolitan police, but, on the contrary, he aspires to join them. On the day that Leroy meets fellow members of his police cohort he plainly states, “… I’m not here to make any friends. I’m here to bring change to this organization from the inside out.” 


This film seems “out of joint” (to borrow from Howe quoting William Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Mangrove) compared to the other films in the series. For one, none of the characters are fully realized as they are in Mangrove – each appear only as a faint shadow of who they could become. Further, the storyline seems out of sync when perceived alongside the conditions that surrounded McQueen’s release of Small Axe namely the ongoing pandemic of anti-black racism and calls to dismantle the police and for abolition. 


Similarly, Alex Wheatle, the fourth installation in the series, features the life of the author who came from nothing when his mother abandoned him and his father gave him over to the British social-services bureaucracy. Set in Brixton, South London, which was partly made famous by the 1971 Clash song “The Guns of Brixton” whose lyrics read, “When they kick in your front door, how you gonna come, / With your hands on your head or on the trigger of your gun?”, the song’s violent overtones align with the violence in this film. 

In 1981, a set of Black-British people staged a series of demonstrations after the New Cross Fire – an inferno in a house party that killed 13 people. Wheatle was one of many protesters sent to jail. The film exposes a man trying to rebuild himself. In jail, he faces repeated confrontations with his Rasta cellmate Simeon (Robbie Gee). At one particular point of frustration, Simeon cries out, “Listen, man! What is your story?” to which Wheatle replies, “My story? I ain’t got not frickin’ story!” Therein lies the exchange that if embraced could have made for a more compelling film: entry into the life of Wheatle as a writer hailed now as the Brixton Bard and author of young adult literature. Stunned by his reply, Simeon, an avid reader committed to unlearning inherited Western modes of thought, hands over all of his books to Wheatle starting with James’s The Black Jacobins


We never see the writer Wheatle becomes, but we do see something else: a glimpse into how a book, a typewriter, a short story, or a pamphlet can inaugurate the beginning of a life – a life full of stories, a storied life – one never imagined. 


Undoubtedly, McQueen’s most masterful film of the anthology is Lovers Rock. Mangrove, Red, White and Blue, and Alex Wheatle each address real life events and people, however, Lovers Rock, while it follows a fictionalized couple Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and Franklyn (Michael Ward) at a blues dance, still feels the most real out of the collection. 


There is an undeniable authenticity to the Small Axe films that can neither be taught nor faked seen and heard in the actors sucking of teeth, the casual and sometimes furious use of the word “backside,” the life-and-death seriousness with which the game Scrabble is approached, the polyester shirts that glimmer on the dancefloor, the sudden invocation of Mighty Sparrow in everyday speech (recall when Aunt Betty, Dolston, and Frank burst out singing “Jean and Dinah” in Mangrove), and the references to the all-saving Caribbean healer Vicks (as in the VapoRub). 


This list, abbreviated here, could stretch on infinitely in McQueen’s latest work if we let it. Such is the handiwork of a skilled filmmaker who treats the finer details of real Caribbean life with real respect. In Lovers Rock that authenticity is unmatched and, at times, unnamable yet still felt and most definitely heard. This is what the poet-critic Nathaniel Mackey might call a “telling inarticulacy.” Named for the smooth, romantic subgenre of reggae that emerged in the seventies-era, the film both unfolds and holds court on the dancefloor during a house party where pairs of lovers melt into each other getting lost in one another’s arms, getting lost in the night. Slow whines and sweet groves abound endlessly, passionately. 


In this film about the music of flirtation and romance, of seduction and swagger, lovers rock is not the backdrop to the main story. It is the story. Indeed, this is what makes this particular film so powerful: if you go looking for a plot you are certain not to find it, but if you listen to the sounds and sighs, the shouts and silence, then the story unfolds melodiously, magnificently.  


Lovers Rock is my musical,” said McQueen in a recent interview, “but it’s a different kind of musical. It’s a film about everyday Black experience and the importance of music to that experience both as an expression and a release, but there is almost a fairytale element to it. I wanted it to be transportive. So, the music had to work in a different way, to be integrated into the film in an organic way that I had never seen before.” 


Part of Lovers Rock filmic feat is how it defies traditional filmic conventions. The first twenty minutes solely set the stage for the night to come: people prepare pots of curry goat and saltfish, rearrange furniture, assemble sound systems, and select and discard outfits for an evening out. McQueen builds the anticipation slowly and steadily. No detail too small, no sound unimportant. A colossal undertaking about a collective, a community. 


Janet Kay’s 1979 “Silly Games” frames the film, a song which made her the first Black-British female to reach a number two position in the music chart with a reggae record. In preparation for the euphoric dance scene, McQueen blasted “Silly Games” and other songs through the speakers on set so his cast could dance. He also hired choreography Coral Messam to teach them how to whine and grind as couples. The result appears in the climax of the film – 38 minutes and 34 seconds in – when the camera pans not on a set of strangers at a house party, but a crowd turned congregation. 


This is church if ever there was. As the music fades this does not stop the voices from rising as people sing a capella style: “I’ve been wanting you / For so long, it’s a shame / Oh, baby. / Every time I hear your name / Oh, the pain / Boy, how it hurts me inside.” 


While they sing, McQueen does what he does best: film. His expert eye catches elbow a fly, hips a swaying, cheeks inseparable, and hands unstoppable. Black joy unscripted and uninterrupted. When asked about Lovers Rock, McQueen said, “Don’t forget, in those days, people used to work for the weekend. With this racism and oppression people had to deal with in the week – people lived for that Saturday.” Just like Mangrove, the threat of violence persists but not there, not that night, not during that dance. Just Black people, music, life.  


McQueen’s Small Axe comes at a most peculiar time or perhaps exactly right on time in the wake of renewed interest in the Windrush generation as many people face threats of deportation and others are forcibly removed from the country and during a period of increased interest (for some) in the English monarchy (specifically, the whereabouts of Megan and Harry or the latest season of The Crown, for instance). McQueen’s filmic anthology stands as a tribute to a still understudied history that is well and alive; a memory that consists of so much more than solely accounts of the arrival of the Empire Windrush that docked at Tilbury in June 1948. Like any good – no superb – filmmaker, he trains our eyes and ears to look and listen for the music: the sonic lives of Black-British people in song and verse, in quotidian matters because as McQueen insists: all of it matters. Now and always. 




Sasha Ann Panaram is an Assistant Professor of English at Fordham University. Her research focuses on twentieth and twenty-first century African American and Caribbean literature and culture, with a particular interest in women’s and gender studies, as well as slavery studies and performance studies.

A Review of Steve McQueen’s "Small Axe"

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