BBC and Amazon Co-produced Small Axe, a series by hard-hitting director Steve McQueen, fresh from a hiatus from his ensemble movie Widows. Having tackled slavery in 12 Years a Slave and sexual addiction in Shame, McQueen doesn’t shy away from tough topics and periods of time. He’d already taken on the Provisional IRA (Irish Republican Army) in Hunger and his debut directorial role.
Looking at the series of miniature movies, it feels shameful that racial divide and people from the West Indian immigrant community suffered. It’s even worse to know and hear that the struggle of racial inequality and discrimination goes on in Britain. I refuse to call it Great Britain for that reason.
“If colonialism is good for anything, it brought us together on this table” – dialogue from the episode ‘Mangrove’.
Shaun Parkes commands the screen with theatrical appearance alongside Malachi Kirby in episode one, ‘Mangrove’. Letitia Wright, who plays Shuri in Black Panther and other Marvel movies, stars as Altheia Jones-LeCointe, a leader of the British Black Panthers in an intense episode. Sam Spruell who seems typecast as someone crooked and wrong features. Trinidadian Frank Crichlow is portrayed as a strong and warm-hearted character deeply committed to activism. A great story of hope and discipline to change a tainted culture unfolds.
“If you are the big tree, we are the small axe” – Small Axe, Bob Marley
After the Mangrove Nine featured in one episode, the next feature film focuses on romance. ‘Lover’s Rock’ stars Michael Ward and Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn in a moment of time slotted into primetime viewing and delivered with warmth and a carefully constructed dialogue. Then we reach ‘Red, White & Blue’ featuring John Boyega, of Star Wars fame as Leroy Logan. It’s a tough one to watch with grim moments but also plenty of fine acting.
Sheyi Cole ‘Alex Wheatle‘ walks the line of the title’s novelist in creation. Finding your niche in life is a challenge, and this empathic story charts a brief period of time. It’s a biopic that builds towards the 1981 Brixton riots. That’s Thatcher’s era. A disgrace that didn’t resolve fully after the Scarman report. Steve McQueen focuses on young Alex Wheatle MBE and his development to become known as the Brixton Bard and go on to have books translated to Japanese, Urdu and Welsh, amongst other languages. Actor Robbie Gee also stars, a while after his role in Guy Ritchie’s Snatch. This short film is an important story for modern times. Identity is complex.
“Unlearn what you’ve learned.” – the character Dread in the episode ‘Alex Wheatle‘
Bringing ‘Education’ to the fold, director Steve McQueen tells a story how London councils moved a largely disproportionate amount of black children from regular schools into more behaviour-specialised schools. It was set in the 1970s. It could easily be 2020 too. Institutions are for all. This story does not show this was the way.
Sir Steve McQueen delivers social realism in his catalogue of movies and at aged 52, it’s entirely possible there’s much more to come. He’s spliced injustice up and served it in cinematic and small screen form. Small Axe is a worthy collective of his award-winning means. In an era where the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter and a host of champions of racial equality need a voice of understanding, Steve McQueen delivers a parcel to unwrap for all.