The Small Screen
Cuts Deep December 10, 2020
On Mangrove, Lovers Rock, and Red, White, and Blue, the first three parts of Steve McQueen's new Small Axe anthology series
teve McQueen made his first feature-length movie in 2008. Hunger, a grim debut starring soon-to-be-frequent collaborator Michael Fassbender, was a
dramatization of the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike. Since then, McQueen’s projects have vacillated wildly in subject matter, scope, and the milieus in which they’re situated. McQueen seems allergic to being associated with a certain genre or sensibility; he's a director so chameleonic that you wouldn’t describe a film not made by him as McQueenian, the same way one might call something Hitchcockian. Shame, a visually clinical psychological drama released in 2011, followed a New York City executive grappling with debilitating sex addiction. 12 Years a Slave, from 2013, told the story of Solomon Northup, a free-born Black man who was abducted and then sold into slavery in the 1840s. And 2018’s Widows, a genre-blending, thematically multi-headed thriller,
could most simply be called a heist movie — but that's a classification that does somewhat of a disservice to how much it accomplishes.
McQueen’s latest venture, Small Axe (2020) — a formidable, five-part-long “anthology” series — feels unmistakably like a new chapter. (Each part is being released on a weekly basis in the states on Amazon Prime.) It's the most conspicuously personal project McQueen has embarked on thus far, and, because it constitutes several parts working to complement each other, it might be the work that gets us closest to the long-evasive conclusion of what might be considered “McQueenian.”
Each chapter is approximately the length of a movie or a special episode of a drama series; each tells a story relating to the experiences of London’s West Indian community. (McQueen, who is 51, is of Trinidadian and Grenadian descent and grew up in Hanwell, West London.) McQueen has said in interviews that his delayed decision to address home had mostly to do with what he felt like was a lack of maturity — an anomaly among filmmakers, who more often than not tend to start their careers with something closer to home before expanding outward. “I needed to understand myself, where I came from,” McQueen told the New York Times last month.
In keeping with McQueen’s general avoidance of a set mode, Small Axe traverses time and genre. The first three movies in the series, Mangrove, Lovers Rock, and Red, White, and Blue, which I’m reviewing here (a piece on the last two chapters in the anthology, Alex Wheatle and Education, will come out in early January), are, respectively, a 1970-set courtroom drama, a romance, and a police biopic. (The latter two installments take place in the 1980s.) Each is made with careful attention to their emotional dynamism and period detail. Much of what is accomplished in the frequently true-story-based Small Axe is educational: Mangrove dramatizes the saga of the Mangrove Nine; Red, White, and Blue chronicles the come-up of Leroy Logan, who at one time was the superintendent of the London Metropolitan Police and then was, for three decades, the chair of the Black Police Association.
The movies I've seen so far don’t have the stiffness, or general presence of embellishment, viewers have come to associate with biographical movies. You sense McQueen’s investment in the material, and his determination makes these stories lucid and right-there-with-the-subject immediate. There is no pandering romanticism. Mangrove
technically ends with a victory, but McQueen immediately undercuts it with a reminder that the ramifications of that victory pretty much rendered it moot. We could picture this story, spun with a devotion to the mawkish, not mentioning the actual devastating aftermath to better preserve the ringing out of audience cheers. Red, White, and Blue is about a man who has ultimately had a positive impact by way of police reform. But it ends in a way that evinces the reality that its subject’s forward-looking and ideologically idyllic endeavor can only go so far. A what seems to be abolitionist allusion is the last thing we hear in the movie.
Caribbean restaurant located on Notting Hill, the Mangrove was opened in 1968 by Trinidadian-British business owner Frank Crichlow, who had gained some attention earlier in the decade as the
owner of the El Rio coffee bar. (The spot had been frequented by Christine Keeler, a woman infamous for her role in the scandalous Profumo Affair.) Shortly after opening, the Mangrove became a popular hangout for local Black activists and intellectuals; it was particularly associated with the nascent British Black Panther movement. But as much as it was a place of respite for its recurring visitors, the Mangrove was a magnet to police, who racistly assumed it was a site where drugs were traded and sex bought. According to the Independent, the Mangrove was raided upward of 12 times between January 1969 and July 1970. A month later, a police-brutality protest was staged. Nine participants, including Crichlow and Black Panther leaders Altheia Jones-LeCointe and Darcus Howe, were charged with conspiring to start a riot.
McQueen’s Mangrove primarily follows Crichlow; he is played by Shaun Parkes, who in turn gives one of the year’s best performances. The first hour of the movie mostly covers the repeated terrorization of Crichlow’s business, its guests, and his loved ones by the police; the second takes on the form of a conventional courtroom drama. The real-life trial, which began in 1971, was itself unconventional and in its conclusion unprecedented. Jones-LeCointe and Howe (Letitia Wright and Malachi Kirby) opted to defend themselves; in the end, all nine defendants were acquitted — a decision that marked the first judicial recognization of racism within the Metropolitan Police.
McQueen accentuates in scenes dramatizing proceedings that the judicial system is fair to some but not others. A request by Howe for an all-Black jury is met by the judge with an eye-roll and a suggestion of reverse racism. It takes a long time in the trial, even after ample damning evidence is offered, for the police — who predictably are deemed more trustworthy despite the inconsistencies in their reporting — to be met with skepticism by the powers that be. Two defendants are violently manhandled by white court security officers during a recess. Courtroom dramas, entertaining for the most part even when a certain product is substandard, oftentimes rely on simplistic good-bad binaries to help achieve easily digestible thrills. Mangrove
reminds us that the frequent cinematic categorization of the justice system in the “good” camp is facile, if not fantastical — idealism mistook for a reflection of reality.
There is some relief found in the movie’s closing moments. But McQueen doesn’t allow the viewer to wallow very long in the triumph; triumphs are usually only long-term salves in the movies. Title cards tell us that the Mangrove continued to be raided by police; eventually, it was victimized by gentrification. Mangrove movingly dramatizes what it took to get a long-deserved acknowledgment of a systemic problem while also underlining that acknowledgment, without tangible revisions to that oppressive system following in its wake, isn't enough.
overs Rock, the second part of the anthology, is in stark contrast to Mangrove short and impressionistic. Whereas Mangrove finds some gratification in directly, successfully challenging
institutional injustice, Lovers Rock highlights the power of a fleeting moment of unmitigated bliss in a systemically unjust world. (Of course this, too, is a form of resistance.) Set in 1980, and lasting just 68 minutes, the movie mostly takes place during a house party in a West London neighborhood. A new romance between a couple of youngsters who meet there (Micheal Ward and Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) grounds the film.
Aside from its meet-cute, Lovers Rock is largely plotless — meant to be enjoyed sensuously. Its best scenes bask in the easy pleasure of being in a sweaty room crowded with
swaying bodies — something that in 2020 especially feels like a taken-for-granted joy. Much of Lovers Rock's runtime is taken up simply by extended scenes on the dancefloor (the best of which euphorically incorporates Janet Kay’s “Silly Games”). Cinematographer Shabier Kirchner wisely lets his cameras rove; he so wonderfully evokes the ecstatic, always-moving atmosphere that he can effortlessly make the feel of a hand caressing someone’s hip, a head resting on a shoulder, tangible to the viewer. His lens at one point freezes next to the gold-hued wall on the dancefloor and watches it drip with condensation — it's a splatter portrait whose paint is the room's rapture. There are reminders in the movie of the harsher realities of being a Black person in a predominantly white neighborhood, but they’re cursory rather than central to the action. Lovers Rock is about finding euphoria when you can.
I remember someone I can’t remember the name of on Twitter the other day noting that third episode Red, White, and Blue felt more to them like an “anthology chapter” than Mangrove and Lovers Rock had. Vague as the statement is — what collection of characteristics makes something feel, exactly, like an anthology chapter? — I can see what they meant. In only covering a brief period in the life of its central subject, Leroy Logan (played by John Boyega), you feel as though you’re only getting a sliver of a larger pie — even though the movie I think pretty effectively functions as a simulacrum for both Logan's career on the whole and McQueen’s own ideas behind it.
Red, White, and Blue covers the period a little before, and then the first few months of, Logan's stint as a police officer. Logan decides to join the force (he had been working in the sciences beforehand) because he figures that he can effect positive change — make a difference from the inside as a Black man working in a white-supremacist institution. Red, White, and Blue dramatizes the familial fissures that instantly formed once Logan announced his decision (it is especially hard on his father, played with vigor by Steve Touissant, who has recurrently experienced police brutality) and, eventually, Logan's gradual coming to terms with how difficult it can be to remain driven by your ideological stance when day-to-day work is so difficult — and not just because of the situations you have to respond to on the street.
Until he’s inside the system, Logan seemed unprepared that he would himself be accosted by racism from his white colleagues — getting his calls for backup blatantly ignored; finding his locker freshly wet with a sloppily spray-painted slur. There is one other office of color on the force — a South Asian man who is told by a coworker to not speak anything other than English — although he, unlike Logan, internalizes his anguish unsustainably. (Logan, on the other hand, is increasingly unhesitant to air it out.)
Logan continued to push through (though this is past the movie's scope), and was successful in seeing through some of the positive change he envisioned when he joined. But McQueen concludes Red, White, and Blue on a note reminiscent of Mangrove’s: he unromantically makes it clear that small breakthroughs, while meaningful, can’t necessarily engender grand-scale shifts if they're not systemically backed. What I like most about the anthology so far is that it so vividly, and empathetically, tells stories of persistence without softening them. The title of the series comes from a proverb most recognizable for its repurposing in a Bob Marley song: “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe, ready to cut you down.” These three episodes cut deep, and I gather their successors will keep striking.
Lovers Rock: A-
Red, White, and Blue: B+