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Photo: ‘Small Axe’/ Amazon Prime
“If you are the big tree, we are the small axe”.
That’s according to Bob Marley and the Wailers in their 1973 song “Small Axe”. While the song, based on a Jamaican proverb, was initially written as a metaphor for Marley urging his fellow musicians to band together against those holding all the power in the Jamaican music industry, there’s another layer to it: a reminder of the power of the people to stand up against tyranny. That through courage and community, even a small axe can cut down a big tree. It’s a message that’s still very much relevant to this day.
From writer-director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave, Widows) we now have Small Axe, an ambitious film anthology series, coming to Amazon Prime Video this month after making the film festival rounds to critical acclaim. So what is Small Axe exactly?
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‘Small Axe’ — One Community, Five Stories
Taking place from the 60s to the 80s, Small Axe is a five-film series all directed and co-written by McQueen. Each is is a stand-alone feature-length work that tells “personal stories from London’s West Indian community, whose lives have been shaped by their own force of will despite rampant racism and discrimination”. Here are the films, in release order:
Mangrove centers on Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), the owner of a Caribbean restaurant in Notting Hill that is the frequent target of racially-motivated police raids. This prompts Frank and his community, including British Black Panther Movement leader Altheia Jones-Lecointe (Letitia Wright) and activist Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) to take to the streets in a peaceful protest in 1970. When police crackdown on the protestors and arrest nine men and women—The Mangrove Nine, including Frank, Altheia, and Darcus—on charges of inciting a riot, what ensues is a highly publicized trial that would lead to a hard-fought win for those fighting against discrimination.
Lovers Rock tells a fictional story of young love set against the backdrop of a Blues party one night in 1980, the title a reference to the romantic reggae subgenre of “lovers rock”. Told from the perspective of partygoer Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn), the film serves as a tribute to Black youths who, in the face of social unrest all around them, found love and freedom at these house parties.
Red, White and Blue tells the true story of Leroy Brown (John Boyega) who, after witnessing his father’s assault by the police, went from a young forensic scientist to joining the Metropolitan Police Force in the naive hope of changing their attitudes from within. Despite going on to becoming an exemplary constable, he soon faces both disapproval from his father, as well as blatant racism and resentment from his colleagues.
Alex Wheatle centers on the true story of award-winning writer Alex Wheatle (Sheyi Cole), tracing his life from a young boy to his early adult years. Growing up with a difficult childhood in a mostly white institutional care home, he finally finds community, identity, and a passion for music as a DJ in Brixton. But when he’s arrested and sent to prison for taking part in the 1981 Brixton riot, Alex must confront his past in order to fully heal.
Education is a coming-of-age story of Kingsley Smith (Kenyah Sandy), a bright twelve-year-old boy who falls victim to his school’s unofficial segregation policy in the 1970s when he’s sent to a school for children with “special needs”. With his distracted and overworked parents unaware of the policy, which hurts Black children by preventing them from getting the education they deserve, a group of West Indian women take matters into their own hands.
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On Being Protagonists of Their Own Stories
This past summer at the Cannes Film Festival, McQueen said of two of the films in the series: “I dedicate these films to George Floyd, and all the other black people that have been murdered, seen or unseen, because of who they are, in the U.S., U.K and elsewhere…Black lives matter”. And that’s what Small Axe is: an exploration and tribute to Black British lives.
After his critically-acclaimed 2008 film Hunger with Michael Fassbender, McQueen pitched the idea for Small Axe 11 years ago to the BBC. Initially a TV series, the project soon morphed into a five-film project with the idea that each film would have its own filmic style, with different aspect ratios and film stocks. He brought on British writers Alastair Siddons (co-writer of the 2018 Tomb Raider film) and novelist and playwright Courttia Newland as co-writers. The project was put on hold as McQueen worked on other films. As he told The Hollywood Reporter, “I wasn’t ready to delve into this narrative, because I had to mature…I still had to understand who I was and where I was, and where I wanted to go to achieve these films”. Having later found his footing, including being the first black filmmaker to win an Academy Award for Best Picture (for 12 Years a Slave), McQueen filmed all five films in 2019.
As to what the project means for McQueen, he tells Esquire that it’s about highlighting both the big and small acts of resistance against systemic and institutional racism. He also drew from his own upbringing for both Lovers Rock and Education: in how he faced discrimination in school as a child because of his dyslexia and lazy eye, and in the freedom and joy he found at makeshift Blues house parties. To that last point, that’s one facet of Small Axe’s mission statement: yes, anger-fueled stories that shed light on injustices against the Black community persist, but there’s also room for stories and moments of resilience and joy, which itself is a form of resistance. Said McQueen especially in regards to Lovers Rock, “Yes, trials and tribulations. But at the end of the day we have to thrive to survive. It’s always been about joy”.
Moreover, McQueen explains that while stories of working-class regular Black people are fairly common in the U.S, they’re not as often told in England. He argues that the recent marches for Black lives is a testament to the fact that such stories are still relevant as people continue to wake up to injustices. Furthermore, McQueen also comments that the British film industry has fallen short in terms of representation (off- and on-screen) compared to the U.S, and that Small Axe is an opportunity to remedy that: to spotlight stories in British history that need to be told, and to further bolster representation of Black people on film.
To that end, McQueen chose to cast mostly little-known young Black British actors, with Boyega and Wright as the biggest names in the cast. Speaking to THR, Wright spoke effusively of McQueen and how, in an industry that constantly forces Black actors to constantly prove themselves, he was confident in her: “So when Steve (McQueen) said to me, ‘Tish, you need to trust that I know that you can do this,’ that fueled me”. As for Boyega, his work on the project gained further relevance following his raw and powerful speech at a Black Lives Matter protest in London this summer; that even as numerous filmmakers cheered him on and hailed him as a hero, he still worries that his outspokenness will hurt his career. Both Boyega and Wright found working on the project to be cathartic, in terms of channeling their frustrations as well as a reminder of their communities. And despite their films being separate, they also serve as a pseudo-reunion for the two actors as both Boyega and Wright have known each other since their days in acting school.
Conclusion — A Very Worthwhile Endeavor
Early reviews of Mangrove, Lovers Rock, and Red, White and Blue out of the New York Film Festival have been very positive, which bodes well for the remaining two films. Echoing McQueen’s sentiments, these stories are fascinating and very much worth telling; the recently released trailer is quite powerful in its juxtaposition of images of Black people fighting against injustice and living their lives. And McQueen has proven himself to be one of the most talented directors working today. So keep an eye on Small Axe.
Small Axe premieres on November 20th with Mangrove on Amazon Prime Video, with a new film each week until December 18.
By Mario Yuwono
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