From Film Quarterly, Summer 2021, Volume 74, Number 4
A major theme of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series is West Indian joy. West Indian immigrants’ struggles against state resistance to everyday black life. In a rather profound contrast to McQueen’s other work—in which long takes of suffering bodies draw the viewer into the inescapability of the pain experienced by his subjects—joy disrupted provides the counterpoint to bodies in pain. Striking this balance between suffering and joyous bodies is one of the reasons that McQueen’s series may be his best effort yet to move between art cinema and popular genres. The various films in Small Axe fit in disparate genres, but all but one clearly fit into the category of racial injustice films. But McQueen’s play with genre is what allows him to creative straddle the line between hope and Afropessimism.
A major theme of Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” series is West Indian joy. This interpretation might seem counterintuitive for two reasons: first, racist state violence frames the plot of almost every episode; and, second, joy has not traditionally been a word that would be used to describe McQueen’s films. Both his video art and feature-length works have been notable for their focus on bodily vulnerability and pain. Following Vivian Sobchack, Edward Bacal describes McQueen as producing “carnal cinema”—films in which viewers are drawn in by the extreme states of the bodies—and our perception of these films focuses more on the excesses of bodily experience than narrative. 1
Suffering is very much in focus in the five films that make up “Small Axe.” But the first film, Mangrove, offers a number of moments of communal joy that are constantly interrupted by the relentless, violent disruption of black celebration by cops who despise the color (literally and figuratively) they bring to London. As antagonist PC (Police Constable) Frank Pulley tells the owner of the Mangrove restaurant, Frank Crichlow: “You people don’t really understand, do you? You come over here with your bright clothes, you sleep with our women, make like you’re a big shot. But guess what? It isn’t happening. Not on my watch.” His statement encapsulates one of the principal conflicts of the series: West Indian immigrants’ struggles against state resistance to everyday black life. In a rather profound contrast to McQueen’s other work—in which long takes of suffering bodies draw the viewer into the inescapability of the pain experienced by his subjects—joy disrupted in this film series provides the counterpoint to bodies in pain. The fact that he strikes this balance between suffering and joyous bodies is one of the reasons that McQueen’s series may be his best effort yet to move between art cinema and popular genres. 2
From McQueen’s Deadpan (1997), in which he reworks a famous comedy scene in Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) to show a house frame repeatedly falling on top of McQueen as his body and face stay completely still, to Widows (2018), where he attempts to blend the soapy pleasures of the 1980s miniseries with his more affectively minimalist take on the melodrama, it is clear that the director has an interest in playing with genre expectations. 12 Years a Slave (2013) was adapted from an abolitionist narrative, indisputably written for white audiences to encourage them to embrace the abolitionist cause; the film rejects some of those conventions while adhering to others. 3 Slave narratives would avoid graphic details about sexual violence to avoid horrifying “gentle readers,” but McQueen presents a horrific extended rape scene. It is a sentimental film that is also, at various moments, cold. But McQueen’s framing of the film revealed his ambivalence about the genre he chose to adapt. He took the original black diasporic genre (the slave narrative) and argued that it was a “universal story.” 4
Such gestures toward universalism are the most sentimental of moves: “It is not a Black movie. It is an American movie. It’s a narrative about human respect more than anything.” 5 That black art and Black artists do things that could be considered “Black-Plus” or “other than Black” is hopefully a truism at this point. Some films by Black filmmakers, after all, are not in conversation with a history of black representational practices. While 12 Years a Slave is engaged with historical renderings of slavery, the through line from his art films to Hunger (2008) to his Oscar-winning film is an investment in bodily vulnerability. The starting point for Slave’s Solomon Northup is that he seems to have largely assimilated and is transformed into an enslaved person, unmade by the trauma of violent captivity. 6
Bodily vulnerability is still a theme in “Small Axe,” for what the state is attempting to take away is cultural specificity. But “Small Axe” is also a Black-Plus work that fits disparate genres: Mangrove is a courtroom drama; Lovers Rock is a party film as well as a one-night film; Red, White and Blue is a biographical docudrama as well as a police-corruption drama; and Alex Wheatle is a coming-of-age film. Finally, Education is a school docudrama in which McQueen draws from his own experience to craft a fictional story about the real-life tracking of West Indian children into “special” schools for the “subnormal” and the struggle of their parents to negotiate the racist school systems as well as the differences between themselves and their UK-born children.
When blackness meets genre, specific expected tropes coalesce into the category of “racial injustice” films. From Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates (1920) to the present, any number of tropes move in and out of that genre: idealized Black protagonists, white saviors, intragroup betrayal, unambiguously racist antagonists, racists that transform, and racial uplift. Over time, the decision to reject such conventions or to complicate them signifies a resistance to cliché; for some, that’s sophistication. While filmmaking can move forward stylistically in ways that are not dependent on narrative choice or characterization, the racial-injustice film still poses a problem for those looking for evolution: the intransigent nature of racism itself, its evergreen characteristics, can, ironically, result in realism being read as cliché.
I suspect that the excessive malevolence of a character like Mangrove’s Frank Pulley could easily be read as caricature. 7 But this is also a moment in which the constant video evidence of police brutality demonstrates the timelessness of white-supremacist monstrosity. Pulley was real, yet his violent excesses (and those of people like him) must seem less than real if fictions about nation, progress, and whiteness are to be maintained. Pulley won a libel lawsuit in 1972 against a newspaper that called him a racist. 8 His win came soon after the Mangrove Nine case, in which the bias of the Metropolitan Police was so blatant that protesters were acquitted of most charges, illustrating the contradictions and deep ambivalences of the moment.
The unchangeability of the figure of the anti-Black cop, crossing time and nation, can create fatigue with the image even before a new iteration is encountered. But as a filmmaker who has long explored the relationship between the passage of time and the body in pain, McQueen must have seen the offer of this series of films as a unique opportunity to deal formally with the relationship between the atemporality of racism and the possibility of progress. The films should be watched in order, for the structure within each film as well as how the series fits together invite a reflection on ongoing racism and optimism.
Mangrove is arguably the most conventional of the films in terms of its narrative composition. Its three-act structure begins with ongoing police harassment, leads to the court case, and ends with the community’s triumph, culminating in a celebration at the Mangrove that is, finally, not disrupted by the cops and in which McQueen does not cut to the police plotting to disrupt their joy. However, Frank Crichlow cannot seem to relax. His verdict was the first that was heard, and in the penultimate long take of him in close-up, as seen throughout the film, his reaction to the verdict revealed stillness and relief mixed with quiet grief. Afterward, revelers are celebrating to the 1969 Toots and the Maytals song “Pressure Drop.” Perhaps it is meant ironically: this is a song about karma—“pressure drop a drop on you / I say when it drops / oh you gonna feel it”—yet it is hard to imagine that karma ever affects the state.
Crichlow seems suspended, as if he is waiting for the other shoe to drop. His friend Granville walks by across the street and yells, “Yes, Frank! Liming at last!” Liming is a Trinidadian word for “chilling with friends,” and Crichlow both is and isn’t, as he stands outside his restaurant, somewhat apart. 9 And then the shoe drops—for the audience. A closing title card reveals that Crichlow would be harassed at his restaurant for eighteen more years, and would eventually receive a settlement of 50,000 pounds, the largest amount the Metropolitan Police had ever paid at the time. On-screen epigraph texts can render affectively precarious conclusions to the racial-injustice film, giving pleasure in triumph or undercutting a victory. As the opening act for the “Small Axe” series, Mangrove ends with both pleasure and purgatory.
In contrast, Lovers Rock, the second film and the most discussed, is somewhat of an anomaly in relation to the others. For although the threat of state violence lingers on the margins of the house party that the film depicts, a racist gaze intrudes on the intimacy of young lovers, and intracommunal violence and conflict are occasionally disruptive, this is a film that is thoroughly about black joy. It is a film that reminds viewers that Black people have always managed to carve out spaces for community and pleasure despite state oppression. One of the characteristics of McQueen’s long takes and extended scenes is the production of bodily vulnerability and violence. In the most memorable scene in Lovers Rock, vulnerability and flesh are the keys to celebratory abandon. On the dance floor, mostly populated by women at one moment, the dancers sing all the words to Janet King’s “Silly Games” a cappella. Bodies feeling the music, they move to a beat they know by heart. The high notes, impossible for some, are open to everyone to try. Eyes closed, hands on their own bodies or those of others, they are fully abandoned to the moment. This is carnal cinema, in which taking pleasure in black embodiment is the central focus of the film.
McQueen moves from ambivalent celebration to full-throated joy in just two films, but then he takes an affective turn. If you read about the real Leroy Logan, you would know that the child of Jamaican parents became a founding member of the Black Police Association, a superintendent, and was eventually awarded an MBE. Typical police-corruption films would follow his story until reaching a moment of triumph or of comeuppance for his racist peers. Instead, McQueen chooses to end Red, White and Blue when Logan is at a low point. He seems on the path to reconciling with his father, who was angry with him for abandoning his science education and becoming a police officer, but it appears that he will not be able to move up in his work or make a difference. “Big change,” his father tells him, “is a slow-turning wheel.” Logan replies that sometimes he thinks “the earth needs to be scorched. Replant it … so something good will come of it.” And the film ends with the police officer wanting to burn it all down, with no on-screen epigraph to soften the blow.
Defiance of genre expectations—ending in the middle, ending anywhere other than in a moment that allows the audience to feel hope, even when the real-life narrative does lend itself to it—frames a through line of police brutality from the Mangrove 9 story in 1970 to Logan’s joining the force in the 1980s, and demonstrates the challenge of changing that culture. McQueen is not interested in suggesting any possibility of real transformation within the police. The genre disruption produced by an exceptional Black man seemingly destined to be a hero failing at every turn in the film leads to the next film in which the protagonist meanders and struggles in his young life. If Logan seemed on track for greatness, Alex Wheatle does not; the film ends with his reading the file the state produced about him, showing how he was viewed as a child.
Alex Wheatle could have gone on to show how Alex started on a path to become a best-selling author but chooses not to reveal that. McQueen is defying not only narrative film expectation but the off-screen practices of looking at blackness in life: all too often people cannot imagine black futurity because they see their present struggles as limiting possibility for their lives. The uplift achieved by showing Alex’s different track would compel the film to conform to generic observations that require evidence of the possibility of success. Instead, McQueen inserts end titles that detail his future, a life turn barely hinted at by the past witnessed on-screen.
The story of how Wheatle was tracked in school leads to Education, the series’ final episode about educational tracking, in which a family must disrupt the British school system’s attempt to foreclose educational possibilities for their son, Kingsley. This film is structurally as conventional as Mangrove in terms of its story: a boy struggles in school, and his mother, initially trusting of the system, discovers she needs to be an advocate for her child. Eventually both parents confront obstacles to their communicating with their son, and the film ends with a scene of the family joined together. This bare-bones description, however, does not do justice to the complexity of Daniel Francis’s and Sharlene Whyte’s performances as parents whose own backgrounds prepared them neither to deal with the machinations of the school system nor, in the father’s case, to imagine outcomes for their children beyond their own work lives. Moreover, the plot trajectory common to educational dramas is only the generic frame for McQueen’s visceral rendering of these “subnormal” schools as holding pens where children are placed and never expected to advance.
In a scene that serves as a counterpoint to the dance-floor rendition of “Silly Games” in Lovers Rock, the students and audience must sit through a teacher’s excruciating acoustic performance of “House of the Rising Sun.” The lengthy a cappella singing on the dance floor invited the audience into the intimate pleasures of community spaces where people long to stay, whereas the teacher’s isolated, narcissistic pleasure in his own bad performance draws attention to a number of other classroom performances by white teachers in the film that are inherently alienating. In Shame (2011), McQueen included an extended delivery of a song to signify alienation with Carey Mulligan’s melancholic delivery of “New York, New York,” making use of the ways audiences physically signal their pleasure or rejection of music performances. Here the alienated ones are the audience and not the singer, who feels entitled to make a space his own as opposed to making a space for others.
People may wish for songs to never end, or may experience a three-minute song as purgatory. Boredom is a purgatory in Education that the audience knows can result in these students never becoming unstuck in the United Kingdom, even when their schooling is done. Reportedly his most personal, Education ends with the most sentimental frame the director has ever produced: a freeze-frame of young Kingsley looking up, dazzled and happy, at the solar system in a planetarium. It is earned sentimentality, offering a Black boy’s joy after hours—and decades—of struggle.
McQueen strikes a balance between black suffering and black optimism in the series, as the rhythm of the films in sequence invites the audience to reflect on the ongoing omnipresence of antiblack racism that is often disrupted, and conquered, by the joy of the West Indian community. Joy disrupted and joy that disrupts are central to how the audience understands their struggles. In 12 Years a Slave, the use of long takes of torture and few markers of time’s passing exhibited an aesthetic practice grounded in the carnal and in experiences of the body in pain, encouraging, as Vivian Sobchack argues, “conscious awareness with the energies and obligations that animate our ‘sensibility’ and ‘responsibility’ toward others.” 10 Although “Small Axe” still concerns state oppression, the joyous body sometimes becomes the counterpoint to the suffering one, inviting the audience to feel the threat to or the loss of it.
Martin Luther King Jr. claimed in his famous “How Long, Not Long” speech that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but bends toward justice.” 11 With the repetition of scenes of state violence that seem of this time and every time, King’s take on history has become dubious. And typically the racial-injustice film will encourage this narrative arc of progress. One of the pleasures of “Small Axe” is its more complex relationship toward justice and time. In moving back and forth across decades, McQueen shows himself to be a virtuoso in demonstrating that the arc is certainly long; but even if the arc may not bend toward justice, in the end it bends toward joy—a new direction for Steve McQueen’s filmmaking.
1.Edward Bacal, “Sharon Lockhart and Steve McQueen: Inside the Frame of Structural Film,” CineAction 91 (Spring 2013); see also Vivian Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).
2.Paul Newland and Brian Hoyle situate Steve McQueen in relation to a British “post-millennial art cinema” which is characterized by “industrial and formal fluidity, and, often, by ambivalence toward borders, be they generic formal, aesthetic, cultural, industrial, technological or, indeed, national” (233). They see Hunger (2008) as closer to art cinema and see Shame (2011), while “visually distinguished,” as a sign of his “Hollywood ambitions “(240). Paul Newland and Brian Hoyle, “Introduction: Post-Millennial British Art Cinema,” Journal of British Cinema and Television 13, no. 2 (April 2016) 233–42.
3.Jasmine Nichole Cobb argues that “12 Years recreates the issues endemic to the slave narrative as genre.” See Cobb, “Directed by Himself: Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave,” American Literary History 26, no. 2 (Summer 2014): 339–46.
4.Kam Williams, “The ‘12 Years a Slave’ Interview: Steve McQueen,” New Journal and Guide, February 3, 2014, https://thomasdanegallery.com/usr/documents/press/download_url/383/smq-the-new-journal-feb-2014.pdf.
5.Dan P. Lee, “Where It Hurts: Steve McQueen on Why 12 Years a Slave Isn’t Just about Slavery.” Vulture, December 8, 2013, http://www.vulture.com/2013/12/steve-mcqueen-talks-12-years-a-slave.html.
6.Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).
7.Odie Henderson, “Small Axe: Mangrove,” November 20, 2020, http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/small-axe-mangrove-movie-review-2020.
8.“Home News: Former Notting Hill Police Awarded £5,000 Damages for Libel in Sunday Newspaper,” The Times (London), April 29, 1972.
9.Carmen L. McClish, “Good Liming in Trinidad: The Art of Doing Something,” Liminalities: A Journal of Performance Studies 12, no. 4 (2016).
10.Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts, 3.
11.Martin Luther King Jr.’s address “Our God Is Marching On!” (popularly known as “How Long? Not Long!”) was delivered on March 25, 1965, in Montgomery, Alabama. Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/our-god-marching.
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