“If you are the big tree, we are the small axe.” It’s an African proverb popularized in Jamaica and the West Indies by Bob Marley’s 1973 song of the same name, which featured those lyrics. The notion is that small and sustained actions can cause something mighty to topple. Oscar-winning filmmaker Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave, Widows) invokes different facets of those felling strokes across five films and six-plus hours that dramatize three different decades in the West Indies communities of London.
Ranked in descending order of quality, I’d more or less go in the order they’re presented on the Amazon Prime service, although I’d give a slight edge to the hopeful close of the final installment, Education, over the penultimate Alex Wheatle. But individual rankings pale next to the cumulative power of this anthological cycle, each episode echoing backwards and forwards to the preceding installment with vestiges of and variations on themes.
Mangrove is the first and most fully cinematic of the lot. It’s the story about the 1971 trial of the Mangrove Nine — Black British activists accused of inciting a riot at a 1970 protest at the Mangrove Restaurant, a Caribbean eatery in London’s Notting Hill district. The film’s first half depicts the events leading up to said riot, during which you keep waiting for a bomb to detonate until you realize the real accelerants are in the blood and brains of white Britons unable to shake their colonial mindset.
The second half depicts the legal battle, and The Trial of the Chicago 7 is the obvious doppelganger on the American side of cinema. That feels like Aaron Sorkin getting paid to write a paper about something for which he doesn’t really care — political reverberations from a half-century ago that feel chic to resurrect in an era of fractious American politics. Mangrove is McQueen and co-writer Alastair Siddons’ pressure-cooker pontification on the point at which one man’s business becomes an entire culture’s battleground, how words are leveraged against actions, the push and pull of individuals and ideologies, an opportunity to explore visual space as a gap between good intentions and rotten outcomes.
As he did in Widows, McQueen positions his camera to convey perspectives of power, pans and tilts feeling like the rise of history’s right side, aligned with the spoken notion that “an idea float eventually by itself.” There are momentary reflections of people gathered in a pool of raindrops that cut to the narrowed view of a tactical helmet window. McQueen keeps the camera trained on those imbalances and attempts to correct them even during the more prototypical court scenes, cutting to human gestures of exasperation and worry in body language writ large and montages of transcription, deliberation, oppression and internalization. It’s the courtroom drama as a tone-poem incantation of having seen and heard enough, and the usual fireworks pop harder because of the internalized combustion McQueen and Siddons achieve. (He’s abetted by outstanding turns from Shaun Parkes, Letitia Wright and Malachi Kirby as one-third of the defendants.)
Encouraging people to fight and unite for a collective freedom they cannot necessarily see in front of them is the blindspot that many prosecutors try to create. Chicago 7 treats the idea of self-interest over collective gain as a way for a bunch of good actors to trap themselves in bad accents. Mangrove mulls it over as a truly existential question and finds excellent ways for answers to erupt. It is only fitting that Toots & the Maytals’ “Pressure Drop” play this segment out.
In Mangrove, McQueen focuses on stomping feet as a march toward making a difference. In the second installment, Lovers Rock, he lightens up a bit into a Richard Linklater mode — letting those feet shuffle and shimmy on a dance floor while not losing sight of the protest spirit necessary to assert culture. The tensions here rise among the subdivided cliques of West Indies culture rather than the others that would try to tear them apart. It’s a nice bridge from Mangrove to this in the opening scene, a train traveling to a different destination while another runs perpendicular.
It is more or less a 70-minute reggae dance party with a few perfunctory character introductions, occasional moments where melodramatic reality pops the dream on the dance floor, and a conclusion that feels just enough like Before Sunrise. Are there more rump shots than a modern-day Clint Eastwood movie? Sure, but there’s also the nuances of a party’s electricity and the promise of possibility and revolution in the dance partner you choose. Purely unintentional on McQueen’s part, but in a year of lockdown, it feels so goddamn good to just see so much togetherness. A pre-party prologue suggests Janet Kay’s “Silly Games” is the jam for which everyone is waiting, and when it finally drops, it’s among the transcendentally tranquil moments of Small Axe. Cinematographer Shabier Kirchner’s camera captures the humidity on the wall, as though it were itself weeping in delight. It’s communion with a spiritual feeling, an almost indescribable pentecostal boogie that features a stunning slam to sunrise.
McQueen’s directorial stamp feels the least distinctive in the earliest moments of Small Axe’s third segment, Red, White and Blue — starring John Boyega as Leroy Logan, a London metro police officer who founded the Black Police Association as an attempt to reform the police force. It seems like it’s heading toward a familiar confrontation of institutionalized racism in law enforcement, but by now, we should expect nothing traditional from Small Axe. The question becomes less of whether Logan will succeed, but whether he’s wearing the uniform or it’s wearing him relative to his upbringing at the hands of his Jamaican father, Ken (Steve Toussaint).
Ken is so morally rigid that he would rather lose a cutthroat game of Scrabble than add a “Y” to “SEX” for the victory. It’s a prim and proper persona of straight-edge life he imparted on Leroy. RW&B is a father-son story about the struggle when Ken’s seed of racial and cultural ascent to another station perhaps takes too deep for Leroy — especially after his own brutal encounter with the police leads Ken into a protracted legal clash. And it’s not just that Leroy has become part of the institution Ken is trying to take down a peg, it’s that Leroy has also become its good-PR face. Again, this is the milieu of Small Axe — a deep internalization of social issues that lends them an eloquence and urgency you wouldn’t necessarily find elsewhere. It helps that McQueen lets Al Green’s “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?” just take over one scene, to a point where it feels like the lyrics are unspooling in Leroy and Ken’s minds.
As in Mangrove, there is a scene seen through an incomplete slit of space. In that vein, RW&B embraces the sharpest, most surprising ending of any Small Axe installment, concluding on rancor without release, resolve without resolution. It denies us a feel-good fadeout to all Leroy was able to accomplish and anything more intimate than glass-clinking solidarity across a table between Leroy and Ken.
Alex Wheatle is an author and musician mentioned on the fringes of Red, White & Blue (and a writers’ room contributor to the endeavor) who comes to the forefront in the penultimate Small Axe installment, which bears his name.
In some ways, Alex Wheatle is the inverse of Red, White & Blue, in that Wheatle is a Black British orphan with no connection to the West Indies culture beyond its allure as an outlet for his creative impulses. And if Lovers Rock used reggae dance as a form of protest, Wheatle finds it in reggae songs (and a stunning slam-poetry interlude set to still images). Even here, that idea is folded into a question of cultural appropriation, one further nuanced by the notion that no one even really wanted Wheatle until he found his West Indies brethren. Wheatle finds his voice somewhere between hooks and hardships and a contrast between the passion of the poetry he’s writing and the prolix nature of his jacket from the welfare system. The plainspoken title of this segment makes sense: Wheatle had to figure out what his name meant to him before it could mean anything to others.
While Red, White & Blue was originally intended as the cycle’s close, McQueen shifted Education into that spot — a semi-autobiographical episode influenced by his own troubling experiences in Britain’s education systems. Boxed into a square aspect ratio, it seems to identify itself most closely with the TV format with which it flirts.
But again, what could become the mere Stand and Deliver of Small Axe — as a space-obsessed boy named Kingsley (Kenyah Sandy) struggles to find a school suitable to address his learning disabilities — aligns itself more with a creation of havens away from hatred. Help arrives in the form of cultural aid, but Education also lingers long on a scene of Kingsley relaxing in his bathtub, his weightlessness in the water giving him the brief feeling of an astronaut leaving the ground. Kingsley is trying to will his future into existence against all likelihood. Are systems not filled with and stacked against such kids? Sandy nails the moment where Kingsley must confront the agony and ache of a child who’s intelligent enough to comprehend the shame surrounding his shortcomings and fear the winnowing away of opportunities.
Education is the shortest of the five and gets its ire up in the most conventional way. But if McQueen is going to get a little didactic at any point, he’s earned it after both six-plus hours that span from solid to spectacular and the deserving target of a systematically racist subjugation of entire swaths of children of color. With installments ranging from barely an hour to 128 minutes, Small Axe smudges the division between TV and cinema, but to be quite honest: Who gives a crap after a year like this or when the fury and finesse of the storytelling is this incredible? This is a thematically rigorous anthological majesty on par with Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Dekalog. However you choose to define it, Small Axe is one of 2020’s towering achievements in storytelling.