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Steve McQueen’s ‘Small Axe’ Collapses the Personal and Political

The director’s recent work is a limited series, a string of films, and an absorbing portrait of the West Indian British experience in the mid-20th century

Amazon/Ringer illustration

From the late 1940s through the early 1970s, the United Kingdom saw an influx of Caribbean immigrants collectively known as the “Windrush generation.” Named after a ship that carried an early group across the Atlantic in 1948, Windrush migrants were recruited from the commonwealth of former colonies like Trinidad, Barbados, and Jamaica to supply a labor market otherwise depleted by World War II. Once these new arrivals—more than 150,000 in all—settled in, they went to work in booming sectors like construction or the National Health Service, established the same year the Windrush made its fateful voyage. And in their off-hours, these new Britons created communities that shifted the culture of their adopted home, a development not always met with open arms.

These dry historical facts undergird the existence of Small Axe, a five-part miniseries produced by Amazon and the BBC, as well as director and cowriter Steve McQueen. Born in late-’60s London to parents from Trinidad and Grenada, McQueen is not himself a member of the Windrush generation but a direct descendant of it. In his feature work thus far, McQueen has centered race and the UK’s radical history but never both in conjunction. His debut, Hunger, starred Michael Fassbender as IRA martyr Bobby Sands; American audiences know McQueen best as the director of 2013’s 12 Years a Slave, which won Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

McQueen’s most recent film, the scandalously underseen Widows, was loosely based on a limited series first aired in the 1980s. The idea for Small Axe predates Widows by several years—McQueen was already in talks with the BBC when he took home the Oscar—and in it, he’s embraced the limited-series form more directly. Small Axe was initially pitched as a single, multipart story, but in order to cover more facets of the West Indian British experience, McQueen decided to make five stand-alone works—some just over an hour in length, others more than two. The first, Mangrove, premiered on Amazon last Friday; the rest will roll out on a weekly schedule through mid-December.

The debate over whether Small Axe is truly a TV show or a collection of films is as inevitable as it is irrelevant. The production was paid for and will be distributed over time by a TV network, the BBC; the second installment, Lovers Rock, opened the New York Film Festival last month. There are arguments for and against either classification, but even when considered strictly as television, neither the anthology format nor the presence of a marquee director marks Small Axe as especially unique in the modern TV landscape. What does make it unique are McQueen’s efforts to enshrine an undermythologized part of an overmythologized time and place.

Small Axe takes its title from a proverb turned ’70s Bob Marley track: “If you are the big tree / We are the small axe.” (Less quoted is the subsequent line: “Ready to cut you down.”) This antagonistic, David-and-Goliath spirit is reflected in two of the three chapters screened for critics in advance, both based on true stories. Mangrove centers on Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), a restaurant owner who became an unlikely leader when his business is the target of police harassment in the late 1960s. Red, White, and Blue follows Leroy Logan (John Boyega), a research scientist who decides to take on the burden of becoming a Black officer in London’s Metropolitan Police. (The fourth film in the series, Alex Wheatle, chronicles the namesake novelist who was imprisoned as a teenager following the Brixton uprising in 1981.) Protest, race, and policing are consistent themes, evergreen subjects that have nonetheless grown more urgently topical since Small Axe was filmed. McQueen has dedicated the series to George Floyd “and all the other Black people that have been murdered, seen or unseen, because of who they are”; Boyega’s impassioned speech at a London demonstration earlier this year earned international headlines.

Small Axe is an obvious counterpoint to whitewashed works like The Crown, now enjoying a buzzed-about fourth season on Netflix, and Notting Hill, which romanticized the namesake neighborhood without acknowledging its Caribbean roots. To Americans, it’s also important context for our own self-centered legends. A courtroom drama in its back half, Mangrove has some uncanny parallels with The Trial of the Chicago 7, Aaron Sorkin’s high-minded reenactment of the railroading of antiwar activists by the Justice Department; the defendants at Crichlow’s trial, in which he and eight others were charged with inciting a riot, were even known as the Mangrove Nine. Stateside audiences are used to viewing the upheavals of 1968, including movements like the Black Panthers, through a domestic lens. It’s novel, even disorienting, to watch familiar rhetoric and imagery employed by figures like Althea Jones-LeCointe, the Trinidadian Panther leader played by Black Panther’s Letitia Wright.

Ironically, Small Axe gets much of its political charge from its more apolitical interludes. It’s in this respect that it behaves most like a TV show, gaining power from the arc of the whole rather than the focus of the parts. On its own, Lovers Rock is a gorgeously shot, precisely staged story of flirtations at a house party. (All five installments of Small Axe were shot by Antiguan cinematographer Shabier Kirchner.) Sandwiched between the Big Statements of Mangrove and Red, White, and Blue, however, Lovers Rock gains extra resonance, and its companions extra nuance. Exultant and sensual, Lovers Rock captures the small-scale texture that tends to get lost in larger stories about history’s shifting tides. It lends stakes and vitality to conflicts like Mangrove’s, about the preservation of a community space where events like those of Lovers Rock can play out. And as a prelude, Mangrove gives Lovers Rock a sense of defiance and catharsis that adds to its effect.

Once a painter, McQueen infuses Small Axe with visual beauty that never distracts from its often-ugly subject. The signature tracking shot in Widows followed a politician’s car from a downtrodden part of his district to a palatial residence; in Red, White, and Blue, the scene is echoed when Leroy’s father, himself a victim of police brutality, drives his son into the belly of the beast. Mangrove includes a breathtaking close-up of a colander spinning on the floor like the top from Inception, the noise echoing through a silent restaurant in the aftermath of a noisy, violent raid. All of Lovers Rock is staged like a musical. Even at its most forceful, such grace notes keep Small Axe from feeling artless or didactic.

Small Axe arrives closely on the heels of I May Destroy You, set among a new generation of Black Londoners and immigrant kids. Like Michaela Coel’s latest showcase, Small Axe collapses the personal and the political, the aggregate and the individual. Stretching from the ’60s to the ’80s, Small Axe is conscious of providing an alternate history and conception of British identity through scripts McQueen cowrote with Alastair Siddons (Mangrove, Alex Wheatle, and final film Education) and Courttia Newland (Lovers Rock, Red, White, and Blue). Above all, though, it’s absorbing to watch.