Steve McQueen – Sir Steven McQueen CBE – won the Turner Prize in 1999, a BAFTA for Hunger
in 2008 and an Oscar in 2014 for 12 Years a Slave
, which he directed. A retrospective at Tate Modern in 2020 had to be cut short because of lockdown. As the son of West Indian parents, growing up in West London in the early 1980s, he found school difficult and discouraging, but an interest and ability in art – though there were very few black artists as exemplars – took him to Chelsea School of Art and then to Goldsmiths College of Art. McQueen was feted initially for his video installations (filming from a rolling oil drum in New York City), and he brings to Small Axe
, made for and recently shown on the BBC, an artist's eye for movement and colour, shape and structure, space and volume.
has been referred to as an 'anthology' or an 'epic', and it is indeed both of those, and it is also storytelling at its best, as McQueen draws on the lives and true experiences of the West Indian community in London at a time when it was dangerous to be out walking and black. Yet, overall, these recent five films of differing lengths leave the viewer not with a feeling of despair but with a sense of admiration and respect, for a theme that threads through them all is the power of education and, with it, an intelligent and reasonable demand to be acknowledged, as the character Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) tells the courtroom in the defence of the Mangrove Nine in his closing remarks to the jury.
'Racism is just a terrible waste of everyone's time,' to quote Jackie Kay, the Scottish Makar (Poet Laureate), and Steve McQueen shows us how true this is. Set in Notting Hill in the late 1960s, the first film, Mangrove
, tells the story of a restaurant, its owner, the community, police harassment and an 11-week trial of nine people charged with inciting a riot, at the end of which they were found not guilty. For the first time, a judge admitted that there was racial hatred on both sides, which included the police.
Shawn Parkes plays Frank Crichlow, owner of The Mangrove, a quietly forceful man whose restaurant becomes a hub for the community, a lively place of music (great soundtrack), food, and where one can see the seeds of the yet-to-be Notting Hill Carnival. Time is taken to develop the characters and the location, the relationships, including the push back that brings in the Black Panthers. McQueen's filming focuses on details too, a colander rocking for minutes on the floor where it has landed in yet another destructive police raid, which draws the viewer's thoughts away from the 'action' and into the mundane.
The trial itself, 1971, in which two of the nine choose to defend themselves, is a masterpiece of filming. The camera doesn't roam around the courtroom seeking drama, but concentrates on the accused. The black activist Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright) puts to shame the posturing of the prosecution and inspires with her natural rhetoric.
While the jury is out, and they wait, the screen becomes almost silent; the defendants sit in a room of light diffused by cigarette smoke, and the camera circles and repeats shots of face, profile, lips, eyes, as time passes. Unlike Hollywood movies, where it is assumed that tension equals action, here the scene is suspenseful and deeply affecting to the point where one feels almost in the room. Again, in the courtroom as the jury chairman speaks, the camera fixes only on the front row of the defendants' box, especially on Frank as he listens to the verdict. As Darcus Howe says to the courtroom, almost in the style of a Greek chorus, 'Wherever a community is born it creates institutions that it needs. It's closing time, it's closing time'.
Dedicated to all lovers and rockers, Lovers Rock
is a shorter film and a fable, inspired by one of the institutions of the 1980s, the Blues party, or Lovers Rock – reggae and soul – a full-on musical experience when the West Indian community would create a private club in someone's house or flat – not being admitted themselves to nightclubs – where they could eat home-made food, meet friends and dance all night. To say it is gorgeous would be an understatement: saturated colour, clothes of the period selected to perfection (by Jacqueline Durran), mesmeric music (supervision by Ed Bailie) and two young people falling in love: Franklyn (Michael Ward) and Martha (Amaiah-Jae St Aubyn).
Another thread McQueen weaves in is the presence of religion, a crucifix on a wall, a reference, a reminder of how to conduct yourself. In Lovers Rock
, Martha – dressed to the nines, including her 'church shoes' – silently climbs out of her bedroom window after dark, meets her girlfriend and away they go on a forbidden Saturday night out.
This is a kind of fairy tale, girl meets boy, a slow burn during the evening of dancing. It is the long lingering shots of a crowded dance floor, the camera capturing expressive hands, touching shoulders, bare skin, close bodies, sensations, that tell the tale of identity and belonging. A 10-minute sequence of the dancers singing a capella together to Janet Kay's Silly Games
, the sound of feet, the circling and repetition remind one of McQueen's (also Bill Viola's, or John Akomfrah's) immersive videos. The delight of bicycling home in the early morning – again Shabier Kirchner's cinematography astonishes – shows only the heads and shoulders of Martha and Franklyn seemingly flying, just their motion, past a huge canvas of trees and sky, the bicycle out of the frame. Cinderella dashing home before church.
A change of pace, a true story, a cooler palette, Red, White and Blue
is perhaps the darkest of the five films, especially because the issues of racism in the British police remain unresolved. John Boyega takes the role of Leroy Logan, who became the founder of the Met's Black Police Association, but that was later. First we see him as a forensic scientist, in Thatcher's Britain of the 1980s. After his father (Steve Toussaint) is beaten by the police, Leroy decides that the only way to change the force would be to join it, much against his father's wishes. He is supported in his decision by his long-term partner, Gretl (Antonia Thomas), and once again a theme of McQueen's appears, which is the influence of women, whether it is aunt, mother, lover or sister. Women are a moral compass, who see into the future and believe in themselves and their families, especially in terms of engagement and education.
It doesn't go well, being in uniform. His only back-up is from a young Indian, who cannot take the abuse and leaves. The viewer is sunk into the period, from the interiors – curtains and wallpaper – to the contemporary attitudes. Strength is in the family, playing scrabble, eating together, respecting the Lord and one's antecedents. Boyega is so believable as a conflicted man, which makes it all the more painful to watch as he struggles on the brink of giving it all up. Finally, in the last scene – with his father – there is resolution, support from his father. Leroy: 'It is a slow-turning wheel, the world; sometimes I think it needs to be scorched so something good will come of it'. And he remains with the Met.
Steve McQueen shows all of us the complexities of human nature, no matter to what race we belong. As the judge in Mangrove
directs the jury, 'do not take account of the colour of anyone's skin, nor the uniform they wear'. However, the next two films deal with childhood and youth, the powerlessness of black children, and the prejudice and callousness of those who were deemed to be fit to care for them. With Alex Wheatle
, a true story, and Education
, which reflects some of his own youth, McQueen depicts with great sensitivity the failings of a system that was unprepared – if one wanted to be generous – for becoming diverse and multi-cultured, and at worst was vindictive and negligent.
Happily for the viewer, after being dropped into the unpromising, threatened lives of black children in the 1980s, one sees both of these films surge to an emotional and rewarding ending. Alex Wheatle, who was part of the writers' room for Small Axe
(the writers for the series being Courttia Newland and Alastair Siddons) received an MBE for services to literature in 2008, not an outcome that could have been predicted from his early years: absent mother, a father who could not manage and then years in the demoralising circumstances of Shirley Oakes children's home, Croydon.
As a teenage Wheatle, Sheyi Cole, in his debut role, creates a character of humour and intelligence, an innocent (almost) searching for his own identity, but not knowing where to find it. While serving a short prison sentence (Brixton riots), his older cellmate puts into his hands C L R James's The Black Jacobins
, and for the first time in his life Alex realises that black people can be heroic. To quote his dreadlocked cellmate, imprisoned for toppling a colonial era statue: 'If you don't know your past, you won't know your future'.
Sheyi Cole develops the character of Alex from a hesitant teen (scouring the markets for cool clothes) into a searching, dedicated young man who makes the decision that, indeed, he needs to know not just his own past but that in order to fully understand his role in society he must understand the lives of his ancestors. When his old mate Badger shows up with a typewriter, probably off the back of a lorry, Alex says out loud, 'I think I might write a book'. Wheatle's book for young adults, Crongton Knights
, won The Guardian
children's fiction prize in 2016, and the recent Cane Warriors
takes on the historic slave uprising in Jamaica in 1760. Alex Wheatle has given young readers the opportunity to see themselves in contemporary literature and to realise that in Britain's diverse culture they have a voice.
Steve McQueen continues the theme of knowing your ancestry in order to know yourself in Education
, the story of a young boy who probably has dyslexia or at least struggles at school, as did McQueen: Kingsley Smith, played with aplomb by Kenyan Sandy, in his screen debut. His mother Agnes (a strong performance by Sharlene Whyte) works double jobs and his father (Daniel Francis) has a blue collar job, both working to exhaustion to see their children get a good education.
, McQueen shifts his forensic lens from those who were adults in the 1980s to the younger generation. Kingsley's kind, older sister Stephanie (Tamara Lawrence) has done well at school, and the same is expected of Kingsley, but he doesn't flourish. In the 1970s, black children were often treated as 'educationally subnormal' and bussed off to 'special schools', where the teaching was at best minimal and at worst, in a scene worthy of Monty Python, simply deadening: Mr Baines the teacher sits on his desk facIng the class, strumming his guitar and droning verse after verse of The House of the Rising Sun
, until the viewer – like the children, who are sprawled half asleep on their desks – feels bludgeoned into submission. McQueen has the ability to make one laugh and cry simultaneously.
What saves Kingsley, and many other children like him, are the Saturday Classes, black supplementary schools, initiated by women in the black community, where black history discussion groups take place and the children are encouraged to learn the subjects that will see them succeed in the state school system. The 2019 Timpson Review states that exclusions from schools within the black community continue, and not enough has changed.
In Kingsley's story, he is introduced to the rich history of his African ancestors, the Kings and, importantly, the Queens. These strong women of the West Indian community – mothers and sisters – backed up, however doubtfully at first, by husbands and fathers show the children that they too can be the small axe: 'if you are the big tree, we are the small axe'. Bob Marley may have meant this to be about the stranglehold of the music industry, but it can apply equally to prejudices that must eventually fall.