Tagged: Black British film

Small AxeEducation (UK 2020)

Kingsley (Kenyah Sandy) is not happy at school

This is the fifth and final film in Steve McQueen’s anthology and the most personal. He has spoken about his own experience in his secondary school in Ealing and how he felt he was wrongly placed in a class for underachieving students. This has been a problem for many Black students. The school he attended, a former grammar school which became a comprehensive and is now one of those schools celebrated for its results, had a headteacher who admitted in the 2000s that it had been ‘institutionally racist’. Still dealing with the historical period when McQueen might have been a very young boy (he was born in in 1969), the script (co-written by McQueen and Alastair Siddons) for Education focuses on 12 year-old Kingsley Smith. The film opens with Kingsley enjoying a trip to a planetarium. (Is this meant to be the planetarium next to Madame Tussauds on Baker Street?) Whether he is actually on a visit from school or whether he is dreaming is not clear but Kingsley is a bright lad who is interested in space exploration.

Kingsley on his first day at the ‘special school’

When we get to see Kingsley in the classroom we can see that he isn’t engaged. In what follows, there are two important narrative developments. The first is that there is a growing trend in which Black children are increasingly being taken out of mainstream schooling and sent to ESN schools. ‘ESN’ means ‘Educationally Sub-normal’, a term disguised at the time by the euphemism ‘Special School’. The term isn’t used today but Black children are still disproportionately ‘excluded’ from schools and sent to ‘referral units’. McQueen uses the controversy generated by the publication in 1971 of a booklet written by the Grenadian Bernard Coard entitled ‘How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System: The Scandal of the Black Child in Schools in Britain’ and based on his experience teaching in the UK. McQueen presents the campaign by the West Indian community in London to expose the procedure and to provide ‘supplementary education’ classes in the form of Saturday schools for West Indian children. Education had been highly prized in the West Indies and there were many experienced educationalists in the community in London. Again McQueen draws on his own family memories and presents us with a Saturday school set up by a Grenadian mother that Kingsley attends along with his older sister. Fully engaged, his passion for rocketry re-emerges.

Kingsley, happy at home when his problems are understood

Several reviewers comment on how Education resembles a television play. It runs for just 63 minutes and McQueen and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner opted for a format that recreates the look of the TV plays of the 1970s. Education was shot on Super 16mm film, which was then processed to produce a 1:1.66 aspect ratio – not quite the 4:3 of standard television in the 1970s but squarer than the modern TV ratio of 16:9. The casting means that there are some familiar faces in smaller roles including Josette Simon (a well-known actor on UK TV) as Lydia the woman who leads the campaign against the ESN schools and, as an older man who never learned to read, Trevor Laird, whose roles go right back to the films Quadrophenia (1979) and Babylon (1980) – one of the seminal Black British films, even if directed by the Italian Franco Rosso. The Scottish actor Kate Dickie plays one of the teachers at the ESN school. At least one critic refers to the BBC’s Play for Today and the work of the director Alan Clarke as models for McQueen’s film. I’m more inclined to think of an ITV drama ‘series’, the four film/plays written by David Leland and collectively titled Tales Out of School (UK 1982-3). The last of these was R.H.I.N.O (Really Her in Name Only) which dealt with a Black teenage girl who regularly truanted by turning up for registration and then disappearing from school – a form of self-imposed ‘exclusion’.

Hazel (Naomi Ackie) the psychologist finds Kingsley

What struck me most forcibly about Education was the depiction of Kingsley’s mother played by Sharlene Whyte. She is the epitome of the West Indian mother of the period, working as a nurse but always concerned about the welfare of her children and in particular their educational achievement. She knows her son is bright but she is led to believe that the ‘special’ school to which Kingsley is sent is a school that will improve his education possibilities rather than simply keeping him quiet and out of the way. Of the five films in the anthology, this is the one in which the women come to the fore with the campaigners and the mothers striving to overcome the threat of exclusion for Black children. In some ways I enjoyed this film the most out of the five. Partly this is because ‘education’ interests me as a subject, but also because of the simplicity of the approach here which enables the single issue to be explored in a satisfying way.

Lydia (Josette Simon) explains to Mrs Smith (Sharlene Whyte) how Kingsley can be helped

Re-watching the film/play I noticed several aspects of the script that I hadn’t thought too much about the first time round. The first is the time period which is marked by a number of references, not all of which add up. Kingsley at one point suggests that he wants to grow up to be an astronaut like Neil Armstrong. Although he had been an astronaut for several years, Armstrong became famous because of the Moon landing in July 1969. Later on, the importance of the Bernard Coard pamphlet, first published in 1971, puts the date as around 1972 and this seems to be confirmed by the reference to Margaret Thatcher as the Secretary of State for Education (1970-March ’74 when the Tories lost the General Election). This is possibly contradicted by the TV animation that Kingsley watches, Roobarb, which was first broadcast later in 1974. This precise timing doesn’t really matter but it does mean that McQueen is not going back to his own direct experience, which would have seen Kingsley at secondary school in the early 1980s, and instead the director returns us to a period ten years earlier, not long after the Mangrove trial. (Note that Kingsley’s older sister Stephanie’s objective is to get herself into Chelsea School of Art, which McQueen himself managed in the late 1980s.) The Small Axe anthology is mainly presented chronologically and perhaps this should have been No. 2?

Education is part family melodrama but there are tensions between the parents about what constitutes a good education, presented in this mirror framing

Compared to the other films in the anthology, we are now in a different part of London. It could be Ealing or another Outer London Borough. Kingsley’s parents have done well to presumably buy this semi-detached suburban house. They are both working full-time and represent an emerging Black lower middle-class, at least in housing terms. But there is tension between the parents. Kingsley’s father believes Kingsley needs a to learn a trade. It’s interesting to compare the breakfast scene at the start of Education with a similar scene at the start of Horace Ové’s Pressure (1974/6). Ove’s family are still in inner city West London and the feel of the scene is quite different. Does it really matter where the Smith household is located? I think it does in terms of the narrative in the sense that Kingsley’s family is a stable family with a strong educational push from Mrs Smith. They are in no way ‘disadvantaged’ and assumptions are being made about Kingsley by the school staff that seem very suspicious. The teachers should recognise that he has a specific learning difficulty but is otherwise a bright, intelligent child. This is supported by Hazel, the psychologist and proved in practice by Kingsley’s progress in the Saturday supplementary school. Coard’s pamphlet demonstrates how this failure to diagnose becomes institutionalised and is impacting West Indian children disproportionately. These are difficult issues to discuss. All teachers are faced with children who appear to be behaving in a way that makes them ‘difficult’, but most teachers will try to understand why this behaviour arises. If the the majority of the class seem to be suffering from poor living conditions and difficult family circumstances, teachers clearly face problems, but that isn’t the situation in Kingsley’s school.

In the planetarium

Most of the adults Kingsley meets at school look down on him but I noted a nice little human touch when the bus driver who takes Kingsley to the ‘special’ school recognises the hurt the boy feels and helps him avoid facing his old schoolmates. I’ve seen several comments that Education is a ‘slight’ narrative and presents a ‘tailing off’ of the energy generated in the first four films. I hope I’ve shown why I think that is not really the case. This is an important story that still resonates strongly today. There are many Kingsleys still struggling in English schools and we still need to change the system.

Small AxeAlex Wheatle (UK 2020)

from left: Valentine (Elliot Edusah), Alex (Sheyi Cole) and Dennis (Jonathan Jules)

This fourth film in the Small Axe anthology is similar to the third, Red, White and Blue, in being a form of biopic covering the life of a single character, this time up to his late teens. Alex Wheatle was younger at the start of this film’s narrative than Leroy Logan in Red, White and Blue. Both films end around the same time in the early 1980s. The big difference is that Wheatle was on ‘the other side’ as one of the young Black men involved in the Brixton ‘uprisings’ in 1981. The uprising is an important part of his story, as was his recognition of the New Cross Fire in January 1981. These ‘real’ events in the narrative mark it as a different kind of story than Red, White and Blue.

Alex is introduced to his prison sentence . . .

In the beginning of the narrative, ‘Alex’ does not yet know his own name properly and is referred to as ‘Alphonse’ (his given name at birth) by a voiceover statement from a social worker. He was brought to the Shirley Oaks children’s home in Surrey as a young child without any knowledge of his own parents. The children’s home seems to be a hard place with harsh treatment of the children by the staff. The first section of the narrative is not presented in a linear way. We first meet Alex (Sheyi Cole) aged 18, being admitted to prison and meeting his cellmate, Simeon (Robbie Gee), a Rastafarian on hunger strike. A series of short flashbacks then fill in the early part of Alphonso’s time in the children’s home, ending with his transfer to a hostel in Brixton (presumably at age 16?). From this point, Alex is taken up by a couple of the other residents in the hostel and introduced to his new life. I was reminded of another film, Black Joy (1977) adapted from his own play by the Guyanese playwright Jamal Ali and directed by Anthony Simmons. The film is not generally considered as a ‘Black British’ film because it had a white director. Even so, it features a West Indian story which is also the universal story of the ‘country boy’ come to the city. Actually he is a young man straight off the plane heading to Brixton where he will be conned by the great Norman Beaton, a Trinidadian conman. ‘Alphonse’ is lucky that his new mentors are not so interested in relieving him of his money but they do enjoy his naivety and lack of a sense of his own Blackness since he has never known his parents or the world outside his children’s home. Even after six months in Brixton, Alex still speaks with the accent he grew up with in the care home and we do wonder if all his time spent with his new friend Dennis (Jonathan Jules) is having little impact, but two things are possibly responsible for the eventual change in Alex. One is meeting Dennis’ family for Christmas and experiencing an extended Jamaican family gathering and the other is Alex’s love of music which was the one aspect of life in the children’s home that interested him.

Simeon (Robbie Gee) is Alex’s cellmate

Soon Alex is spending all his weekly income (his ‘giro’ or weekly benefit payment) on records and his music obsession shifts up another gear when he meets Valentine, the only other Black boy from his children’s home and together they work to create a sound system which Alex dubs ‘Crucial Rocker’. He turns out to have a knack of writing great lines for a DJ. But life on the streets of Brixton in 1980 is tough and the youth have to look out for the SPG. The antics of the Special Patrol Group meant that most young Black men were wary of ever going ‘up West’ or into areas where police activity was likely to be constant like Brixton. The SUS laws allowed police to stop and search whoever they liked ‘on suspicion’. The SPG appeared in groups in transit vans and often took youth off the street to distant police stations. The level of police activity in Brixton was one of the main factors in the uprising in April 1981. Before that came the New Cross fire on January 18, 1981. After it was not mentioned in Red, White and Blue it was good to see this terrible criminal act given proper treatment. A lengthy montage of black & white photographs is accompanied by Linton Kwesi Johnson’s poem ‘New Craas Massahkah’ which later appeared on his 1983 LP Making History.

Rita and Katrina (?) in front of the ‘Crucial Rockers’ sound system built by Alex and Valentine

Linton Kwesi Johnson (‘LKJ’) was a major figure in South London and a nationally successful dub poet, both live and on recordings and in print. He wrote a useful short summary of events in 1981 which you can read here. I haven’t seen any references to the poem in either the film’s credits or the soundtrack listings. If I’ve missed them will someone let me know where they are? The photographs which range in quality (but some are excellent) are also not credited unless they are copyright of the Archive sources listed. None of the songs are credited and I wonder if this is because this is a ‘TV play’ rather than a film designed for cinema? It just seems disrespectful. The montage of stills is presented in a simple form with images against a black background but it did also remind me of the more artistic/expressionist work of Black Audio and especially Handsworth Songs from 1986. It’s also worth mentioning that Alex Wheatle evokes something of the experiences of the young hero in Horace Ové’s seminal film about Black British experience, Pressure (1974/6). McQueen’s film follows the New Cross Fire (in which 13 young Black Britons died and for which the police failed to make any arrests for arson) with footage of the major march through London protesting about the lack of official action. I’m reminded of just how bad things were at that point and throughout the next couple of years in which the UK’s racist tabloid press demonised Black youth, especially during various protests. These were all justified in my view and the subsequent Scarman enquiry found the Metropolitan Police had acted disproportionately and had lost the trust of the community. Scarman’s recommendations were not all implemented and it was not until the Macpherson Report of 1999 that the police were seen as ‘institutionally racist’ – something which had been widely understood by many London residents for many years.

One of the stills used for the montage of the New Cross fire attack and the response from Black communities in London

Alex learns about the history of his people from Simeon’s prison cell library and at the end of the film discovers how he came to be in the children’s home. The end credits tell us about his celebrated writing career today. Alex Wheatle has the lowest rating of the five Small Axe films on IMDb and there are several ‘disappointed’ reviews of the film. In some ways I’m not surprised by these reactions, but I think they are wrong. I would say that this is the most intriguing of the films in relation to ideas about identity and through its prison sequences how Alex uses the books to discover who he is and where he came from. The character of a young Black boy in care was used rather differently, but just as tellingly, in David Leland’s 1982 TV play Made in Britain. In some ways, Alex’s story also sets up the last of the Small Axe films, Education. I would agree with one review I read that suggested the film is just too short and that things seem to happen very quickly. Several sequences could be extended including the music sequences with the sound system. Sheyi Cole is very good in what I think is a difficult role but for me the delight of the film was to see Robbie Gee, the ‘wide boy’ from the Desmond’s sitcom (1988-1994) – and now when I check back, his character in the sitcom was a boy taken into care as a child who is then looked after by Desmond and Shirley. If McQueen intended to make that connection, he made an excellent choice in casting Robbie Gee.

Small AxeRed, White and Blue (UK 2020)

John Boyega as PC Leroy Logan

The third film in the Small Axe ‘anthology’ is a form of biopic about the early working life of Leroy Logan. Logan is a hero figure who spent thirty years as a Metropolitan police officer, entering as a graduate recruit in 1983 and retiring as a Superintendent in 2013. He is played by John Boyega, the young actor who has become a major celebrity figure because of his roles in three recent Star Wars films. In 2020 his status was confirmed when he spoke to crowds during a Black Lives Matter campaign rally in London. Written by Steve McQueen and Courttia Newland and photographed by Shabier Kirchner with music under the control of Mica Levi, this was the third of the films to enjoy festival screenings in the US. It appears to have been shot on film and is presented in the theatrical widescreen ratio of 1:1.85. Compared to Lovers Rock, which was shot digitally and presented in the TV ratio of 16:9, film was presumably used for Red, White and Blue because more of the narrative uses exteriors? Unsurprisingly it turns out to be as successful in its storytelling and in terms of performances and techniques as the first two films. Why then do I feel slightly less ‘engaged’ or sympathetic towards the film?

Kenneth Logan (Steve Toussaint) and his young son Leroy (Nathan Vidal) about to change the music in the car

I think the answer lies primarily in the ideas behind the story and how these have been worked out in the approach adopted by McQueen. I was taken by a review I read after I saw the film when it was first broadcast. It was the first of the five films that I watched, all the others came later via iPlayer. Sight & Sound invited Gary Younge, the celebrated former Guardian journalist and now Professor of Sociology at the University of Manchester, to review the film. Younge is very astute about issues within Black communities in the UK and the US and he argues that Logan’s initial aim on joining the police was always going to be problematic. Younge articulates this eloquently:

Logan, played by John Boyega, says he has applied to the force to “combat negatives”, and feels “he’s got to be a bridge”. But the negatives are everywhere, which means the bridge he seeks to be can find no firm land on either side. And so the space in which he stands is suspended, without visible support, leaving him precarious and isolated, perched on a flimsy structure he has wished into being.

To appreciate Younge’s comment, we need to be aware that the time period in the film is not clearly signalled. The same is true of the location of the Logan family within London’s then distinct West Indian communities, (the Guardian article referenced below suggests that Logan was based in Islington but there is little sense of the location in the film). The ‘real’ Logan joined the Met in 1983. The film narrative begins when Logan is still a young boy in the early years of secondary school. Standing outside the school gates, waiting for his father to collect him the boy is questioned and searched by two police offers. When Kenneth Logan arrives he is angry about what he finds. This is presumably around 1968 or 1969 (Logan was born in 1957). We next meet the grown-up Leroy working in a science research laboratory, a couple of years out of university. This must be 1980 or 1981. Over the next few months he will begin the process of joining the Met. Why is timing so important? In January of 1981 a fire at a house party in New Cross killed several Black youths and was believed to be a racist attack. The police investigation was criticised as inadequate. In April 1981 anger about policing in Brixton in South London developed into the ‘Brixton Uprisings’ with thousands on the streets. Later in the summer of 1981 similar ‘uprisings’ occurred in Liverpool, Birmingham and several other UK cities. The police generally and the Met in particular were viewed with fear and mistrust by Black communities and significant parts of the general population. These events turn up in the next Small Axe film but aren’t evident in this film. We don’t see the most notorious form of police action either, that carried out by the SPG (Special Patrol Groups) which made the practice of ‘Stop and Search’ allowed under the ‘Sus’ laws, so hated because of its arbitrary use.

Leroy and his pregnant wife Gretl (Antonia Thomas) just before he sets off for a family meal and his Hendon course – an uncomfortable framing?

Leroy joins the police force partly in response to his father being beaten up by two police officers when he challenges their allegation that he has committed a parking offence. He is also encouraged by his ‘auntie’, a family friend who works as a police liaison officer and is the mother of Leroy’s friend Leee John. Leee is another ‘real’ character, at this time the leader of the successful Black soul/funk group Imagination whose chart peak was in 1982 with the No. 2 single ‘Just an Illusion’. Leroy is sent to the Police Training Centre at Hendon where he excels as a student but still meets racist ideas and does not subsequently progress in the force as someone with his qualifications and success at Hendon might expect. I didn’t see any reference in the Hendon sequence to the furore surrounding the case of John Fernandes, a lecturer from Kilburn Polytechnic who was assigned to teach a course at Hendon. Fernandes was so shocked by the racist comments police cadets made in essays he asked them to write that he showed them to journalists. The reaction of the police authorities was to suspend Fernandes and his employers at Kilburn took action to dismiss him until action by grassroots trade union members in the lecturers’ union NATFHE prevented this. Ironically, the real Leroy Logan later found himself acting in the investigation into the handling of the Stephen Lawrence case, the murder of a Black teenager in 1993 which again showed the Met accused of inadequate and institutionally racist policing.

Training at Hendon

All five Small Axe films focus on a ‘moment’ in the history of West Indians in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s. In most cases this moment becomes a narrative that produces an optimistic ‘possibility’ of a better future. How does that work in this film? If we compare the first and last sequences of Red, White and Blue they both feature Kenneth and Leroy – father and son. The conflict between first and second generation migrants is a familiar element of migrant stories. In the opening sequence after Kenneth has discovered the police treatment of his son, he starts to talk to the boy who asks to turn off ‘This World Is Not My Home’ by Jim Reeves on the cassette player and he replaces it with ‘Tainted Love’ by Gloria Jones (which causes his father to turn off the music altogether). This sums up a family conflict, perhaps too obviously? For the rest of the film, father and son will remain distanced. In the final scene (apologies for the spoiler, but this is a biopic so we know that Leroy survives to become successful), Leroy sits and drinks rum with his father. Kenneth now appears a broken man but he explains that he must accept that Leroy has got the education that the family has urged him to do. His father must now accept that Leroy had the right to choose to become a police officer. The narrative seems to have justified Leroy but possibly diminished Kenneth. Is this optimistic? I think what I took from this story is that Leroy attempts to do everything himself. The Metropolitan Police and its ‘canteen culture’ is so riddled with both institutional racism and overtly racist officers that Leroy’s crusade seems doomed. During his induction, when the new recruits are required to say a little about themselves, Leroy announces first that he “hasn’t joined to make friends”. This seems an odd way to set about his task. The events that follow then demonstrate that without support Leroy will find his police work very difficult (if not dangerous). Later on the ‘real’ Leroy Logan would become one of the founder members of the Black Police Association. This Guardian piece outlines some of the main points of Logan’s career in the Met and answers some of the puzzles I found in trying to read the film. Leroy Logan is credited as a consultant on Red, White and Blue.

Leroy discovers the ‘N’ word daubed on his locker at his local police station. The out of focus character in the green jacket is the most provocative of the racists at the station

My wariness about this film is not meant to imply a criticism of Leroy Logan’s actions nor to suggest that this is a ‘bad film’. On the contrary, it is a film that works very well in its own terms, with strong performances and an exciting and gripping narrative. However, it is not like the other four films in its conception and I’m not sure that McQueen and Courtland approach it in the same way. The narrative doesn’t seem rooted in a specific West Indian community like the other stories. Leroy’s ‘difference’ does seem to be carried by the changes in music with Al Green and Marvin Gaye replacing the reggae tracks. I think in the end I wanted to know more about Kenneth’s story and about the others in the family and the wider community (which does appear briefly in Leroy’s attempts to talk to local teenagers).

Small AxeLovers Rock (UK 2020)

The morning after . . . Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and Franklin (Micheal Ward)

This magical 68 minutes of delirious cinema is the second of Steve McQueen’s five film series Small Axe. Each film tells a story about ‘West Indian’ characters and communities in London during the period 1968-1982. Lovers Rock has the simplest narrative of the series and is written by McQueen with the novelist Courttia Newland. A group of friends are preparing a large house and garden to host a birthday ‘blues party’ for a young woman. Meanwhile, Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn), a young woman from a church-going family, is planning to sneak out of the family house to attend the party with her friend Patty (Shaniqua Okwok). I write ‘meanwhile’ but actually these two sequences are not happening at the same time. Martha leaves her house under darkness but the preparations for the dance are in daylight. This is the first indication that this isn’t going to be a conventional narrative. Though there are some of the familiar conventions of a ‘party narrative’ such as unwanted guests (who have to negotiate the doorman) and the boy meets girl scenario, the central sequence of the film features an extended playing of Janet Kay’s ‘Silly Games’, the iconic song of the music style known as ‘Lovers Rock’.

Martha and Patty (Shaniqua Okwok) meet up to go to the party together

We first get introduced to ‘Silly Games’ as a song sung a capella by the women in the kitchen making the party food – goat curry and ackee and saltfish. Cynthia, the birthday girl is getting ready upstairs and hair is being straightened as the sound system is wired up. As the party gets into full swing and the main room fills with dancers, ‘Silly Games’ plays through with many dancers singing along. When the track ends the dancers keep singing and in one corner of the room is an older man. He’s played by Dennis Bovell who wrote and produced the original single, a hit in 1979 (although Discogs suggests it was first released in 1977). Bovell has claimed that he included the very high note in the song because he knew girls on the dancefloor would compete to hit it. That’s what happens and indeed from the reviews I’ve seen the idea is taking off with a suggestion that people might meet (virtually?) to sing ‘Silly Games’ together.

A note about terminology

I’ve used the term ‘West Indians’ to describe the characters in this film. I think this was correct in the late 1970s but it was gradually replaced by the term Afro-Caribbean and then African-Caribbean. I’m not sure when these changes took place. There was initially a distinct gap in the 1960s and 1970s between ‘Africans’ and ‘West Indians’ in the UK which took some time to close over the next twenty or thirty years as the number of migrants from different parts of Africa increased. (Some of the distance seems to have been created by West Indian parents with views about Africans perhaps derived from the colonial education system pre-the 1960s). One of the aims of political activism and indeed of the designation ‘Black’ was to develop a solidarity with all people of colour who faced the institutional and personal racism prevalent in the UK. But there were also distinctions between the different parts of the Caribbean, not so damaging perhaps but important in terms of cultural differences. Steve McQueen has Grenadian and Trinidadian heritage. He was born in 1969 in London and the five films that comprise Small Axe are ‘personal’ stories based on events and experiences recounted by relatives and family friends, supported by extensive research to present this period in a realist way. At the end of the 1970s the West Indian community in London and other major cities in the UK included the first generation of migrants (the ‘Windrush generation’) who arrived as adults and became part of the new employment programmes sponsored by the UK government to meet labour shortages, especially in public services. Some of the children of this generation followed their parents at a later date and then a second generation was born in the 1960s and 1970s. In the wider Black community there were both African migrants (often refugees or exiles) and the much earlier communities of Black people established in the UK since the 18th century and earlier (such as the Liverpool Black community). In the first Small Axe film, Mangrove, the popular music of Trinidad and Grenada was featured but by the time of Lovers Rock, Jamaican music in the form of reggae is beginning to dominate for young people, even though the setting here is still in West London. The house where the party is staged is on Ladbroke Road, not far from the Mangrove Restaurant but nearer to Holland Park and the wealthier end of the area. I don’t know if this is a deliberate location choice.

On the dance floor . . .

The central section of the film focuses on the dance floor and although there is some narrative progression. Martha meets Franklin (Micheal Ward) and they dance together. But the section is dominated by music and images of dancing in a more abstract way – an attempt by McQueen and his cinematographer Shabier Kirchner to marry the camerawork to the rhythms of the dancing perhaps. Kirchner is from Antigua and has recently been working on independent projects in the US and developing ideas for his own films. It is in this long dance sequence that he really makes his mark in Lovers Rock. The whole sequence featuring ‘Silly Games’ lasts for ten minutes with the extensive a capella section seemingly spontaneous. Kirchner and McQueen offer us a hot sweaty room full of men and women in colourful outfits dancing, in some cases, groin to groin with hands roaming freely. It is both a joyous and erotic scene with a strong sense of solidarity but also a tremor of something dangerous beneath, like most such dancing. After this Martha finds herself involved in two separate altercations. I don’t want to spoil the narrative so I’m not going to discuss these. All I’ll say is that one incident has been the focus for several critics. Back on the ‘dancefloor’, ‘Silly Games’ has been followed by darker, heavier sounds in the form of dub and ‘roots reggae’ and the feel shifts from female-centred to male-centred solo dancing. The men dance wildly and with a sense of abandon. Again Kirchner’s camera roams freely and picks up the energy of the room. The sequence lasts seven or eight minutes, so two dance sequences in the film take up more than a quarter of the film’s total running time of around 68 minutes.

Kadeem Ramsay as the DJ Samson with Alexander James-Blake

It’s worth pointing out that the late 1970s into the early 1980s saw young Black people in London become interested in a wide range of different popular and roots music forms. McQueen appears to have commissioned Mica Levi, whose work graced such film as Under the Skin (UK 2013) and Jackie (Chile-France-US 2016). I haven’t yet worked out/discovered what her contribution was since I don’t remember a score as such in the film and all the music appeared to be diegetic – sung by cast members or from discs, cassettes etc. Having said that the music is skilfully woven through the action and that must be down to editor Chris Dickens and Levi as well as McQueen.

I enjoyed Lover’s Rock very much. I have never attended a blues party but in this period many of my students probably did and I did collect some of the tracks used in the film. I am very impressed by the research done by McQueen and his team, including the young actors to recreate an evening like this. The performances of the film’s leads are very good indeed and the whole cast is impressive. The film works on many levels but for me it feels like a simple genre idea that has been developed almost into a piece of art cinema in relation to the dancing. I was also reminded of some 1980s Black British films, especially Burning an Illusion (1981) by Menelik Shabazz, a film which deals with a relationship between a lower middle-class young woman and a working-class young man. (Burning an Illusion is available on DVD and streaming on BFI Player.) It is a much more developed narrative than Lovers Rock but the two films share several elements. Menelik Shabazz later made a documentary about the musical genre with The Story of Lovers Rock in 2011. The ‘preparations for a party’ are featured in at least one of the avant-garde films produced by Sankofa, Passion of Remembrance (1986). Sankofa was a group of five filmmakers, three of whom were women – Maureen Blackwood, Martina Attille and Nadine Marsh-Edwards – and their films presented  a range of perspectives on the lives of young Black women in London. I’d really like to hear what they thought of Small Axe.

Small AxeMangrove (UK 2020)

The protest march

‘Mangrove’ refers to the restaurant opened by the Trinidadian Frank Crichlow in North Kensington in 1968. Crichlow had previously run El Rio, a café around the corner. The café had attracted attention by the police because of allegations of drugs being used there. Crichlow was determined that The Mangrove would become a respectable restaurant serving West Indian food. It soon became popular, not only with the local West Indian community, but also celebrities (musicians including Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix), artists/writers and activists. Despite this (or perhaps because of this?) the police raided the restaurant more than once between 1969 and 1970. Fed up and frustrated by these raids (which generally found nothing) Frank Crichlow and others from the community were joined by Darcus Howe, his partner Barbara Beese and Altheia Jones, an activist from the British Black Panther group, in organising a protest march which aimed to pass the three police stations in the area. The march gathered support but was in effect ambushed by the police who arrested nine marchers including the four leaders. The ‘Mangrove Nine’ were charged with ‘riot and affray’. As this was a serious charge the case was heard at the Central Criminal Court (i.e. ‘The Old Bailey’ in 1971). The case lasted a punishing 11 weeks with prison sentences hanging over the accused. These are the facts of the case. I haven’t given the outcome of the case but you can look it up.

The four leaders of the march in the front row of the dock

Steve McQueen has created a film narrative which runs from 1968 to 1971 and includes most of the important elements of the historical record. His script was co-written with Alastair Siddons. I want to make a couple of points about McQueen’s formal approach first. Mangrove is longer than the other films comprising Small Axe and it is presented in a ‘Scope ratio. It presumably has a bigger budget too and includes CGI to portray the area in the 1969 with Westway, the elevated inner city motorway extension, which was being built at the time. There is also a sense of expansiveness and expressionism in the cinematography by Shabier Kirchner, especially in the Old Bailey trial scenes. Also,  it’s one of only two out of the five films to feature an international Hollywood star with Letitia Wright, the Guyanese-British actor seen in films like Black Panther (US 2018) cast in Mangrove as the political activist Altheia Jones.  It’s no surprise that Mangrove has been presented as ‘Episode 1’ of Small Axe.

Letitia Wright as Altheia Jones meeting local South Asian workers as part of her strategy to unionise Black workers

Formally, the film’s narrative structure seems to fall into three sections. The first sets up the opening of the restaurant and the excitement of a community finding it has somewhere to meet and to enjoy its own culture. The second part focuses on the clashes with the police during the raids and on the march. The final section is the long trial sequence. The trial draws on some familiar courtroom drama generic conventions whereas the first section has elements of melodrama in the relationships focused on the restaurant – which also carries through into the ‘home life’ of Darcus Howe and Barbara Beese (but oddly not so much into the relationship between Frank Crichlow and his partner Selma James).

Shaun Parkes as Frank Crichlow

Overall, Mangrove is a conventional presentation of a series of events with at times a documentary feel in terms of details. I did find some of the CGI slightly unreal and the half-built Westway looks almost as if it is a part of a science fiction narrative in the opening sequence as Frank walks home through North Kensington. The trial section is very well handled and works much like classical Hollywood. In a way though, I was more interested in the first part of the film that explores relationships within the local community. The details here are revealing. The Mangrove became an informal hub for the organisers of the Notting Hill Carnival  and the music culture of Trinidad and the South Eastern Caribbean are included on the soundtrack. Mighty Sparrow appears along with the smooth 1960s country star Jim Reeves, a favourite in the region. I think the inclusion of so much Jamaican music in the form of ska/rock steady and reggae from the late 1960s/early 1970s, especially Toots and the Maytals is there to represent the more familiar music for the wider audience.

Barbara Beese (Rochenda Sandell) is arrested during the march after being attacked by a white bystander

Shaun Parkes as Frank Crichlow is very good and it does seem that in the 1960s and into the 70s Trinidadians rather than Jamaicans comprised the the main group of writers and activists in the West Indian community. Frank doesn’t want to be political but he is clearly an important local figure. It’s also good to see the older members of the community using the restaurant as a social space. It must be difficult for some viewers to accept the attitudes of the police as depicted in the film but this was definitely how it was. Police culture and behaviour is a strong element in three of the Small Axe films and in the 1970s and 1980s, the Metropolitan Police had a dreadful reputation for corruption and a canteen culture of racism and sexism. Inevitably McQueen is forced into generic modes of characterisation. There has to be a younger constable who is not inherently racist but is pushed towards action by the group and threatened with being ostracised if he doesn’t conform. I did find the police in action to be sometimes quite comical in a Keystone Cops kind of way. This is before the helmets and truncheons were replaced by hard hats and riot shields and batons. There is nothing comical about their violence, however. I was stunned to learn that the police officer who led the raids was ‘PC Pulley’, a real person. I’m still baffled as to how he was in a position of enough authority to indulge his own racist mission. A surprise for modern audiences is just how many uniformed officers a local police station could turn out for a small protest march. I don’t know the actual numbers in 1970 but in the later 1970s, all demonstrations and also the Notting Hill Carnival were all heavily policed.

Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) reading C L R James, the great Trinidadian historian, socialist and journalist – and cricket writer.

The melodrama elements are important in the middle section of the film and I was impressed by the representation of the Darcus Howe-Barbara Beese relationship. Both actors are again very good and Malachi Kirby as Howe for me caught both the voice and authority of the young activist from Trinidad. The scene represented above is when Howe suggests that the C L R James book Black Jacobins should be taught in schools in the UK. Breese replies that perhaps not in the primary schools where she works. The point here is that these are activists with real relationships rooted in the ‘lived experience’ of their communities. Here Barbara reminds Darcus that they have to be practical and think about their small son as well as their political work. I think I would be interested to see this whole melodrama of relationships and family background explored in more detail in something like a a long-form narrative of its own, but I guess that McQueen does this by offering four other stories each with a different focus.

I should add Letitia Wright’s excellent performance as Altheia Jones to round out my appreciation of the leading players. In fact, the whole cast is impressive and the production overall is a great achievement. Mangrove provides a platform for the other four films and I’ll attempt to relate each of them to the overall project as we go along. One last thought, the years 1968-1971 were tumultuous in London, especially for any kind of political activism. While these events in Notting Hill were important struggles they sat alongside protests over the war in Vietnam, the resistance to apartheid and the boycott of South African rugby and cricket tours. The civil rights campaign in Northern Ireland was about to become an issue in London (there is a moment when anti-Irish prejudice is exposed in the local Notting Hill police during the surveillance of the Mangrove). Eventually, the struggles of the West Indian community would become a larger story and activism would spread across the capital, something which McQueen picks up in the other four films.

Small Axe – An Introduction

Steve McQueen left with John Boyega on the shoot for Red, White and Blue

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.