Steve McQueen Unveils An Anthology Of Racism And Resistance
NEW YORK: In a movie year mostly lacking big, ambitious releases, Steve McQueens Small Axe anthology is an unqualified main event. While many other filmmakers are on hold, the 12 Years a Slave director has raced to finish not one but five new films.
The movies, spanning 1968 to 1985, are each individual stories about the West Indian community in London. They are testimonies of resistance. Each tale resurrects a chapter of recent history to illuminate the daily oppressions of institutional racism and the struggles against it in courtrooms, in all-white police precincts, in segregated schools.
These are stories that have made my life possible as an artist, as a British Black man, McQueen, who was born in West London to Grenadian parents, said in an interview from London. You look back to look forward, and also to judge how far weve come.
The scope of McQueens achievement has been gradually coming into focus during the New York Film Festival. As of Friday, three of the films will have bowed (two had been set to premiere at the canceled Cannes Film Festival). All will play on the BBC and Amazon in November. For the filmmaker of Hunger, Shame and Widows, Small Axe is a shattering masterwork a compendium, both damning and celebratory, of Black resilience.
The format isolated films that are most powerful as a collective is itself symbolic. The title comes from a West African proverb popularized by Bob Marley: If you are a big tree, we are a small axe.
Its a story about why we are here. Its not just about the past but the present, says McQueen. Peoples sacrifices, peoples determination thats why these films are important. They reshaped the landscape of the United Kingdom. They paved the foundation for multicultural London society.
The films will run in a different order in November, but McQueen began by premiering Lovers Rock as the festivals opening night gala. The only fictional tale of the bunch, it brings to vivid, pulsating life a blues party from 1980, when young London Black people found refuge, and love, at house parties. The movie joyous and sensual is wall-to-wall reggae bliss.
Still, in this, the brightest of the five acts, there are reminders of the cruelties lurking outside.
Its festering, its moldering. Even with Lovers Rock, there are sharks and alligators circling constantly. At the blues party, you come out the door and whats greeting you? Some thugs. You go to work and whats greeting you? A racist boss, says McQueen. Within that narrative, you have to find your own joy, your own celebration.
Police brutality is more at the forefront in Mangrove and Red, White and Blue. The title of Mangrove refers to a Notting Hill Caribbean restaurant run by Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes). A proudly Caribbean community gathering place, police regularly harass its customers, spurring protests (Letitia Wright plays British Black Panther leader Altheia Jones-LeCointe) and leading to a historic trial.
Red, White and Blue, which was to premiere Friday, is about Leroy Logan (John Boyega, in his most arresting performance yet), an aspiring research scientist who, after his father (Steve Toussaint) is beaten by police, elects to join the force to attempt to create change from the inside. Someones got to be the bridge, he says. Yet his colleagues mostly just heap racist abuse on him.
Both films have moments of battles won, and an ominous sense of a longer war. They also have beautiful, full-hearted scenes of family, music and love.
I would describe it in some ways as surviving the stench. Thats what it is, says McQueen. You have to transcend that environment. And often, as Black people, we do. Youre limited so you invent things. You invent break dancing, you invent jazz. Inventing things from nothing, thats how you survive.
McQueen dedicated Lovers Rock and Mangrove to George Floyd. He has also been calling out inequities in the film industry. Earlier this summer, he penned an op-ed for the Guardian about the blatant racism of the British film industry. The U.K., he said, is far behind Hollywood in representation. Casting Small Axe, he has said, was easy because of all the untapped talent just in need of an opportunity.
I dont necessarily think Hollywood is that much better at all, but its way better than whats happening in the U.K. for sure, no doubt, says McQueen. What Im interested in is that the industry is welcoming to black talent. For a long time, I dont think it was welcoming and thats why people didnt take it up as a career option. They didnt think it was for them.
The week-by-week rollout of Small Axe through virtual and drive-in festival screenings, has only heightened the anticipation of what McQueen has coming next. The final two films are Alex Wheatle, which leads up to the 1981 Brixton Uprising; and Education, which deals with a 12-year-old boy unfairly classified as special needs and the West Indian women who created school programs to fight back.
The anthology is, in a way, mapped against the first half of McQueens life. He was born in 1969, about the beginning of the films, and he, too, was unfairly treated as a young student when he was misdiagnosed with dyslexia. But if anyone expecting an arc to Small Axe, McQueen says thats not its shape.
Theres no beginning and end. Its a circle more than anything, he says. Its evidence, questions and thats it, really.