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Steve McQueen on 5 Integral Moments That Connect His ‘Small Axe’ Series

When seen together, the director and co-writer's five-film set creates a resounding cumulative effect, far greater than any one entry.

Editor’s Note: This project is presented by Amazon Prime Video, and the above video is produced by IndieWire’s Creative Producer Leonardo Adrian Garcia.

Steve McQueen has launched movies at Cannes, Venice, and Telluride. He’s received rapturous reviews calling him “masterful” and declaring his work Oscar-bound (which, notably, turned out to be true). But no premiere compared to his anthology series, “Small Axe,” when it hit the BBC and Amazon Prime Video late last year.

“It’s been tremendous. In fact, it’s quite overwhelming and quite emotional, really,” McQueen said. “I never had a debut like this ever.”

As part of their rollout, the director and co-writer of all five films said he was very fortunate, at a time when many festivals were being canceled, to see “Mangrove,” “Lovers Rock,” and “Red, White, and Blue” premiere at the New York Film Festival.

“I was very happy that our film could give that much joy to people, especially in the time of the pandemic,” McQueen said. “It was extraordinary — what art can do, there are no limits with what art can actually achieve.”

“But when it was screened on TV or onto BBC, I mean, for five weeks it was like a heart attack every week,” he said. “The outpouring of emotion and, I can only [call it] love, was incredible.”

“Small Axe” marked the director’s first series release, meaning it’s the first time there’s been no barrier to his work — no ticket cost, no rental charge, no subscription fees — for the tens of millions of people in his home country. For the rest of the globe, Amazon Prime Video does require a subscription, but the unparalleled promotion and sheer reach — to 175 million subscribers — is stupendous.

“I think what happens when you’re a guest in people’s homes and they embrace you, it’s like no other,” McQueen said. “I’ve been very fortunate to debut films at various festivals [around the] world, and this was something different. It was going directly to the people that I wanted to talk to.”

Such a powerful reaction also is reciprocal. Had “Small Axe” not given viewers a resonant and revealing look at London’s West Indian culture from the 1960s through the 1980s, their response wouldn’t have been so passionate. McQueen (along with co-writers Alastair Siddons and Courttia Newland) built the anthology series to have a lasting effect on people’s understanding of history, as well as their approach to the future, and he did it through cumulative impact.

Thus is the power of television, even if some were hesitant to label “Small Axe” as such. No matter what you call it — and McQueen, over our 30-minute interview, happily referred to it as both — there’s no denying that each entry builds off the last and they all speak to each other. Their collective power is greater than any one part by itself, and McQueen (along with the full “Small Axe” team”) elicited that mighty reception through purposeful connections guiding the viewer from “Mangrove” to “Lovers Rock,” from “Red, White, and Blue” through “Alex Wheatle” and “Education.”

Below, you can read about five of these vital connections. McQueen discusses how the first film sets the stage for all the rest, why “Mangrove” and “Lovers Rock” celebrate shared cultural spaces, the added value of specific foods and shared meals for immigrants, how generations communicate with one another across the series, as well as his hopes for “Small Axe” to inspire curiosity, development, and understanding in audiences worldwide.

These five topics are but a small number of the series’ cohesive elements. McQueen also noted how thrilled he was to tell stories where Black women were “front and center,” and a full other piece could be written about the stellar music coursing through all five films. With that in mind, above you can watch a short video, narrated by McQueen, further illustrating the connections throughout “Small Axe.” Similar to the series, this article and the video work in conjunction; each should tell you a little bit more about what the series has accomplished, while steering the focus toward what really matters: the people, the history, and a better path forward.

"Mangrove," "Small Axe"

“Mangrove”

BBC

1. The Lasting Relevance of “Mangrove’s” Courtroom

As the first film in the series, “Mangrove” serves as the foundation on which “Small Axe” is built. Co-written by McQueen and Alastair Stevens, the story is inspired by true events and follows the opening of the Mangrove restaurant in 1968 — by Trinidadian community and civil rights activist Frank Crichlow — through the trial of the Mangrove Nine in 1971. McQueen’s opening entry chronicles the repeated police misconduct and abuse targeted at the Mangrove, its owners, and its patrons, after the Caribbean restaurant had become a cultural gathering place for West Indian immigrants living near Notting Hill.

After nine of these community members are wrongfully arrested, the second half of the two-hour film takes place mostly in a British courtroom, as McQueen uses measured framings to express the institutional hurdles the Mangrove Nine must overcome to obtain justice. Given the intensity of the trial itself, as well as the sheer length of time spent in the courtroom, it’s impossible not to reflect back on “Mangrove” two films later, when Leroy Logan (John Boyega) sits in a similar court of law during “Red, White, and Blue.” There, as part of his training to become a police officer, Logan hears instructions on how to give reliable testimony when he’s questioned in court.

“It’s almost like you see in front of the curtain, and you see behind the curtain,” McQueen said of the scenes in both films. “In ‘Mangrove,’ when you see Police Constable Frank Pulley [Sam Spruell] on the stand and how he speaks to the jury and the judge, there is a familiarity, there is a procedure, there is a certain kind of jovialness, if you will. And therefore we get that, at least a taste or an idea of it, when they [go through training in ‘Red, White, and Blue’].”

That connection is only emphasized when Logan answers a question from his instructor, quoting Robert Peel: “The police are the people, and the people are the police.” Logan, a Black man, is learning to become a police officer in order to reaffirm that principle. Because of what we’ve already seen in “Mangrove,” it’s clear there’s a separation between Black people and the overwhelmingly white police force — a division underlined by what Logan’s own father, Ken (Steve Toussaint), goes through at the start of the film. Annoyed by a mistaken parking citation, Ken is assaulted by the police when he questions their decision.

“There are lots of crossovers — lots of crossovers in all the series,” McQueen said. “With the father, why I wanted to do that is because [he] says, ‘I want my day in court.’ Well, he never had his day in court, did he? Having the codes of conduct of the police, the sergeant training them on how you get a conviction, cross-examining and so forth, and how you talk to the jury — it was very important to have that in the film. Because that was as close as [Ken] ever got to a courtroom, or as close as he got to justice.”

2. Safe Spaces: One Preserved, One Taken Away

If the second half of “Mangrove” lives in the courtroom, the first half lives at the restaurant. With shared food, street fairs, dance parties, and lively conversation peppered throughout, McQueen’s film quickly illustrates the vitality of a community meeting place like the Mangrove, as well as the loss felt by everyone when it’s taken away by institutional violence.

“Small Axe’s” second film introduces another one of those spaces: the blues party. “Lovers Rock” (co-written by Courttia Newland) gets swept away by the music, dancing, and romance in the air at a private celebration filled with dozens of swaying and swooning Black men and women. Their shared exuberance is deeply relatable to everyone who’s cut loose at the end of a long week, yet highly specific to the time, the culture, and the people in this room, on this night, at this party. Their spirit is only magnified by their safety; “Lovers Rock” doesn’t end with a police raid or a trial. It’s a joyful evening, carried out by the people who made it happen.

Save for one moment. Spotting her friend leaving the party from an upstairs window, Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) walks outside and heads down the street. There, she spots a group of four white men who immediately start harassing her. Martha quickly retreats to the house, leaving Jabba (Marcus Fraser), the party’s formidable bodyguard, to scare off the threatening outsiders. Spanning less than a minute, the scene is a brief but vital reminder to how rare these kind of safe spaces were for West Indian immigrants and Black people in general.

“That’s something which I experienced,” McQueen said about Martha’s encounter. “[Blues parties] were surfed and navigated by sharks and alligators from the moment [you walked in.]”

But the danger outside had already been emphasized in “Mangrove,” so a momentary reminder in “Lovers Rock” was all that was needed.

“It’s that moment of freedom, that moment of getting lost,” McQueen said. “And as soon as you exit that space, [the real world] returns. It was a very spiritual place. It’s a church, the blues, and once you step out there, things happen. And that’s how it is. That’s just how it is.”

Kenya Sandy in “Education,” the fifth film in “Small Axe”

Will Robson-Scott / Amazon Studios

3. Food as a “Home Away from Home”

“Food is very important in West Indian culture, as it is to a lot of immigrant culture,” McQueen said.

Before our interview, food was one of the main things McQueen wanted to talk about, in terms of connective tissue across all of “Small Axe.” Setting aside the subject matter, time period, and broader thematic elements that tie the films to each other, food is one of the few identifiable facets that’s present in every single entry.

“It’s like a home away from home,” McQueen said. “Food is a taste of home. And a lot of things happen on the dinner table, which for a scene, it’s great for a writer and great for a director because it’s about ritual. Within the ritual, things happen. Again, it’s like a baseline and on top of the baseline things happen. So with food, it becomes so much about your home away from home, but also pleasure [in] the conversations that are had.”

Food is served inside and outside the Mangrove restaurant. Hosts of the blues party cook and sing in the kitchen prior to the guests’ arrival. The Logan family shares multiple dinners together in “Red, White, and Blue.” Alex Wheatle is welcomed to a friend’s Christmas dinner like one of the family. And “Education” may make the most out of its meals, as illustrated in the breakfast scenes that bookend the movie.

When we’re first introduced to the Smith family, it’s in the morning, as each member passes through the kitchen without taking the time to eat together.

“It’s a disjointed family at the beginning, isn’t it?” McQueen said. “The father is standing up, not even sitting down, toasting his toast, drinking his tea. The mother’s just come in, she’s sort of preparing food for the evening. And then the [kids] are upstairs — one doesn’t even eat breakfast, the daughter runs out, and the son, Kingsley [Kenya Sandy], just a mouthful and out. It echoes instability, that everyone’s doing something else.”

But speaking to the themes of the series, as they relate to food — the feeling of home, the importance of shared rituals, the progress found in coming together — and as they relate to “Small Axe” at large — five standalone stories, united in message, purpose, and more — “Education” ends with the family sitting down, eating as one, and listening to Homer share what he’s learned.

“When they come together, it’s to eat breakfast. There’s a unity. It’s almost the solving of the narrative,” McQueen said. “Everyone’s an individual at the beginning. At the end, they become a unit.”

4. “Alex Wheatle’s” Ending Emphasizes the Impact of “Education”

While the three preceding films share nuanced connections, the ending of “Alex Wheatle” is comparatively blunt in how it introduces the final film. When Alex (Asad-Shareef Muhammed) is in prison, his cellmate Simeon (Robbie Gee) highlights the importance of knowing yourself and of knowledge in general.

“If you don’t know your past, then you won’t know your future,” Simeon says, before adding. “Education I can give you. That is the key.”

Both lines speaks to Alex’s ending — where, after growing up in a children’s home, he seeks out his family and becomes an acclaimed novelist — but they also contextualize Kingsley’s introduction in “Education.” We meet the grade schooler as he’s struggling to read, and watching that struggle (as well as the teacher’s ambivalence to it) is devastating because we’ve seen what can happen if this young boy isn’t properly supported by the school system or introduced to his history. As Kingsley is labeled “educationally subnormal” and relegated to a substandard new “school,” the rest of the movie speaks to these needs, and Alex’s mistakes hang over Kingsley’s journey, magnifying the urgency to get him out of there and back with his peers.

“What you have in the films are generations,” McQueen said. “You have the elder generations, the people who were not born, let’s say, in the U.K., but came over and basically were making their roots, like Frank Crichlow and Darcus Howe [in ‘Mangrove.’] And the second film, ‘Lovers Rock,’ is their children, really, isn’t it? Then ‘Red, White, and Blue’ is their children, too. And the last [films] are almost like the children’s children, in a way — it gets younger.”

“What ‘Mangrove’ is doing is calling out to Kingsley in ‘Education’ and saying, ‘This is what you need to do. These are the tools you need to have in order to move forward,'” he said. “So yes, it is an echo all the way through. Simeon is talking to Alex about education, but he’s talking to you and Kingsley, as well. So, there’s an echo going through all the way through the films to the youngest person in the cast, Kingsley.”

Small Axe Amazon Episode 5 Education Kenyah Sandy Brooke Haynes

Kenyah Sandy and Brooke Haynes in “Small Axe”

Will Robson-Scott / Amazon Prime Video

5. “Small Axe’s” Culminating Call to Action

Beyond its generational ties to the past, “Education” also pivots “Small Axe” into taking a more active stance toward the future.

When Mrs. Thomas (Josette Simon) goes to speak with Kingsley’s mother, Agnes (Sharlene Whyte), about the false front of his new “special education” school, she says, “When the system is designed to go against them, sometimes it doesn’t matter how hard they try. The system wants them to fail.”

Systematic failures are at the crux of “Mangrove” and “Red, White, and Blue,” if not all of “Small Axe,” and by watching those films before this final one, the audience has a far better understanding of the significance behind Mrs. Thomas’ words — they’ve seen the myriad of ways systemic racism can destroy lives.

Of course, McQueen also knew his previous four films didn’t have to provide the specific context for Mrs. Thomas’ statement because modern audiences are well aware of the systemic issues plaguing society today.

“The funny thing is, unfortunately it’s easy because one doesn’t even have to try,” McQueen said about what’s being implied in Mrs. Thomas’ words. “I mean, you are thinking about [those issues], you know about them, so [I] don’t really have to break a leg to do that because it’s so apparent.”

Still, Mrs. Thomas’ introduction also helps bring about solutions. Soon, she’s leading a meeting for parents of children labeled “educationally subnormal” and telling everyone in attendance, “We are here to solve this: Our future depends on it.” These words underline how helping educate each new generation, both about their actual history and about the challenges facing them in the present, is instrumental in overcoming oppression. Truth and honesty are critical tools against a regime built on skewing history to favor the powerful.

Finally, after Agnes pulls Kingsley out of the so-called school, he joins a Black history discussion group led by Mrs. Bartholomew (Jo Martin). There, she asks Kingsley if he knows who Claudia Jones is, before asking the gathered children what they know about their ancestors. One responds, “That we were slaves,” to which Mrs. Bartholomew says, “That’s what they want us to know. So you know nothing about the people, or the richness of cultures, or the fact that we existed long before anybody else.” Holding up a book titled, “Kings and Queens of Africa for Children,” she says, “Well, this is where we begin.”

Alternatively, today’s generations could begin with “Small Axe” — an education in its own right, as McQueen himself had hoped.

“I think as an artist, that’s what you want to do,” he said. “I’m thinking, most people who listen to this have no idea who Claudia Jones is, but will go out and find out. So yes, that’s what one is attempting to do, to keep people curious, and give them answers to certain things, and hopefully when they come away from a TV, to sort of find out themselves.”

For McQueen, the experience has already checked all those boxes and more, but as he was doing it, there were moments of doubt. Will the films turn out as planned? Will the series be seen by audiences? Will “Small Axe” connect the way it was designed to?

The reception so far has helped him realize, “you’re not wasting your time, basically,” McQueen said. “Sometimes you do think that. Sometimes you think you’re pissing in the wind.”

Now, though, six months after its release, McQueen simply appreciates being heard.

“Sometimes the ordinary can be extraordinary,” he said. “That’s all.”

“Small Axe” is available to stream in its entirety on Amazon Prime Video. The anthology series is eligible in all Limited/Anthology Series categories at the 2021 Emmy Awards.

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