Review: 'Small Axe' : Pop Culture Happy Hour A tense courtroom, an intimate house party, a stifling police academy. These are just a few of the environments depicted in Small Axe, the ambitious anthology film series from director Steve McQueen. The result is a collection of poignant stories buoyed by excellent performances from stars like John Boyega and Letitia Wright; as well as searing imagery, and a scene that could arguably be called the best movie moment of the year.
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Steve McQueen's 'Small Axe' Tackles The Personal And Political

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Steve McQueen's 'Small Axe' Tackles The Personal And Political

Steve McQueen's 'Small Axe' Tackles The Personal And Political

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AISHA HARRIS, HOST:

A tense courtroom, an intimate house party, a stifling police academy - these are just a few of the environments depicted in "Small Axe," the ambitious new anthology film series from director Steve McQueen. The result is a collection of poignant stories buoyed by excellent performances from stars like John Boyega and Letitia Wright, as well as searing imagery and a scene that could arguably be called the best movie moment of the year.

I'm Aisha Harris, and today we're talking about the "Small Axe" anthology on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. Joining me today from his home in Edison, N.J., is Ashley Clark, who until recently was the director of film programming at BAM and is now - congratulations - the curatorial director at Criterion. Hey, Ashley.

ASHLEY CLARK: Hi, Aisha. How are you doing?

HARRIS: It's great. I'm so glad to have you here and to be talking about this series in particular. It's a pleasure to have you. So the "Small Axe" anthology consists of five films, and all are definitely worth checking out on Amazon Prime. We also could've easily devoted an episode to each of them, but for the sake of time, we're going to focus on two of our favorites a little later in this conversation.

But first, let's talk about the series as a whole and how it fits within the larger context of British film history. Director Steve McQueen is no stranger to tackling history in his films. His 2008 debut, "Hunger," was about the 1981 Irish hunger strike, and he received the greatest acclaim of his career so far with the Best Picture winner "12 Years A Slave." But as a Londoner of Grenadian and Trinidadian descent, the "Small Axe" series is perhaps his most personal project yet, turning his eye to dramatizing the lives and experiences of West Indian communities in London between the late 1960s and 1980s.

Now, Ash, you wrote a really great profile of Steve McQueen for The New York Times. And you are also from the U.K. and also of Caribbean descent. So I'm so glad to have you talking about this. First off, can you just give me your general impressions of the series overall?

CLARK: Absolutely, yeah. It's an overwhelming project, and it's really difficult to know where to begin talking about it. Is it TV? Are they films? Why are they here now? Why have we not seen these images and these stories before? How do they relate to each other?

It's an extremely personal series of films - and I would classify them as films 'cause I wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of Steve, who also very much classifies them as films - that were initially going to be, in early stages of development, more of a conventional TV series. Steve, in plunging into these stories and speaking to his friends, his family, his ancestors, the people that laid the groundwork for him as a young Black man in the U.K. to be what he eventually became, he realized he had too many stories to compress this into a conventional episodic TV show. So they grew into their own individual films with extraordinary kind of inner worlds with them. There are connections between them - historical, social, political - although they're not narratively connected. And they really are unlike anything that I've seen at this scale about Black British life in the U.K.

It's really wonderful that these films are on a national audience on the BBC in the U.K. and that they're being seen by American viewers on Amazon Prime. And it helps us to have a kind of conversation about transatlantic global Blackness and how we all relate to each other in the diaspora, and I think that's really exciting.

HARRIS: Yeah. I mean, for me as an American viewer, I know, sadly, very little about Black British history. And I imagine a lot of our listeners are probably in the same boat. Could you put into context a little bit - you know, obviously, this is something that is unlike many other things that came before it or anything that came before it. But when Black British life has been depicted in film and TV, and I know it's been rare, what does that usually look like? Like, how does that compare to what we're seeing with what Steve McQueen is working with?

CLARK: Well, yes. I mean, to backtrack a little and give a bit of history, you may have heard of the Windrush generation. The Windrush is the name of a boat that came from the Caribbean and landed at Tilbury Docks in the U.K. in 1948 and brought with it a large cohort of Caribbean passengers who'd been effectively invited - and I use that in slight scare quotes - by the colonial British government to assist in rebuilding the postwar economy.

And in the Caribbean, there was kind of a lot of faith. They called it the mother country. They were coming to England, and they would be welcomed. You'd take one step off the boat, and you see it's raining and miserable. People are calling you names. You're not really getting the jobs you were hoping for. And suddenly, you realize that this dream is very much not what you expected.

From that position begins a story of resistance for Black people in the U.K. in that generation. Not to say that there weren't Black people before that in history. I would recommend a book called "Staying Power" by the historian Peter Fryer and work by the other historian David Olusoga. So there's been lots of great scholarship about that.

But, really, in terms of film, we're seeing bit parts for Black actors in the '50s and '60s, then someone like the great Earl Cameron, who recently popped up in Christopher Nolan's "Inception." But in terms of Black people making work in the U.K., we're looking at pioneers like the Trinidadian filmmaker Horace Ove, who is credited with making the first Black British feature film entitled "Pressure" in 1975 and which is a story about a young man who's just left school, and he's kind of caught between two poles, his older brother, who was born in Trinidad and who's a staunch Black Power advocate and very politically aware, and his parents, who are very dedicated to ideas of the queen and country. They're very religious and conservative. So he's torn between those.

And he is of that generation that came of age and had to forge their own identity as a Black person born in Britain, which is the generation that my father comes from. So his grandparents came to England from Jamaica as part of the Windrush generation. He was born, my dad, in London in 1959. So he's really growing up and finding his feet at the time that these "Small Axe" anthology films from the '60s through the '80s are set.

So it's been extremely personal and very moving to watch my dad and all his friends get at it on Facebook, criticize the films for the historical inaccuracies, give Steve McQueen a hard time for putting the wrong color carpet in that. You know, they'd have never have played this at that house party, et cetera. But it's really lovely because they've been activated on a large scale, and it's been like a social event every Sunday in the U.K. And you just know we're going to have some good reading on Facebook on Monday morning 'cause this community has not been represented to this extent and this scale at such a sustained degree and at such a high level of artistry before. And it's really wonderful and beautiful to see.

HARRIS: Yeah. I mean, one of the things I really loved was being able to learn about these figures that I'd honestly never heard of before, like the Mangrove Nine. And if you aren't familiar with the Mangrove Nine, they were a group of Black activists who were put on trial in 1971 for inciting a riot.

And it's funny because I watched it not long after watching "The Trial Of The Chicago 7," which was a movie we talked about on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR a few months ago and I really didn't like. But what I really appreciate about "Mangrove" is that it takes it a step above what "Trial Of Chicago 7" was doing and really introduces us to the restaurant Mangrove and how it was a communal space for Caribbean and West Indian British people to congregate. And this is a space that Frank Crichlow had created, and it was constantly being raided by police for unfounded reasons. So to get that sense of it, in addition to the courtroom drama aspect of it, I think was really, really great.

So for me, being able to watch these films and then, like, go Google and look up and learn about things that I was totally unfamiliar with was really, really just great to see.

And it was interesting in your profile, too, you also spoke with Letitia - right? - who is in "Mangrove" and plays one of the activists. And she talked about how even in Britain, most of Black history that was taught was American Black history. She said it's usually Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, the same way it is here, which I thought was just baffling, but that is true. And I like the way in which Steve McQueen seems to be trying to course-correct here in a way, while also making something really, really beautiful and brilliant.

CLARK: Yeah, Britain has an extremely poor history at confronting the reality of empire, and that really filters through into the education system about what we get taught, what we don't get taught and that the empire was this whole benevolent thing. And we never really learn about our history, and particularly how institutions have shaped us as a community and oppressed us in very real and powerful ways.

And I was very impressed in "Mangrove" with how Steve McQueen addresses the institutional racism of the police and the courts and the idea of collusion and the idea of traditional British standards of fair play because that's really what's happening. You have this entirely corrupt, really, network of officials who act as though they are operating in a very forthright and proud and fair play kind of way while really existing only to oppress Black people.

And the film teases that out in a very nuanced way, with great performances and very skillful writing from McQueen's contributors, I think. Courttia Newland is a British novelist who's been around for a long time and has had a big break with this. So I want to give him a shoutout, and Alastair Siddons, who's the other co-writer. And I think they get to some really interesting places with systems, oppressive schemes that are very difficult to articulate or make clear in a dramatic way. And I think "Mangrove" does this really well.

And I would quickly also want to mention, I want to be wary of erasing a history of British film. This is not the first films. They're potentially the most high-profile, but they're not the first to have addressed these issues. So there was a film about the Mangrove Nine called "The Mangrove Nine," made in 1973, associate produced by Horace Ove and directed by Franco Rosso, who went on to make "Babylon," which we released at BAM a couple of years ago. That was just one of many documentary films in Britain that was made about these issues that really hasn't been seen. These films are either suppressed or conveniently pulled out of circulation or not preserved adequately because there isn't an infrastructure designed to protect and amplify this work. So all of that feeds into what makes "Small Axe" such a breath of fresh air and so essential for this moment.

HARRIS: Well, I'm glad you said that because we always have to be wary of saying things are the first because there's always some sort of kernel, at least, that precedes whatever these bigger things and bigger opportunities may be.

CLARK: I've made the mistake many times of saying the first, and someone with superior knowledge will come out of the woodwork and, quite rightly, correct me. And I think that tyranny of the first is a really important conversation to be having.

HARRIS: Absolutely.

CLARK: On the one hand, it's a great thing to be the first. But then you have to ask, why are you the first?

HARRIS: Exactly, yeah.

CLARK: Again, to bring it back to "Mangrove" and "Small Axe" in general, something it reminded me of was "The Wire" in a strange way.

HARRIS: Absolutely.

CLARK: 'Cause, obviously, "The Wire" is five series, and each series builds another institutional layer. So it begins with the cops and robbers, and then there's the docks and the municipal politics, education, which tallies with Steve McQueen's film, and then the media. In the five installments of "Small Axe," you're also seeing a very layered institutional portrait of how a society operates and comes together and the effect that it has on the Black people that inhabit it.

HARRIS: Yeah, and I think that's a good segue into the way in which education, both the theme of education and also the final film that's being released in the series, "Education," really plays a central role throughout the entire anthology. So let's take a short break. And when we come back, we'll talk about two of our favorite films from "Small Axe," "Education" and "Lovers Rock." So don't go away.

Welcome back. So, Ash, let's get into a couple of our favorite films from the "Small Axe" anthology, and let's start with "Education," which will be available on Amazon Prime tomorrow.

Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but I think that McQueen has said this is probably his most personal of the ones he's created so far because he's talked about the way in which he felt he was put into a classroom when he was a kid in London that was ostensibly supposed to be for, like, helping kids who needed help but was really just a way to sort of siphon them off and take mostly Black kids and put them into classrooms where they were being neglected. They weren't being taught, basically just allowed to run free.

You chose this film as the one you love the most. Can you talk a little bit about why and what struck you most about this?

CLARK: Yeah. Again, I think "Education" is very forthright in its presentation of an outright separatist and racist education system, which has been disguised, occluded as some kind of benevolent, we're being generous by taking you off to special school. But really, if you look at the statistics, these policies are racist policies. And particularly for the children that are operating inside of them and haven't made sense of the world yet, it's a very painful experience.

"Education" shocked me in a way, insofar as it is a personal film for Steve McQueen. And while Steve McQueen's films to date have been very powerful, very raw in many ways, I don't know - and I couldn't say this categorically, but how much of himself he's brought to them. And with "Education," you're really seeing, I think for the first time, Steve McQueen bringing his full self as an artist to a piece of work.

There are many qualities in the film that I responded to. The aesthetic qualities - this is shot on 16 mil. It has that really kind of grainy, vibrant feel in the cinematography and the texture of it, so it feels really alive and it transports you immediately to that time in the early '80s. That really grim, dull school architecture - it's very transporting. And that's why I tend to think of - you know, when we're talking about these films as cinema, the way he's using sound and image, it far, far exceeds what we normally see on television or what's classified as television.

It just hit me in a very emotional place. There are a number of extremely painful exchanges within the family about the shame of not being an educational level that you're mandated by society to be at, about facing up to the fact that you are - you're being oppressed and dealing with the shame and the indignity of that and actually coming around to the idea of activism and speaking out. Often in Caribbean communities - and this is a theme throughout all the films. You know, they're about activism in different ways, but often, we can keep things inside. We cannot tell each other stories. We cannot tell each other what's making us feel sad or upset. And "Education" lays it all out there. And I pretty much sobbed from the first minute to the last of it, and that's a long time to be crying.

And it just so happened that immediately after watching it, I got a screen (ph) in the morning that I was supposed to speak to Steve. And I spoke to him about it, and he acknowledged that it was a really heavy thing for him. It was initially not going to be the final installment of the series. But in watching it and going through the cut and the color grade, he realized that it was about the future. You know, it was about what we've come through, the pain that we've come through and where we really want to be and where we want our stories to go. And it's a film that is actually - despite being an emotionally, quite brutalizing experience at times, it is really full of hope. And it feels like a very, very sensible and thoughtful endpoint for this series, which is just such a historic achievement.

HARRIS: Yeah. I was also struck by this. And I think it's really interesting, this being his most personal film, and he's said as much. And the fact that when you did your profile of him, he also said, like, it took him a while to get to this point of being able to do this. And I do find it very interesting.

And to bring it back to this idea that Black American history was more widely taught than Black British history, you know, he made "12 Years A Slave" first, before he made this, and that's about American slavery. And to see him sort of come into his own and really looking at himself, I just think it's a really interesting move as a Black filmmaker because often when you think of Black filmmakers, they usually start off working primarily with Black actors, and Steve McQueen didn't do that. You know, "Hunger" starred Michael Fassbender and focused on the Irish hunger strike. And to see him kind of creep his way up to this point, I think, is just really fascinating to watch and see. And it really warms my heart to know that he finally felt comfortable telling it and not necessarily feeling pressure to do so before he himself was ready as an artist.

CLARK: I mean, to come at that, though, from a slightly different angle, what does it say about - and in fairness to Steve and to give him his full agency, he has said that he needed time to feel ready to make this. But at the same time, I'm not sure a film that is such openly critical of British institutions airing on the BBC is going to be possible by anyone other than someone who's gone through America, built a real career in Hollywood and won an Oscar.

HARRIS: Absolutely.

CLARK: He's really built up the clout...

HARRIS: Yeah.

CLARK: ...To do this. Not just any filmmaker could do this. And he's been making films for over a decade and, obviously, a Turner Prize-winning artist, a visual artist, an incredible talent, and it has taken this long.

HARRIS: Yeah.

CLARK: So it's very hard fought. In the same way that "Education" is on that line between very moving and inspiring and also extremely poignant because of what it reveals, I feel the same about the fact that it's taken this long for Steve to be able to be in a place to make this work.

HARRIS: Absolutely.

CLARK: And I really certainly hope that there's more of it in the future. I want more films about Black British life by Black British filmmakers and potentially American filmmakers and films from around the diaspora because more perspectives are welcome as long as you do your research and you do things with empathy and sensitivity. That's what I've always believed. As long as you approach your subject with a real kind of rigor and a care for what you're dealing with, I think you're good to do that. And I think that that's really been proven in the work that Steve's done thus far.

HARRIS: I do want to close with my favorite and, I think, a lot of critics' favorites, so I'm not alone in saying this at all. But "Lovers Rock," for me, was the film that really just felt like something I had never seen before. It's a movie. It's a musical. It is a just intimate one-night look at what life was like for a bunch of young Caribbean British people in the early '80s. And it was great to see a story that was, like, based around Black joy and happiness. And it's the one film out of all of them that I think deals the least explicitly with racism. There are definitely a few scenes here and there that hint at it, but they go away quickly, and then it's back to, you know, the normal things that happen.

And my favorite part about it is the way in which all of the characters are so specific. It's only about 70 minutes long. It's very short. But we are able to sense and understand each character who's introduced based on their body language, on the way they interact with each other. If you've ever been to a house party, you know all these characters. There's one character who is really upset about something and starts, like, dancing to the music, but in a really aggressive way that doesn't match anyone else. And then you see, like, a couple of the other dudes notice and then just sort of trying to chill him out without even saying anything. They just - like, one of them offers him a joint - those little moments.

And, obviously, I think one of the best moments is when the song "Silly Games" by Janet Kay is playing. And we hear it at first in an earlier scene in the film, and then it comes back at the party. And the music drops out, and everyone's just singing a cappella slightly off-key. Let's actually take a listen to that moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SMALL AXE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) I've been wanting you...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) How long (ph)?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) ...For so long. It's a shame.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Oh, it's a shame (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Oh, baby. Every time I hear your name.

HARRIS: It's just a great moment. It's not even half as potent without the visuals, but just the way in which McQueen here and throughout the entire series is using music and audio, I think, is really, really brilliant. And there are no sound cues to me that feel forced or, like, too on the nose. I just think he's really shown how great - like, in a similar way as, like, Spike Lee of, like, using music in ways that can affect you and really match the visuals and show this, like, love of Blackness and love of Black community.

There's also another moment that I want to point out where the music slows down a bit, and then it's a bunch of couples on the dance floor. And McQueen just focuses on their hands on, like, the shoulders and on the waist and on the - like, I just loved all these little, small moments. It's just so much attention to detail. Ash, what did you think of "Lovers Rock"?

CLARK: It's beautiful. I mean, it was the first film that I saw in the lockdown period at home that felt like cinema. You know, it was the opening-night film of the New York Film Festival, so turn the lights out and tried to treat it like an event. And it was really transporting for all the reasons you mentioned - the way that McQueen is using sound and image and creating tone, really loose with the camerawork by the young Antiguan cinematographer Shabier Kirchner, who does great work in all of the episodes. But it has a real feeling to it. It has a real vibe. The deep voice you hear in the singalong is Dennis Bovell, who wrote the song and who cameos in the film, which is a beautiful moment of authenticity.

But it just has this very, very thoughtful, sensual quality. It's like a "Cinderella" tale, like a fable. It's just not like anything I've seen in terms of Black British film, although it does take cues from something like "The Story Of Lovers Rock," the documentary by Menelik Shabazz. If anyone listening is interested in finding out more about the genre, the reggae genre of "Lovers Rock," which is kind of a smoother, more romantic kind of thing than roots reggae, watch that film and also films like "Burning An Illusion" by Menelik Shabazz, also from 1981.

And there's a real lineage that Steve McQueen is tapping into that really comes out in "Lovers Rock," which I think makes it really moving because of that whole engagement with history. I just think it's a beautiful piece of work. Also, my dad would kill me if I didn't mention that he was in a lovers rock band...

HARRIS: Oh.

CLARK: ...Called Natural Touch.

HARRIS: (Laughter).

CLARK: But, yeah, as I said, I couldn't do this without mentioning that.

HARRIS: Aww.

CLARK: It just felt like a part of my history that I wasn't really there for. And to see it illuminated in that way is a very beautiful thing.

HARRIS: Well, Ash, it's been a pleasure having you on.

CLARK: Thank you.

HARRIS: I definitely appreciate all these recommendations. I hope some of our listeners check it out. I plan to check some of them out because I clearly have a lot of boning up to do. So I appreciate it. Thank you so much for being here.

CLARK: It was really fun. Thank you so much.

HARRIS: And we want to know what you all think about "Small Axe." You can find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @pchh. And that brings us to the end of our show. You can also follow Ashley Clark at @_Ash_Clark. And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. We'll see you all tomorrow, when we'll be talking about the new film "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SILLY GAMES")

JANET KAY: (Singing) No, I've got no time to play your silly games.

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