Small Axe: A Perfect Quintet

Dec 26, 2020
BBC poster for Mangrove
If you are the big tree, we are the small axe.
One of my regrets, now I’m in the second half of my (first) century, is giving up studying history as fast as I could. Having found it dry, dull and lacking in any story which felt relevant to me, I swept away the option of taking it at O level with barely a second thought, and have been plagued by secret shame at my lack of knowledge of the basics of the backstory of where I live (being able to name all of Henry VIII’s wives doesn’t cut it, really). It’s always of interest to me then when history, especially the less-told stories, comes right to me, demanding my attention, and so it is with Steve McQueen’s Small Axe quintalogy. Like a series of exquisite miniatures,each Small Axe offering is both tiny (most running not much more than an hour) and phenomenally detailed. McQueen invites us to look at something we might have thought we knew - the riots in the UK’s inner cities in the eighties, a house party, a kid sent to a special school - and then, like a fractal unfolding, to see the details inside that, and the details inside that, and the details inside that…

Several themes run through the series, some overt and overarching, such as the crushing systemic racism which confronted Black communities in Britain in the decades following the arrival of the Windrush, and some more subtle. The power of education, of family support, and community support - all of these are twined into the tales McQueen and writers Alistair Siddons and Courttia Newland have brought to life.

Community is the key to the first of the series: the subject matter for Mangrove is the 1971 trial (and trials) of the Mangrove Nine, a group of Black residents of Notting Hill driven to the end of their tether by persecution from the (almost entirely white) local police force. Frank Crichlow (played by Shaun Parkes with tightly contained ferocity) has moved away from running a gambling joint and has started a new venture, the much-needed Mangrove restaurant, which swiftly becomes a hub of the community - and a target for the near obsessive hatred of the local boys in blue. When the Mangrove is raided repeatedly, the residents take action, marching on the local police station, following which things take a violent turn and the Nine are arrested. At this point the story jumps ahead to a stage after an initial trial for incitement to riot was thrown out of court, and focuses on a second trial after the charges were reinstated.

McQueen makes interesting use of gaps in time in several of these movies: frequently skipping over what might have been laboured in less skilled hands, and instead focusing on what he wants us to look at more carefully: we see the tensions among the defendants - Darcus Howe (played with utter commitment and passion by Malachi Kirby) and his partner Barbara Beese (Rochenda Sandall) agonise over whether to press ahead with a case they know is right when it might mean their baby son losing both parents to prison; Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright), by then leader of the British Black Panthers, is utterly committed to the cause and refuses to back down, but Crichlow sees the cause as fruitless, and that it will only bring more hatred. A scene where Howe and Crichlow are forcibly taken down from the courtroom and thrown into cells is particularly affecting, demonstrating the complete vulnerability of Black defendants in a white system.

Although Wright is the headline name here, with a Hollywood background, this is truly an ensemble piece, with McQueen extorting once in a lifetime performances from his beautifully curated cast. 

Lovers Rock

The community theme runs into Lovers Rock too, but this time it’s the community created by a musical bubble, a reggae house party in the eighties, where two young people meet and fall in love inside a tiny cosmos of music and dance and shared experience. Having been a teenager in the eighties, the nostalgia in this piece raised my heart rate over and over, from the ridiculous eighties hair (mine being dead straight, I could never get it to do anything remotely fashionable at the time - perhaps I should be glad of the relative lack of photographic evidence from the era), to the wire stripping skills required by any DJ worth their salt, to the division by gender: boys on one side, girls on the other, like predator and prey, to the discussion of which shoes to wear - the gorgeous ones which will be agony while dancing or the practical ones? (The answer is, of course, the gorgeous ones: if you’re really into the music, you won’t notice your feet after about 11:30pm). 

And the music… this year has been tough in so many ways, and I’m reflecting as we head towards 2021 on some of the things I’ve learned to value more highly since missing them for so long. The ability to lose yourself in loud music, to find yourself on a crowded floor, singing your heart out with a room full of friends and strangers, united by the lyrics - McQueen captures this perfectly and it nearly broke my old heart.

The story, on the surface, is almost nothing: watched in a shallow way, it's almost a documentary, but look deeper, and it's almost like a film version of an artist's sketchbook, with each page having a deeply detailed study of a character in the kind of close up that would make them blush to realise existed. McQueen makes sure that we realise that the house, the party, is a safe zone (as long as the girls stick together and fend off predators who also lurk inside) - the momentary appearance of a group of white yobs down the road serves to highlight that this is a delicate bubble: reading later about the New Cross house fire laid bare for me the fragility of the happiness this group of young people had built for themselves.

Sheyi Cole as Alex Wheatle

The New Cross fire opens the story of the fourth in the series, Alex Wheatle, a biopic, of sorts, of the novelist, told mostly in flashback. Wheatle was jailed in 1981 for his part in the Brixton riots, which were catalysed by the fire and the subsequent failings of the system to properly investigate, and accusations that endemic racist bias had all but halted efforts towards finding a culprit. The film describes two stages at which his life was turned around: in the ‘present’ as he languishes in prison, when his rastafari (and gastrically challenged) cellmate introduces him to Black literature, setting him on his path to a writing career, and, arguably more importantly, his arrival as a 16 year old in London and his reattachment to his roots through the discovery of music.

Again, music stands tall in this film as a metaphysical community, tethering Wheatle (Sheyi Cole) to a place where he finally feels he belongs after years in the ‘care’ system. Stuck in my mind is the phrase the adult Wheatle reads in his records, from the children’s home in which he was repeatedly bullied, punished and discarded: “because of his sullen indifference, house mother says she finds it difficult not to pick on him.”

John Boyega as Leroy Logan

The excusing away of racist, bullying behaviour opens Red, White And Blue, the central movie of the series. Leroy Logan (John Boyega), styled as a naive, nerdy, eager-to-please schoolchild, is stopped by the police as he leaves the school gates, with a clearly ridiculous demand that they search his music case. This sets the scene for the movie perfectly: Leroy’s father (a tour de force performance from Steve Toussaint) steps in and shoos the officers away, tightly contained ferocity lighting up his eyes. The scene is set: Logan Sr has clearly struggled with police attitudes previously and McQueen unfurls the tiny detail of the suppressed fury that drives him, conflicting with his urgent need for the family to fit in, to be accepted.

The shot framing in this movie is exceptional: McQueen points the camera at a section of wallpaper, heavily patterned in browns and oranges - it’s nothing and something at the same time, giving us the essence of the home Leroy grows up in. A Scrabble game viewed at board level, wordlessly describing the mortification ensuing from a high scoring but racy choice of tiles. An innocent-seeming scene of Leroy’s father at a burger van suddenly turns menacing, as a police car, out of focus, rolls silently into the background, like a shark fin sliding into a swimming zone full of happy children. And for me, the most perfect shot of the whole series: adult Leroy is at the end of his patience - he has joined the police force against his father’s wishes, lost his friends, stretched his family’s tolerance to breaking point, all in service of his passionate desire to change the system from the inside, only to be thwarted, ignored, sabotaged and betrayed at every turn. He is at a turning point: does he give in and quit or does he stick at it - here McQueen plays his time-tinkering to perfection: Logan leans quietly on a table in a locker room, his face reflected across the shiny surfaces - does he move forward? Or turn back?

Kenyah Sandy as Kingsley Smith

From Mangrove, it’s Darcus Howe’s impassioned summing up that stays with me; from Lovers Rock, the whole house singing one song, long after the music is turned off. From Red, White and Blue, it’s that single shot, and from Alex Wheatle, the repellent, damning words of someone who should have protected and cared for him. But with Education, the last of the five, it’s the whole movie which jangles my sensibilities down to the core. As a teacher, and someone with erstwhile responsibility for kids with special needs, and as a mother, there’s so much in this film which digs into my sense of shame at how we deal with students who are seen as not fitting in.

Whilst not an autobiographical story, McQueen has said that he has much in common with fictional protagonist Kingsley Smith (Kenyah Sandy), bullied and vilified at school due to his inability to read and with no access to support to allow him to reach his evident potential, his dreams of being an astronaut so happily asserted at the start are gradually eroded away by exactly those people who should have been inspiring him to succeed.

The film highlights the scandal of the removal of children from mainstream schools and their placement in ‘special schools’, officially called ‘schools for the educationally subnormal’ but effectively a dumping ground for those who presented too much challenge for mainstream schooling. The sense that ‘if these bad influences were removed, it would make it better for everyone’ still pervades in our system today, and still disproportionately affects Black children.

The cast of this final instalment, as throughout, is superb, and although Sharlene Whyte portrays Kingsley’s mother - a powerhouse for her family, whose drive to do her best for her kids is twisted into something for which she would struggle to forgive herself - with enormous sensitivity and strength, it’s the young actors who really must take the plaudits here. Jairaj Varsani and Ryan Masher as Kingsley’s rascally school friends, Tamara Lawrance as his sister, the bridge between him and the adults in his life, but Kenyah Sandy, at just 12 years old, delivers a performance so credible, so subtle, it’s easy to be totally lost in the story.

McQueen’s choice of series title references the proverb: "If you are the big tree, we are the small axe", the perfect metaphor for these five stories, each telling of a step forward in the history of Black Britain.
 
It’s the history I need, and the history I want to study.

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