Small Axe represents a major development in UK film and TV, or ‘filmed entertainment’ as it might usefully be termed, both as a production and as a major contribution to UK film culture. The five separate film narratives created by a team led by Steve McQueen comprise over 400 minutes of stories about London’s West Indian community set in the period 1968 to 1982. I’ve used terms here very carefully and I hope precisely. The reasons will become clear as I investigate all five distinct narratives. Steve McQueen, a Turner Prize and Oscar winner, celebrated as both an international artist and filmmaker, has managed to do something without precedent. Some of the Small Axe films have screened in cinemas in both the UK and US and all have been well broadcast in a prime BBC1 drama slot and streamed (via co-production partner Amazon) in the the US. The only other UK filmmaker who has directed a similar major production was Ken Loach with Days of Hope (UK 1975) but that was a different era when ‘TV films/plays’ did not receive a cinema release, overseas sales were constrained by distribution deals and video distribution of any kind was unknown. Small Axe was broadcast in the UK between 15 November and 13 December 2020 at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic meant audiences were seeking a wider range of choice on TV and streaming services. It is set to be available on BBC iPlayer in the UK for 11 months (i.e. to mid-November 2021). Whether this availability will mean that the ‘anthology’ as it is being called in the UK will eventually accrue large audiences will be an interesting question to ask later this year. (Accessing viewing figures for broadcast plus streaming is very difficult at the moment.)
I have seen all but one of Steve McQueen’s feature films and a couple of his art exhibitions and I have a great deal of admiration and respect for his work. That carries through to Small Axe, all five of the films generating a very strong engagement. I will deal with each film separately over the next few weeks but here I just want to make some general points. The five films are each in some way ‘personal’ stories for McQueen who had a significant role in writing each film alongside his collaborators Courttia Newland (on two films) and Alastair Siddons (on three titles). Steve McQueen was born in 1969 and so he was a child for most of the period covered by the anthology, but he knew members of his family and others in the West Indian community who could provide direct experiences. His parents were from Trinidad and Grenada. He was attempting to make films about ‘recent history’ – an issue not just for himself but for most of his leading actors. Does this make the films ‘period drama’? Is there a difference about making films today that are set in the 1970s compared to those set in the 1920s or 1870s, the more common settings for UK period drama or ‘costume pictures’? As a viewer I did find that sometimes it was odd to be reminded in slightly different ways of the London of that period when I was a student and later a teacher in the city. (I am not finding fault with the production, simply noting that the mentions of names and incidents mean more to me than names and incidents from earlier periods.) However, this does lead me to what is a significant issue.
In the extensive promotion of the anthology, Steve McQueen re-iterates that he feels it is crucial to tell these stories because they haven’t been told before or haven’t been told by Black filmmakers. The stories are important and everyone needs to have access to their own stories in order to build a sense of identity. Here he is in Sight & Sound December 2020:
For me, these films should have been made 35 years ago, 25 years ago, but they weren’t and I suppose in my mad head, I wanted to make as many films as I could to fix that. (Interview with David Olusoga, p26)
I’m sure that McQueen knows that young Black filmmakers were making films about their experiences during the 1980s and that the Trinidadian Horace Ové had finally been able to get his film Pressure into distribution in 1975. The Black franchise workshops in London such as Black Audio and Film Collective, Sankofa and Ceddo made films for screening on Channel 4 and in various ‘non-theatrical’ venues. The workshops produced major film artists such as John Akomfrah and Isaac Julien. There were also Black filmmakers outside London such as Ngozi Onwurah in Newcastle as well as others across the North of England, the West Midlands and elsewhere. I understand why McQueen made the statement in 2020 as part of promoting his undeniably important work, but it’s ironic that he doesn’t acknowledge the struggles and achievements of the earlier filmmakers who weren’t able to work within the same infrastructure of film and TV commissioning and film distribution that he has utilised. McQueen’s Small Axe films, especially Mangrove, present strong arguments for Black communities to work together in solidarity.
The other issue about Small Axe that might prove controversial in an entirely different way is the distinction between ‘film’ and ‘television’. That might seem an archaic distinction but it is a different form of distinction in different territories. In the US, Small Axe premièred with two of the films being shown at festivals and considered as cinema films. In the UK, where the distinction ‘TV’ and ‘cinema’ works differently, there were other screenings at the London Film Festival and Sight & Sound has seemingly treated the anthology episodes as ‘films’. The five films adopt different aspect ratios and different film stock/digital formats. as the trailer below demonstrates. In the UK, TV studies scholars are more likely to treat the anthology as TV drama. It’s worth pointing out that there is also a history of Black TV drama in the UK to which Small Axe now becomes a major contribution.
The title Small Axe derives from the title of the Wailers’ track from their 1973 album Burnin’, written by Bob Marley for a Jamaican single first released in 1970. It thrillingly suggests that:
“If you are the big tree
We are the small axe
Sharpened to cut you down”
The five films include many music extracts. Spotify lists 69 titles. Look out for posts on individual films in the next few days.