In ‘Small Axe,’ Steve McQueen Explores Britain’s Caribbean Heritage

The director’s ambitious anthology series for Amazon and the BBC is his first film work about Black life in Britain. “I needed to understand myself, where I came from,” he said.

A report by Ashley Clark for The New York Times.

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, you’ve got to have a certain maturity, and I wouldn’t have had that 10, 15 years ago.”

McQueen, who was born in West London to Grenadian and Trinidadian parents, is one of Britain’s most gifted and garlanded Black filmmakers. He’s 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 London’s 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 Friday.

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 he’s lived since 1997. “But then I realized they had to be individual films because there’s 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.)

Shaniqua Okwok, left, and Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn in “Lovers Rock.”
Shaniqua Okwok, left, and Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn in “Lovers Rock.”

The installments were shot in a variety of formats (including 16mm and 35mm film) by the emerging Antiguan cinematographer Shabier Kirchner — the first three premiered at this year’s 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 London’s 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’s 1999 romantic comedy.) Not only did the nine — including the 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 ever judicial acknowledgment of racism from British police.

Mainstream histories of Britain have largely excluded the stories of pioneering Black figures like the defendants seen in “Mangrove.”
Mainstream histories of Britain have largely excluded the stories of pioneering Black figures like the defendants seen in “Mangrove.”

This installmentis particularly resonant in the light of Britain’s 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 “Mangrove”’s 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.” It’s 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.

Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby), an activist and broadcaster, representing himself in court.
Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby), an activist and broadcaster, representing himself in court.
Letitia Wright, right, plays Altheia Jones-LeCointe, a founder of the Black Panther Movement in the U.K.
Letitia Wright, right, plays Altheia Jones-LeCointe, a founder of the Black Panther Movement in the U.K.

The 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 the casting director Gary Davy after one meeting, and no conventional audition.

“To be honest, I had no clue — it’s 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 don’t 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 Ph.D. in biochemistry, has been described as “the most remarkable woman I’ve ever met” by the 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 X’s mother was from Grenada. C.L.R. James,” he said. “This is nothing new, people from the West Indies and our influence. That’s where we come from: rebel country.”

“I needed to understand myself, where I came from,” McQueen said of making his first film work about British life.
“I needed to understand myself, where I came from,” McQueen said of making his first film work about British life.

The anthology’s title comes from an African proverb popularized in Jamaica by Bob Marley’s eponymous 1973 song (“If you are the big tree, we are the small ax”), and the British-Guyanese scholar Paul Gilroy — who developed the idea of “Transatlantic 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,” especiallyin 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 Britain’s Black communities had never been higher.

It’s arresting — and slightly surreal — to watch this earnest, arguably naïve character being portrayed by an actor who made headlines in June for delivering a fierce speech in London’s Hyde Park condemning police brutality. “It’s 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.

In “Red, White and Blue,” John Boyega plays a man who hopes to reform the London police force from within.
In “Red, White and Blue,” John Boyega plays a man who hopes to reform the London police force from within.

“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. there’s subtlety, layers to it,” Boyega said. “To explore that conversation in a healthy way is kind of cool.”

When asked about George Floyd and the protests, McQueen replied wearily. “I’m 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 we’re being believed. It’s taken a man to die in the most horrible way. It’s taken a pandemic. And it’s taken millions of people marching in the streets for the broader public to think ‘possibly there’s something about this racism thing.’”

“If you don’t laugh, you’d cry,” he added. “That’s 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 he’s 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 it’s heavy still.”

“But we have a future!” he exclaimed, brightening. “That’s the main thing.” In the beautiful “Small Axe,” the past is the future, and that future is now.

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