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Arts + CultureMovies'Small Axe': ardent slices of life from an overlooked...

‘Small Axe’: ardent slices of life from an overlooked community

Director Steve McQueen's five-part series explores recent UK Black history, from protest to celebration

Every year there are so many competing awards groups for movies, some voting bodies often seem to make a special attempt to distinguish themselves by giving a prize to an unlikely recipient that is certain to generate some publicity. Presumably that was partly the motivation in the Los Angeles Film Critics Association naming recently Small Axe the Best Picture of 2020. 

The choice was eccentric because Small Axe isn’t a feature film—it’s an approximately seven-hour miniseries produced by telecaster BBC and streamer Amazon that was never intended for theatrical release. Even the term “miniseries” is somewhat misleading, because you wouldn’t necessarily want to watch it continuously, as its five segments (some barely over an hour long) tell separate stories, without any ongoing narrative arc or recurring characters. 

Still, if you can quibble whether Small Axe is “a film” or television programming, there’s no question it is worth seeing. This latest from 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen (not to be confused with the other famous dude of that name, of course) is a quintet of fact-inspired tales set in his native West London and its West Indian emigre communities between the late 1960s and the early ‘80s. One episode per week has been premiering on Amazon Prime Video since November 20, and now all five are available for streaming. The order in which they’re seen does not, to my mind, matter all that much; their progress is neither strictly chronological or cumulative in terms of impact. 

There’s not a lot of contextualizing background here, but after World War II there was a great upsurge in immigration from former or ongoing U.K. colonies in the Caribbean, encouraged by the British government in large part because war casualties had so depleted its native work force. But the resulting communities of color that sprang up were regarded with suspicion by many in the majority population, and treated with outright hostility once economic recovery began to stagnate. As in the US now, first-generation Brits born to immigrant parents started being told to “go home” by ignoramuses who thought their fellow citizens should come in just one hue, white. 

Most of Small Axe’s stories hinge on particular injustices fed or directly caused by racial targeting, and the beginnings of an organized, activist response to challenge and change institutionalized bigotry. The series doesn’t always clarify whether an episode dramatizes a true story or not. But the first segment Mangrove very much does: Starting in 1968 and stretching over the next few years, it depicts the saga of what became known as “The Mangrove Nine” (and this likewise courtcase-centric feature has been favorably compared to the not-dissimilar recent Trial of the Chicago 7)

When Trinidadian emigre Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) opened the titular Caribbean restaurant in the Notting Hill area, his establishment immediately began experiencing frequent police harassment and cause-free, destructive raids. Finally, joined by members of the British Black Panthers and other groups, he led a protesting march on the local police station—which police overreaction then promptly turned into a “riot,” giving authorities an excuse to press criminal charges against the protestors. 

The high-profile trial in 1971 did a great deal to expose racist police brutality (as well as their routine lying on the witness stand). At 128 minutes, Mangrove is by far the longest Small Axe segment, and in fact it could be a little tighter. But it’s a rousing tale of justice demanded and finally won, with a memorable villain in Sam Spruell as Police Constable Frank Pulley—a virulent racist whose presence stirs the same kind of horrified anger McQueen sustained in viewers throughout 12 Years

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Sharply contrasting with that straightforward activist chronicle is Lovers Rock, a near-plotless slice o’ life set almost entirely during one night-long neighborhood house party some years later. There are micro-dramas of proffered or rebuffed hookups (plus one attempted sexual assault), as well as a few simmering conflicts that never quite boil over.

But mostly McQueen is seeking to capture the hypnotic timelessness of a shared very good time, reaching occasional joyful peaks—from the silliness of ’70s disco kitsch classic “Kung Fu Fighting” to an ecstatic expression of brotherhood among Rastas when a favorite reggae track comes on. Preexisting music is superbly utilized throughout Small Axe, but here it (and the human body in dancing response) is the “star,” offering a redemption and elevation that can at least briefly keep the outside world’s troubles at bay.

Bringing us back to those realities with a vengeance is Red, White and Blue, which like Rock is co-written by McQueen and novelist/playright Courttia Newland. (The other segments were all penned by the director and Alastair Siddons.) John Boyega from recent Star Wars entries is excellent as Leroy Logan, a laboratory biological researcher who gave up that career to become a police officer. It’s a choice that baffles friends and infuriates his Jamaica-born father (who’d been assaulted by cops), but which he undertakes precisely to “create change” in a force notorious for racial profiling. 

At first he seems to be welcomed, graduating at the top of his training class and being used as the advertising face of minority recruitment efforts. But an entrenched old guard whose racism could hardly be more overt soon starts trying to drum him out—even to the point of refusing to provide backup when he’s in a perilous situation. This segment might have ended on a stronger note (or at least with acknowledgement that the real-life protagonist helped found the Black Police Association), but it’s still a gripping whistleblower thriller in the Serpico vein. 

The final two segments are the shortest (each barely over an hour) and perhaps least memorable, but they still tell important stories in a compelling fashion. Alex Wheatle is a nutshell biopic of the titular figure, an abandoned illegitimate child raised in often abusive institutional circumstances, then upon adulthood (as played by Sheyi Cole) dumped into a streetwise community he’s ill-prepared to cope with—and where for lack of better mentors, his path eventually leads towards prison. But as a closing text tells us, Wheatle not only transcended that poor start, he turned those formative experiences into highly regarded, much-translated YA novels and other works. 

Finally, Education focuses on the series’ youngest protagonist yet, one Kingsley Smith (Kenyah Sandy). He’s a bright grade-schooler already generally interested in science, especially astronomy. But his difficulties reading—it’s suggested he might have undiagnosed dyslexia—and a few minor misbehaviors result in his being transferred to a facility for “sub-normals” that isn’t really the claimed “special school” at all—it’s simply a chaotic babysit for students with any kind of real or perceived disability. 

Education is primarily about the efforts of community activists in the 1970s to end a “deeply rooted cultural bias” that routinely saw Black children placed in such circumstances, their intellectual growth and future prospects stunted by the educational system’s negligence. This is the preachiest of the five segments, with a bit more “telling” than “showing.” Nonetheless, it engagingly delivers a valuable message: That almost any systemic wrong can be righted with enough citizen awareness and pushback. 

That’s the biggest takeaway from all of Small Axe, whose content is at times cruel and depressing, but which always sees a light at the end of that tunnel. A testament to Steve McQueen’s artistic range, the series may not quite be in the league of the extraordinary 12 Years a Slave, nor is it generally as arresting stylistically as his prior features Hunger or Shame. (On the other hand, it’s a great improvement on his 2018 crime drama Widows, which didn’t work for me at all.)

But it is first-rate television, as well as an overdue popular-entertainment insight into a demographic slice of ever-increasingly-multicultural Britain whose history remains pretty much MIA from the standard narrative. 

The five sections of Small Axe are currently available for streaming from Amazon Prime Video. 

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