NYFF58: “Small Axe” takes racism to the grindstone

Small Axe (Amazon Prime Video)

Steve McQueen’s new anthology series is an impassioned, insightful look at anti-Black discrimination in 20th-century London.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 58th New York Film Festival.)

     If you are a big tree, we are the small axe / Sharpened to cut you down

Bob Marley, as adapted from a Jamaican proverb

It’s not an easy time for indie movies, nor a nice moment for film festivals. Most theaters are closed, and those that are open can’t guarantee safety for the large crowds they aren’t drawing. If new releases skip theaters and opt for VOD, they face steep competition in the streaming space. Film festivals have gone (mostly) virtual too, leaving many smaller movies facing an uncertain path forward: Even if they’re great, how will they build the buzz to actually reach an audience?

Then again, Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology isn’t an indie movie. It’s a headache for those with a staunch line between “film” and “television.” Amazon plans to release one “episode” weekly, starting in November; the series tells the stories of five Black Londoners, set from the late-’60s to the mid-’80s. There are no explicit crossovers between the Axes—at least, not in the three installments made available to critics. Instead, McQueen uses the anthology format to interrogate his themes from a variety of perspectives in Small Axe, as ideas and characters echo and enrich each other.

It’s a thoughtful and ambitious approach, one that helps McQueen and his co-writers balance the personal with the political. Lovers Rock—New York Film Festival’s opening night selection but the second episode in Amazon’s pipeline—focuses as much as it can on the former. Set in a smoky, absolutely vibrant house party, McQueen’s camera glides through the rooms of young, Afro-Caribbean Londoners just having a good time.

It’s a real departure from McQueen’s last outing, the tense, ever-underappreciated thriller Widows. Here, his virtuoso camera moves are attached to a rug being put in place, instead of a getaway van; rather than relying on tight plotting, McQueen lets his lush soundtrack and rich atmosphere propel proceedings. Not that Lovers Rock lacks a narrative, as Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) arrives at the party with her friend Patty (Shaniqua Okwok), and quickly notices a handsome stranger, Franklyn (Michael Ward).

Over a brief 68 minutes, our heroine mingles and dances. Martha does her best to avoid a creep and flirts with leaving early. As house parties are a thing of the past (one of the few places even less safe than movie theaters), you can’t help but appreciate the formerly-familiar setting (though Lovers Rock would impress in the before-times too). It’s simply delightful. Danger’s not absent entirely, whether it’s the racist assholes down the block or the stray sound of a police siren. Thankfully, nobody actually breaks up the fun. Cliché as it is to say, these characters are allowed to just vibe. You will too.

If Lovers Rock shows the beauty and joy of Black spaces, Mangrove stages a tooth-and-nail fight for their existence. Set in the early seventies, we visit The Mangrove, a proudly Black-owned, West Indian restaurant in Notting Hill. The baby of Frank (Shaun Parkes), this new local business quickly becomes a vital communal space for Black folks. Perhaps that’s why it’s constantly raided by the police, despite being a drug-free, completely clean establishment.

The racism and police brutality seen here are frankly brutal. Quiet, laid-back scenes are interrupted at every turn by cops searching for wrongdoing they never find. Despite his staunch individualism, Frank is eventually convinced by local Black Panthers Altheia (Letitia Wright) and Darcus (Malachi Kirby) to take part in a local demonstration against the pigs. Spoilers, but wouldn’t you know it, those same pigs turn their peaceful protest violent.

Most of Mangrove takes place about a year later after Frank, Altheia, Darcus, and others are charged with inciting a riot. Members of the group choose to represent themselves in the stuffy, oh-so-British courtroom, arguing their case against an oh-so-stuffy “upper-crust” judge (Alex Jennings). Playing in the legal thriller genre, McQueen mines crowd-pleasing drama while preaching systemic change. He’s not wrong.

As in Lovers Rock, the performances all impress. Wright and Kirby bring their respective activists to life with righteous, convincing energy, but it’s Shaun Parkes as Frank who really carries the picture. His frustration with his circumstances always comes off sympathetic. He’s not all anger, but a combination of exasperated and exhausted, out of options and with everything to lose. Parkes carefully conveys every aspect of Frank’s stress as his business, and eventually, his freedom, face attack after attack.

Still, I struggled a bit with Mangrove. Though based on a true story, the film ends on a note of optimism that doesn’t feel in-line with the world it has shown. McQueen’s treatment of the crooked cops also lacks some necessary nuance: The racism of Police Constable Pulley (Sam Spruell) is so obvious that it can come off as not a reasonable representation of the discrimination people of color actually face from law enforcement.

For the system to change, one must grasp why it’s so broken in the first place, which means genuinely engaging, instead of watering down cops to caricature. At times, Pulley’s actions lack coherent psychology behind them, which hurts both the film and its social commentary. On the other hand, perhaps Frank and the rest of the “Mangrove Nine” only receive any semblance of justice because Pulley’s racism is so blatant. The system then—hell, the system now—would have sided with the arresting officers had there been any shades of grey. All this to say: Though Amazon’s releasing Mangrove first, I’d recommend starting with Lovers Rock.

I think McQueen saved his best for last. If Mangrove’s treatment of police lacks nuance, the fifth and final installment of Small Axe, Red, Blue and White, goes hard in the opposite direction. Again based on a true story, Leroy Logan (John Boyega) applies to the police force soon after his father is assaulted by two cops.

Small Axe

Why? “I just feel like someone’s got to be the bridge.” McQueen and co-writer Courttia Newland (who also worked on Lovers Rock) play straight Leroy’s sincere desire to repair the rift between London’s cops and its Black and Brown community. Though Logan has a Ph.D. and a promising career as a research scientist in front of him, he yearns for a profession that’s more active. Instead of being stuck behind a desk, he wants to be out in the world, part of the solution, helping people. What could go wrong?

Of course, his father, Kenneth (Steve Toussaint), doesn’t approve. Can you blame him? Like Frank, Kenneth’s another patriarch who wants his day in court, though he’s far stricter (in one exchange, it’s made clear that Leroy and his sister wouldn’t have been allowed to attend parties like the one in Lovers Rock). Red, White and Blue finds much of its emotional weight in this father-son relationship. The personal is always political, but Logan’s very political decision threatens to destroy his close personal relationships. When Logan tells his friend Lee he plans to join the force, Lee responds, “I thought you were cool.”

If the prior installments of Small Axe shine a spotlight on Black spaces existing under white supremacy, this last chapter finds Logan attempting to assimilate into white space, to mend from within. I couldn’t help but think of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman as a parallel biopic of a Black man joining the police. But where Lee’s film never settled on an answer between reform and radical change, Red, White and Blue ends this collection of stories on a thoughtful, decisive decision.

Red, White and Blue ends this collection of stories on a thoughtful, decisive decision.

This final note—and so much of Red, White and Blue—succeeds thanks to Boyega’s performance. He’s playing a person determined to join an institution that hasn’t just hurt people who look like him, but has literally just put his dad in the hospital. Yet Boyega sells Logan’s stubborn optimism and genuine belief in his own ability to make a change. But as the micro-aggressions, passed over promotions, and downright racism from his fellow officers continue, you also believe it when Leroy’s faith starts to shake. We know things won’t work out for Logan as soon as he walks into the training facility—Boyega makes us think they might, and that we should care in the first place.

If the world off-screen weren’t in such a sorry state, would McQueen’s streaming anthology have occupied such a centerpiece at the New York Film Festival? It certainly deserves it, just as all three of these works deserve your time when they release later this year. Original intent or not, each of McQueen’s episodes speaks directly to the present as 2020 has run its horrible course.

It’ll also be interesting to see how the filmmakers approach questions of space in the other two installments, Education and Alex Wheatle. McQueen’s using the anthology format to handle his complex subject matter with a corresponding level of complexity, and until the final moments of Red, White and Blue, he avoids any overarching thesis’ on progress. His characters and stories are given room to breathe. Small Axe won’t save the world. No work of art will. But each of McQueen’s entries are, themselves, a strike at the big tree.

Small Axe premieres on Amazon Prime Video on Friday, November 20.

Small Axe Trailer:

Jonah Koslofsky
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