Joy in Spite of Everything: Steve McQueen’s Small Axe
McQueen’s heartfelt and righteous Small Axe anthology explores the vitality of the UK’s Windrush generation against the backdrop of a changing Britain from the 1960s to the ’80s.
A scene in Lovers Rock—the dreamy centerpiece of director Steve McQueen’s anthology series Small Axe—has been circling in my mind since the film’s opening night premiere at this year’s New York Film Festival: somewhere in London, a house party reaches its climax as Janet Kay’s 1979 single “Silly Games” plays over the makeshift stereo system. The room is equal parts hazy and electric as the song reaches its chorus, and the party’s denizens, first-generation British citizens with Carribean roots, all dance to Kay’s song. As the track nears its end, the room bursts into an acapella rendition, keeping the song—and the community it brings together—alive for a moment longer.
McQueen’s Small Axe explores this vitality amidst struggle against the backdrop of a changing Britain in the 1970s and the sociopolitical ramifications of anti-Black racism that targeted the country’s Windrush generation who immigrated to the UK from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and other Carribean nations. As the discrimination Black Britons have faced through political and cultural violence continues to reverberate in the forms of the cruel 2018 Windrush scandal, the Grenfell Tower Fire, and the death of Belly Mujinga this summer, Small Axe is a heartfelt and righteous ode to their perseverance and continuing activism. Split into five films that will be shown on BBC and Amazon later this fall, McQueen’s Small Axe is the rare anthology that is as riveting as it is necessary—a portrait of community and home that recognizes the triumphs of yesteryear while still cognizant of the progress we’ve yet to make.
Mangrove, the opening installment of Small Axe, tells the real-life story of Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) and his titular Notting Hill restaurant, which became a target for police harassment and illegal raids in the late 1960s. The tension between the Notting Hill community who saw the Mangrove as an embodiment of their Carribean roots and the police reach a fever pitch when Crichlow, Altheia Jones-LaCointe (Letitia Wright), a leader of the British Black Panther Movement, and seven others who would come to be known as the Mangrove Nine were arrested during a protest. Mangrove then cleverly switches into a tense, if somewhat unbalanced, courtroom drama that painfully illustrates the ways in which the world’s legal systems have routinely failed Black people while offering a glimmer of hope for future generations.
In Red, White and Blue, Leroy Logan (John Boyega) joins the Metropolitan Police after his father Kenneth (Steve Touissant) is assaulted by officers, hoping to reform the corrupt force from the inside. After several attempts to ease the strain between the Met Police and the local community, he becomes a target of aggression from his fellow white officers and comes to understand the rotten heart of a fundamentally xenophobic system that rejects reform and accountability at all levels, despite their hypocritical insistence that they want to diversify the force through Leroy’s appointment. The racism at the heart of policing is illustrated through the anti-South Asian slurs made by white officers, and the tragic subplot of a young child targeted by local officers for petty theft, a series of incidents that mirrors the story’s opening scene in which a grade-school age Leroy has his first brush with racial profiling.
Small Axe’s most optimistic tale is Lovers Rock, a loosely narrative series of vignettes that capture a London party through the eyes of the young women who attend it. The house party itself is a marvel, with all of the universal and highly specific trappings of long nights and hilarious misadventures: the flirting in the long bathroom line, the bedrooms that exhausted partygoers retreat to, and the growing crowd of dancers as the event devolves to drunken delirium. Over the course of the night, these women experience heartbreak, joy, togetherness, and misogynoir at the hands of both their fellow partygoers and the police who linger outside on the streets.
The coordination of sound and image across all three films is stunning, calling back to McQueen’s earlier video work (such as 1998’s Drumroll and 2012’s End Credits) that explicitly use both music and environmental noise to amplify the actions and emotions on screen. Mangrove’s slow crawl to the courtroom through the airy, windowed halls of the municipal building turns from uncomfortable to truly claustrophobic with the assistance of Mica Levi’s score, and in Red, White and Blue, the needle drop of Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up (Pt. 1)” (1977), emanating from a fellow recruit’s similarly clinical room, initially welcomes Boyega’s character into basic training, but later reads as a cruel joke when the internal horrors of the police force are revealed. And, of course, there is Lovers Rock’s absolutely transcendent use of “Silly Games”—a euphoric moment bookended by longing and nostalgia.
The anthology format of Small Axe highlights McQueen’s mission in honoring the Windrush generation and Black Britain by providing glimpses into both the acute struggles and the everyday lives of his characters. By splitting it into five separate stories connected through their shared experience, Small Axe is able to capture the beautiful and striking details of each scene, character, and situation to immersive effect. The acting throughout the anthology is superb, with John Boyega and Letitia Wright delivering career-best performances, but the real star of this series is Shaun Parkes, whose haunted and world-weary presence in Mangrove grounds the film in both its Notting Hill Carnival scenes and the courtroom final act. While Lovers Rock is less focused on specific characters, Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn radiates starry-eyed optimism and freedom as a young partygoer at the precipice of adulthood and love.
McQueen’s anthology format also allows the audience to more deeply engage with the films’ prevailing themes of community and intergenerational strife by connecting the stories across decades and situations. The tight-knit neighborhoods seen in Lovers Rock and Mangrove show that their parties, music, and cultural expressions are direct political acts that unify London’s immigrant community and help them organize against the blatant and violent xenophobia at the hands of the British government. McQueen’s ideas and ideals of community seen in these two films are weaponized in Red, White and Blue with Leroy’s insistence on spineless “community policing” and recruiting other Black officers into the force. As an officer, Leroy is both a member of the West Indian community in London and an explicit threat to it, a paradox that is all the more painful because of the love and solidarity in the British-Carribean community seen in the other two installments.
In a recent interview, McQueen talked about the importance of joy—Black joy as a statement against global anti-Blackness: “it was … important that [the audience] saw the joy. In Lovers Rock, the joy in Mangrove. It’s also a celebration, a triumph against all odds. These are films that are commenting on the past, in order to look at the present and how far we’ve come.” This joy in spite of everything is critical to Small Axe, and through this anthology, Steve McQueen deftly explores the systemic and abject failures of the British government while acknowledging joys and hard-fought freedoms the Windrush generation and their descendents found in their decades-long and counting battle for civil rights against a cowardly, colonialist oppressor. The fight for equity continues, but the music plays on.