First announced six years ago, Steve McQueen's Small Axe took a long time to make it to television screens, but McQueen, director of 12 Years a Slave and Widows among other memorable films, certainly hasn't underdelivered. Debuting nearly simultaneously on Britain's BBC One and Amazon Prime Video, the project began as a conventional TV series that would tell stories set in London's West Indian community. In time it evolved into its final form as five self-contained film-length episodes that will each air over five consecutive Fridays in the U.S. on Amazon Prime. Or, if you prefer, five movies grouped under a single umbrella. Whatever you call them ultimately doesn't matter. Based on the three entries provided to reviewers, it's some of the most vital work released in 2020 in either medium.
It's also an act of correction. There's hardly an overabundance of projects telling the stories of Britain's Caribbean immigrants and their descendants, whose numbers include McQueen, the son of parents born in Grenada and Trinidad. McQueen has said he wanted Small Axe, which tells a mix of fact-based and fictional stories set in the '60s, '70, and '80s, to air on television in part because he wanted its stories to be as widely seen as possible. Underrepresentation has not only done a disservice to West Indian contributions to British culture, it's left whole chapters of recent British history in the margins. That makes Mangrove, Small Axe's first episode, an excellent starting point.
The installment takes its name from The Mangrove, a Caribbean restaurant in London's Notting Hill neighborhood that opened in 1968, closed in 1992, and became the focal point of a high-profile trial in the early '70s. A favorite meeting place for Black activists, including members of the British Black Panther party, it became the subject of police harassment and thinly justified raids. The situation reached a boiling point in the summer of 1970, culminating in an organized march on the local police station that resulted in owner Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) and several protesters, later dubbed the "Mangrove Nine," being charged with inciting a riot.
These included Marcus Dowe (Malachi Kirby), who later became a well-known broadcaster, his activist partner Barbara Beese (Rochenda Sandall), and Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Black Panther's Letitia Wright, playing a real Black Panther), all of whom stood trial at the Old Bailey in what was seemingly intended to sound a warning to other activists. Instead, the group turned the tables by making the case about police racism rather than left-wing anarchists getting out of hand.
Working with writer Alastair Siddons (who co-writes three of Small Axe's installments) and a superb cast, McQueen opens up what could have been a historical chronicle. Mangrove presents all the facts of the incident — he brings all his filmmaking strengths to bear in the sequence staging the march itself — but also allows space to explore its characters and the toll exacted on them by standing their ground. Crichlow is far more interested in serving food — and the communal spirit and good times a restaurant can inspire — than politics as the story begins. By the end McQueen's shown how they're all tied up together. The fight to keep the restaurant open and free from harassment doubles as a fight for the right to exist and carve out a space to call their own in a country that often seems not to want them.
Issues raised in Mangrove resurface in Small Axe's third installment, Red, White and Blue, another fact-based story, this one co-written by Courttia Newland and starring John Boyega. Boyega plays Leroy Logan, later to become the first chair of Britain's National Black Police Association. Here he begins as an up-and-coming, but restless, forensics technician who, in the early '80s, decides to become a beat cop — in spite of a history with the police that grows ever more complicated over the course of the story. Red, White and Blue opens with a schoolboy Leroy getting searched with no cause by a pair of white bobbies, an incident brought to a quick end by Leroy's lorry driver father Kenneth (Steve Toussaint), who knows racial profiling when he sees it, but generally prefers to navigate around it than confront it. To live within the realities of the racism around them, Kenneth raises his son to be, in Leroy's words, "more British than the British."
Later, but prior to Leroy making a decision to join the force, Kenneth also becomes a victim of police racism while disputing some constables' claim that his truck is blocking the road. He replies by bringing out his measuring tape. They respond with body blows. But, despite his father's disapproval, this proves to be more inspiration than deterrent for his change in career. Leroy sees joining the police as a chance to change the institution from within. Arriving at training and announcing he's not there "to make friends," he earns excellent marks and becomes the face of an image-burnishing campaign to attract more Black recruits. But once on the job he hits a wall, kept from advancing — or even staying safe on the job — by the prejudice of his fellow constables.
Red, White and Blue doesn't shy away from the complexities of Leroy's professional path, depicting him as a man with idealistic ambitions but realistic expectations. But even his pragmatism can't prepare him for the unvarnished hostility he encounters or the difficulty he has winning the trust of the Black Londoners whose lives he signed on to improve. Boyega plays him as a man of strong convictions who's attracted to police work by what it represents but forced to reckon with the limitations of one man's ability to quell its abuses. It's a complex performance, one that depicts Leroy as fearsome when backed up against the wall but tender and vulnerable in private moments, including a final scene that brings the whole story full circle and ends Red, White and Blue with a moment of ambiguity.
It's also, for all its weighty themes, a propulsive story of a rookie cop learning on the job that includes a breathtaking chase scene in a nearly abandoned factory. Each of the first three installments of Small Axe offer variations on some well-established forms. Mangrove works as a trial movie. Red, White and Blue is a police story. The second entry, Lovers Rock, is McQueen's joyous, beautifully observed version of a musical.
A night-in-the-life story, Lovers Rock centers around a 1980 house party attended by teenaged friends Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and Patty (Shaniqua Okwok), who sneak away to take in a night of music, dancing, toasting, and possibly romance. Once there, however, they discover that means fending off the unwanted advances of the men who want their attention. Patty doesn't last long. But Martha, having made a connection with the handsome Franklyn (Micheal Ward) sticks it out, unsure where the night will take her but eager to find out.
McQueen, again co-writing with Newland, lets music drive Lovers Rock, which opens with the setting up of the sound system and frequently showcases the mechanics of keeping the beat alive: the changing of records, the siren-like sound effect the DJ uses to amp up excitement, and the MC's vocals that bend the song to suit the evening. Even more frequently, however, he focuses on bodies pressed together, moving to the rhythm and yearning. You can almost feel the heat and sweat emanating off the crowded dance floor.
Lovers Rock takes its name from a romantic strain of reggae and Martha and Franklyn's budding romance serves as the entry's centerpiece. But it also cycles through other ways music moves its listeners, whether via the silly dances inspired by "Kung-Fu Fighting" or the way the Revolutionaries' wordless "Kunta Kinte Dub" serves to channel the crowd's discontent with the state of the nation. And, for all its lightness, Lovers Rock never lets viewers forget the realities of its time and place. In search of Patty, Martha encounters a group of racist ruffians who stand down only when she's rescued by the party's bouncer. Within, the possibility of sexual threat lies just beneath the surface of the party, and sometimes it doesn't stay there. But, when it works, the party also offers a type of connection and community Martha's never known elsewhere. In one especially memorable moment, a record stops but the crowd's voices keep the song going and going and going. If nothing else, the music belongs to them.
McQueen didn't hedge his ambitions to work in television. If anything, he expanded them, using the project to tell a variety of stories across the West Indian London community, an approach most likely to be expanded further still by the remaining entries, "Alex Wheatle" and "Education." The title comes from an African proverb made famous by a Bob Marley song with the chorus "If you are the big tree, we are the small axe." But Small Axe is less about destruction than revelation, looking past those big trees to find the complex, vibrant, frustrated Britons living in their shadows.
TV Guide rating: 5/5
Mangrove premieres Friday, Nov. 20 on Amazon Prime. Following installments of Small Axe will premiere over the next four Fridays.