Artist-turned-filmmaker Steve McQueen has already established his credentials in cinema, with such dynamic, personal dramas as Hunger, Shame, 12 Years a Slave and Widows. Yet, he’s never made anything like Small Axe – an anthology liable to see him elevated into the upper echelons of moviemakers. Backed by the BBC, this five-part series of films has arrived with impeccable timing in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests.
Already shown is Mangrove, which also opened the London Film Festival and dealt with relentless police harassment and the infamous case of the ‘Mangrove Nine’, a group of black activists famously tried in court in West London in the 1970s. The next episode, Lovers Rock, is due this Sunday, and feels like a much-needed palette-cleanser after the heavyweight horrors of Mangrove.
Set in the early 1980s across one Saturday night, it begins as young Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) sneaks out of her parents’ home to head to a house party, where some serious reggae is about to be played. There she meets a young man – played by Micheal Ward, of Blue Story – and they drink, dance and flirt across the evening, as McQueen’s camera hangs back and observes.
McQueen dedicates the film to all “lovers and rockers” out there, although you always sense that trouble is never far away – a feeling that the director cleverly slides into the backdrop. After Lovers Rock, the Small Axe anthology continues with true story Red, White and Blue, starring John Boyega as Leroy Logan, a former research scientist who abandoned his career to become a police officer and face the entrenched racism in law enforcement at the time.
This will be followed by Alex Whettle, the story of the eponymous writer (played by newcomer Sheyi Cole) who rose through the care system and even a spell in prison after the 1981 Brixton uprising. The fifth and final film, Education, begins as 12 year-old Kingsley (Kenyah Sandy) is sent to a special needs school after being disruptive in class. Dealing with the system that denied so many black children of the time their right to education, it looks set to round off this unique anthology with the same power with which it began.
Small Axe is on BBC1 on Sunday nights and available on BBC iPlayer. For more details, click here.