Steve McQueen has been working on his anthology television series “Small Axe” for quite some time (a first look at the ambitious project dropped in September 2019), but new information about the project has emerged in the wake of two installments being included in the Cannes 2020 official selection. The BBC confirms McQueen has conceived each episode of “Small Axe” as its own feature film. The two entries that were selected for Cannes are “Lovers Rock” (a runtime of 1 hour and 8 minutes) and “Mangrove (a runtime of 2 hours and four minutes). The remaining three films are titled “Alex Wheatle,” “Education,” and “Red, White and Blue.”
According to the BBC’s official synopsis, the five films of “Small Axe” tell “personal stories about London’s West Indian community from the late-1960’s to mid-1980’s. The title is derived from an African proverb, which has resonance throughout the Caribbean, ‘if you are the big tree, we are the small axe.’ This was made popular by Bob Marley and the Wailers with the song ‘Small Axe’ from the 1973 album ‘Burnin.'”
“Small Axe” is McQueen’s first directorial effort since “Widows” and would have marked his return to the Cannes Film Festival after he premiered his feature debut “Hunger” at the 2008 event and won the Camera d’Or. McQueen’s “Shame” world premiered at the Venice Film Festival, while his Oscar-winning Best Picture “12 Years a Slave” launched at Telluride. McQueen said in a statement that his new project is dedicated to the memory of George Floyd, who’s death at the hand of a white police officer has sparked Black Lives Matter protests across the world.
“I dedicate these films to George Floyd and all the other black people that have been murdered, seen or unseen, because of who they are, in the US, UK and elsewhere,” McQueen said. “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe. Black Lives Matter.”
“Lovers Rock” stars newcomer Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn opposite BAFTA Rising Star winner Micheal Ward in “a fictional story of young love and music at a blues party in the early 1980s.” The supporting cast includes Shaniqua Okwok, Kedar Williams-Stirling, Ellis George, Alexander James-Blake, Kadeem Ramsay, Francis Lovehall, and Daniel Francis-Swaby. McQueen co-wrote the film with Courttia Newland.
“Mangrove” tells “the true story of the Mangrove 9 and the trial that took place at the Old Bailey in 1970.” The cast includes “Black Panther” favorite Letitia Wright opposite Shaun Parkes, Malachi Kirby, Jack Lowden, and more. McQueen co-wrote this film with Alastair Siddons.
That McQueen would realize his anthology television series as individual feature films isn’t too surprising considering how much the Oscar winner railed against TV in a 2018 interview with IndieWire’s Ben Travers. “TV had its moment,” the filmmaker said at the time. “It’s fodder now, isn’t it? There was a moment in the ’90s or early 2000s when it was amazing. And now it’s just, ‘Get stuff done. We need stuff.’ I don’t know what’s happening now, but obviously the quality has gone down a little bit. There’s more of it, but less quality.”
McQueen directed and co-wrote every film included in “Small Axe.” The films will have their world premieres on BBC One and BBC iPlayer in the United Kingdom later this year. The movies will debut in the U.S. on Amazon Prime as part of McQueen’s new deal with the streamer, but a date has not been announced.