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Is ‘Small Axe’ Film or TV? It Shouldn’t Matter, but Here’s When It Does

Steve McQueen's work stirs up a familiar debate, but it's one that distracts from the project's relevance and needs to be settled.

Small Axe Amazon Episode 5 Education Kenyah Sandy Brooke Haynes

Kenyah Sandy and Brooke Haynes in “Small Axe”

Will Robson-Scott / Amazon Prime Video

ConsiderThis

What we call “Small Axe” shouldn’t matter. Steve McQueen’s Amazon Prime Video anthology film TV series is yet another straight-to-streaming home viewing option at a time when virtually everything debuts at home, in a year when change is necessary for survival, and in a collective moment when we should all be a little more open to new concepts replacing preconceived ideas.

Beyond its beautiful performances and unobtrusive period aesthetic, what matters about “Small Axe” is in its rich history, piercing humanity, and timely messages. “Mangrove” speaks truth to power in order to put this group of characters, and their community, in proper context. “Lovers Rock” appreciates the thrills and excitement freedom provides, dancing through a Blues party filled with vibrating twenty-somethings. “Red, White, and Blue” investigates institutional racism in the Metropolitan Police Force, while “Alex Wheatle” reflects on life from behind bars. “Education,” the final entry set to debut Friday, December 18, examines unsanctioned segregation, societal barriers, and inherited privilege.

Even summed up so succinctly, it’s easy to see why McQueen’s stories are meant to be more than just Friday night entertainment. We should be talking about their vivid illustrations of West Indian culture, as well as the attacks suffered decades ago and how those same prejudices resurface today. But the discourse has spoken, and here we are again, fighting over how to define a piece of art — when all the art really asks is to be seen, heard, and considered.

So no, it doesn’t really matter how an average viewer labels “Small Axe” so long as they watch it. It doesn’t really matter if they tell their friends to check out these movies or to watch their new favorite show. It doesn’t really matter if “Small Axe” is widely considered film or television.

Except when it does.

Defining “Small Axe” is a cantankerous, albeit necessary ordeal when it comes to awards, mainly, but also criticism as a whole; how we talk about art does matter, and the way we’ve been talking about “Small Axe” has already revealed inherent bias against television, favoritism toward film, and an incongruent appreciation for the work itself.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with the tail that’s wagging the dog:

Awards

Awards are an increasingly massive influence on the film and television industry. Look no further than the amount of money being spent on Oscar and Emmy campaigns to see just how invested studios and distributors are in winning trophies. For streaming services in particular, awards can be a critical declaration; they’re a way of being welcomed into the entertainment industry by its most respected members, as well as a signifier of prestige for customers who expect the best movies and TV for their monthly subscription fee.

But awards mean competition, and when art is pitted against other forms of art, things get hairy. Each awards body is responsible for dictating rules and procedures that will ensure a fair competition, but controversy is inevitable. Is that film a comedy or a drama? Is that show a limited series or ongoing? Is that performer in a lead or supporting role? These delineations, in genre and purpose, are meant to keep contenders on an equal playing field, but even dividing movies and shows by genre starts to expose the bias underlying voting. (Why do comedies and dramas need to be split? Is it because they have different ambitions, or because voters value drama more than comedy?)

Small Axe John Boyega Amazon Prime Video

John Boyega in “Small Axe”

S Goodwin / Amazon Prime Video

When it comes to “Small Axe,” one thing is clear. Amazon Studios is submitting the series for Emmys, not Oscars. And until the Film Academy introduces an anthology series category, thats where “Small Axe” belongs. Each entry may function as a standalone feature film, but it would be impossible to know that voters are rewarding the one chosen film instead of the project as a whole.

Let’s say Steve McQueen was up for Best Director, but the only title next to his name was “Lovers Rock.” Would voters be able to divorce their feelings for the series overall and only consider “Lovers Rock” when voting? Or would they vote for McQueen’s overall accomplishment in “Small Axe”? There’s no way of telling, and that’s not fair to the other directors on the ballot who only made one film, not a series of films.

The same problems arise in other categories, like Best Picture and Best Screenplay, but the Emmys welcome these kind of comparisons. Maybe the other nominees in the Limited and Anthology Series categories aren’t made up of standalone stories, but they could be. “Black Mirror,” “The Twilight Zone,” even “Tales From the Loop” are all episodic anthologies; they may not take exactly the same form as “Small Axe,” but they’re closer, and they’re more equitable across multiple categories. Most importantly, they’re all bodies of work, just like “Small Axe.”

This is why you won’t hear “Small Axe” or “Red, White, and Blue” or any of McQueen’s other entries called out at the Oscars. (Writers, prep those explainers now.) But awards are not art’s great arbiter; they don’t decide what a film or TV show is for the rest of us, and they’re far from infallible. (The Oscars’ category fraud is well-documented, not to mention, you know, “Green Book,” and with all due respect to the Emmys, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” isn’t the same kind of “comedy” as “Veep” or “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” if it’s a comedy at all.)

At its core, what drives the industry fervor over awards is more exposure for the nominees and winners. In other words, what really matters is that it’s an incentive that may make people see the art.

Criticism, or How We Talk About Art

In theory, that’s the same idea that drives anyone to write about film or television with any level of conviction. They want to share it, or share what it means to them, or share what it could mean to other people. Whether you’re a professional critic or a passionate tweeter, if you love something, you want that feeling to spread.

But here again, bias creeps in. For decades and decades, film was the more respected form of visual storytelling. Movies were experiences crafted by artists, and TV was the “idiot box” that would fry your brain and ruin your eyesight. Films were to be cherished, while TV was disposable. After all, they were made that way. Film negatives could be preserved throughout time whereas TV was mostly live and not worth saving. Even the literal descriptors of each medium can feel derogatory: Who wants to see a “small screen experiment” when you can have the “big screen experience”?

Such opinions supposedly changed during the second Golden Age of Television (and that it took two such eras to induce perceptible change is telling enough on its own), when shows like “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” “The Leftovers,” “Orange Is the New Black,” “Sex and the City,” “Girls,” “Atlanta,” “The Office,” and plenty more respected, challenging, and award-winning series elevated the medium beyond the “boob tube.”

Opinions certainly changed. TV is indisputably more respected post-“Halt and Catch Fire” than before. And film did come first, so it makes sense for some of our adopted terminology to be tailored to that medium. But can TV ever really be on the same level as film when the highest compliments paid to television compare it to movies?

Filmmakers coming over to TV started selling their series as “10-hour movies” (or longer), thinking that made them more appealing to audiences. (And other creators followed suit.) Words like “cinematic” and “movie quality” started creeping into the critical lexicon as a way to hail the look of a show. Reviews praise the “seriousness” inherent to shooting on actual film, or congratulate TV stars for “making the leap” to movies. It’s even considered complimentary to call TV creators, producers, and writers who work exclusively on television “filmmakers,” rather than designate a new term or just be specific. (“Showrunners” have yet to be given the auteur status of “directors.”)

Film bias, film privilege, whatever you want to call it, it’s still hanging around and it’s quite prevalent. Typically, intentions are innocent enough. When someone sees a piece of art that a) they love, and b) goes beyond the traditional earmarks of its medium, they want to find a way to convey the accomplishment. So they exaggerate. This happens all the time, in both mediums, and with critics and non-critics alike. “Jodie Comer is so good in ‘Killing Eve,’ she deserves an Oscar!” “It’s not TV, it’s HBO.” “It’s not a movie, it’s a movement.” Even video games and music videos are hailed as “cinematic achievements” when they’re, you know, good enough.

So if that TV show you just saw is really good, and really different, what do you do? Call it a movie.

Small Axe Amazon Episode 2 Lovers Rock

“Small Axe”

Parisa Taghizedeh / Amazon Prime Video

It Matters Because It Matters

Never has this attitude been clearer than in 2017 when “Twin Peaks” returned and blew people’s minds. Despite relying on a repeated episodic structure, airing new entries on Showtime every week, and being an 18-hour successor to the first two seasons of “Twin Peaks,” David Lynch claimed his “Return” was actually one long movie. This gave cinephiles all the ammunition they needed to claim “Twin Peaks” as their own, and soon Cahiers du Cinéma and Sight & Sound, two of the most prestigious film publications out there, listed “Twin Peaks: The Return” in their lists of the year’s best films (at No. 1 and No. 2, respectively). Film Twitter exploded, TV Twitter tried to counter, the voices that bridge both parties bartered for peace, and the whole debate remains either a funny joke or a point of contention, depending on who you talked to (or read) about it.

But what happened with “Twin Peaks: The Return” is what often happens every time the lines between film and television are blurred, just at a heightened level. People want to appreciate their favorite works of art, and they’re better able to appreciate them when they know how to talk about each one. This, really, is why labels matter. We have to be able to talk about movies and TV shows, and typically that conversation starts by answering a simple question: What is it?

With “Twin Peaks,” there was a hunger to understand David Lynch’s wild dreamscape that butted heads with an artist who doesn’t want to be understood. So people called it this and that, a limited series and a third season, a TV show and, unbelievably, a film. By fighting over what it was, the discourse did a disservice to people actually engaging with the series and trusting their own reactions. At times, it felt like the show’s biggest fans wanted to build a wall around it, rather than expand the community.

Also, as a little tip to the whole “the artist gets to define their creation” debate: Maybe if the artist hates definitions and defies convention on purpose, don’t take his word as gospel when it comes to categorization. He’s probably fucking with you. Plus, we’ve come up with a pretty good means to talk about art over the millennia, so once the dust settled and the screaming ceased, we could collectively agree, yes, “Twin Peaks” is a TV show.

“Small Axe” has spurred a similar response, and its bewildering release — premiering at the New York Film Festival, labeled as “five films” but grouped together as an episodic series — invited those who saw it first to decide what it is and how to talk about it. (Also influential are McQueen’s previous comments about television, both in what “Small Axe” is called and how film privilege spreads, but let’s set his subjective viewpoint aside.) Most publications assigned film critics to review each entry as if they were standalone films — writing five individual reviews instead of one collective analysis — but most critics still brought up similarities in themes, content, and style with each successive viewing.

Seen in order, “Mangrove” speaks truth to power as a way to introduce London’s West Indian community as well as the discrimination they faced daily. The trial of the Mangrove Nine illustrates what they’re fighting for and what they’re fighting against, clear as day, which, in turn, makes “Lovers Rock” all the more joyous. Its central setting, the Blues party, acts as a safe space for the Black youth who dance and sing the night away; it’s what the Mangrove restaurant tried to be, before the police laid siege to it, and the party also has a racist threat lurking outside. “Red, White, and Blue” and “Alex Wheatle” work hand-in-hand as true stories about men trying to find their place in the world, as well as examinations of institutional racism taken from each side of a jail cell. “Education” asks us to reflect on what we’ve learned, and turn those thoughts into action.

These thematic connections are significant. They enhance our experience of the anthology overall, and McQueen, along with co-writers Courttia Newland and Alastair Siddons, very purposefully include them in each entry. Even if you consider them films, they’re clearly working together to form a more complete picture of the U.K.’s Windrush generation. The individual components of “Small Axe” aren’t just meant to be seen together (remember: artist intent isn’t the key here), they’re better when seen with the context provided by the rest.

Hmm — why does that sound so familiar?

In addition to the striking visuals, the quality of Golden Age TV got tied up in how effectively shows could tell a continuous story over multiple seasons. Technology allowed viewers to keep up and watch at their own pace, and TV creators responded by crafting intricate, rewarding, long-term arcs. “Prestige TV” became synonymous with serialized storytelling.

But TV is not serialized. TV is ongoing. The difference may seem negligible, but it’s not. Serialized narratives continue the same story. Ongoing narratives continue the same premise. It’s the difference between getting a seventh season of “The Sopranos” and a 33rd of “The Simpsons.” One led up to a sudden, definitive ending. One may never end at all.

But they’re both television, and so is “Small Axe.” The story McQueen is trying to tell is one of a people, a movement, and a cause. His accomplishment isn’t in making five movies in one year — aka one hour less than the bare minimum of most limited series — it’s in making one piercing, edifying, and momentous anthology. The episodes are battles in a war, or battle axes, striking blows the audience needs to feel in different parts of their body. And their resonance is stronger together than apart.

If you want to say “Small Axe” blurs the line between film and television, go ahead. I disagree, given how long television has grouped distinct stories into seasons, anthologies, and more, but so long as you’re building a bridge, rather than walls, go nuts. No matter what you believe in the film/TV/other debate, just remember to check your privilege. For too long, we’ve seen one as better, and — among so many more important topics — the conversation around “Small Axe” can help smash that prejudice into oblivion.

“Small Axe” is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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