Pressure Drop: A “Small Axe” Introduction

Michael Boyce Gillespie

From Film Quarterly, Summer 2021, Volume 74, Issue 4

Some bodies are deemed as having the right to belong, while others are marked out as trespassers, who are, in accordance with how both spaces and bodies are imagined (politically, historically and conceptually), circumscribed as being “out of place.” Not being the somatic norm, they are space invaders. —Nirmal Puwar

Identity is not as transparent or unproblematic as we think. Perhaps instead of thinking of identity as an already accomplished fact, which the new cultural practices then represent, we should think, instead, of identity as a “production,” which is never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation. This view problematises the very authority and authenticity to which the term, “cultural identity,” lays claim. —Stuart Hall

Steve McQueen’s anthology film series “Small Axe” (2020) enacts a visual historiography of West Indian life in London from the Windrush generation of the 1960s through the early 1980s. 1 Across Mangrove; Lovers Rock; Red, White and Blue; Alex Wheatle; and Education, the series devises this history with distinct formats (film and digital, 16 mm and 35 mm), postproduction processes, and aspect ratios. 2 Of differing lengths and ambitions, each film poses a discrete spatiotemporality and sense of adaptation that defies fidelity concerns or authenticity quibbling. The series thrives as an exquisite and ceaseless engagement that is formally inventive, historical, literary, cultural, and mnemonic.

One film is a historical drama, two loosely resemble biopics, one is based on a story told to McQueen by his aunt, and yet another is partially informed by his own childhood experiences. Each film’s narrative arc reckons with resolution and the emplotment of history differently, but all enact the “out of time” and identity production noted above. In this way the films render historical content with the prerogative of an aesthetic practice. “Small Axe”s attention to the everyday agency and antiblackness of West Indian life must be appreciated with the history of Black British filmmakers and filmmaking in mind. This point entails recognizing the series as part of a historical legacy of films devoted to West Indian life—what Ashley Clark notes as “a ghost canon of British filmmaking: urgent work that has often been overlooked, actively suppressed, or left to languish in the margins, unloved or inaccessible.” 3 Offering distinct modalities of film blackness, the films in total represent a concentrated and accumulative recuperation. As McQueen has observed: “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.” 4 The aesthetic and critical richness of the series resounds as a “fix” guided by black visual and expressive culture.

Mangrove is located in the shifting cartographies of London in the midst of urban redevelopment while also wading through Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” and a world emboldened by antiblack fantasies of white sovereignty. Affectively speaking, the film swings from the escalating confidences of a community’s spicy-food counterpublic to the relentless precarity and random/sudden brutality of the police. Its contextual concentration on the radicalization of the West Indian community of Notting Hill is matched by the courtroom drama that formally produces a dissension. If the courtroom drama always becomes a showcase of the orchestration of the law and a deliberation on crime, then the real crime of the “Mangrove Nine” as recognized by the law exceeds riot and affray: the community itself, as the film and historical record makes clear, was seen as a violation.

Early on, Lovers Rock details the building of a black space: a sound system and dance floor, coupled with food preparation—a pop-up commons; a house party with music, dancing, and longing that triggers an affective circuit of roots and routes. The film’s sustained embeddedness in this spatiotemporality of the dance floor tracks the production of “sonic bodies,” people immersed in sound to such an extent that their embodiment of the music operates as a sounding of experience and desire. 5 The camera movements often suggest the sway of a dancer, if not stumbler, but in fact the camera captures the concussive rhythms and choreographies of black becoming that press the dancers at all tomorrow’s parties. Lovers Rock offers an extended exercise in intensities, bodies making space, promises, and the rhythms of the unmoored. 6

Patty (Shaniqua Okwok, left) and Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn, right) in Lovers Rock. Photo courtesy of Parisa Taghizedeh/Amazon Prime Video.

The “excruciating pose” of Red, White and Blue hints at a Leroy Logan biopic, but its more selective framing of his life and aspirations maneuvers more as the unraveling of a citizenship script, if not fantasy. 7 The film presents a Black policeman committed to fulfilling the branded promise of an earlier era’s sense of “representation matters.” His dialogue often reeks of a brochure proselytizing color-blind liberalism and a belief that there are no systemic problems, only misunderstandings. Logan joins London’s Metropolitan Police in the belief that his presence will enable some kind of ethical recalibration. His father’s son, he has been raised as a respectability dreamer. In a pivotal exchange, he yells at his father, “You made us feel like we could be a part of everything. You wanted us more British than the British.”

More than any other film in the series, Alex Wheatle bears out the processes of identity production and black becoming that were detailed by Stuart Hall. Its narrative of Alex Wheatle again traffics in a selective impression of a biopic, tracking a protagonist across time, but this time there is no consistent allegiance to causality. The film plots with crafted glimpses of pivotal moments in Wheatle’s life. These moments demonstrate a character awkward and assured, despairing and agential. Alex Wheatle is at once a carceral story of black consciousness, an orphan’s journey, a Brixton memoir, a tale of deracination, and the legend of the Crucial Rocker sound system. It thrives as it distills the exquisite fermenting of blackness, not as a dead-reckoning escapade, but as an accruing of questions and cultural scripts.

Education opens in a planetarium, with Kingsley Smith enraptured by the galaxy projected on the ceiling above. He has the sheer ordinariness of a sweetly rambunctious dreamer. Rather than playing out his wish of being an astronaut on a Walter Mitty fantasy scale, Education brutally details a system of disposability and institutional targeting of West Indian children. In the shadow of Bernard Coard’s 1971 exposé of the British school system, the cultural mission of Saturday schools, and the pursuit of the good life, Education is at once the least violent and most diabolical of the series. 8 The film’s tender focus on Kingsley and a West Indian family ends with the closing credits scrolling over an image from the opening of the planetarium spectacle that suggests something about the limits of dreams and the limits of ceilings.

In this Film Quarterly section, two prominent scholars take up the challenge of assessing “Small Axe.” In “How Long, Not Long: A Take on Black Joy,” Rebecca Wanzo richly concentrates on how lovingly “Small Axe” lingers on and honors West Indian joy. Importantly locating the series within McQueen’s larger body of work, Wanzo also considers its “balance between black suffering and black optimism” within shifting registers of antiblackness and exuberance. In particular, she gives much needed attention to the generic modes and forms deployed throughout. In “Redemption Song: Performing Black History and Masculinity,” James S. Williams examines the critical consequence of how history is narrativized in the series. He offers crucial insights into how each film focalizes the individual while remaining irresolute about remaining an exclusively historiographic process. Williams details the performative tendencies of the series regarding conceptions of black masculinity as he notes how McQueen’s rendering of black masculinity tends toward “the exceptionality of individual male self-expression within the norms of sexuality and family.”

The work of Wanzo and Williams provides a foundation for the critical work that must be done in the future by studying “Small Axe” not only as a collection of film objects but as a system of affective, historiographic, performative, and aesthetic enactments of film blackness. The rigor with which Wanzo and Williams carry out their analysis provides an abundant and generative assessment while pointing forward to the work that remains to be done.


1. The epigraphs are from, respectively, Nirmal Puwar, Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place (Oxford and New York: Berg, 2004), 8; and Stuart Hall, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” in Identity: Community, Culture, Difference, ed. Jonathan Rutherford (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1990), 222.
2.Especially noteworthy is Shabier Kirchner’s cinematography for the five films, as each one is informed by a distinct aesthetic principle. See Zoe Mutter, “The Truth Shall Prevail,” British Cinematographer, March 2, 2021,
3. Ashley Clark, “Scenes from a Hostile Environment,” Sight and Sound, September 2020, 32.
4.David Olusoga, “‘These Are the Untold Stories That Make Up Our Nation’: Steve McQueen on Small Axe,” Sight and Sound, December 2020, 26.
5.See Julian Henriques, Sonic Bodies: Reggae Sound Systems, Performance Techniques, and Ways of Knowing (London and New York: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2011), xv–xvii.
6.Some of my thinking here is informed by Aimee Meredith Cox’s conception of choreography as an ethnographic analytic. As she writes, “Choreography suggests that there is a map of movement or plan for how the body interacts with its environment, but it also suggests that by the body’s placement in a space, the nature of that space changes.” Cox, Shapeshifters: Black Girls and the Choreography of Citizenship (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015), 29.
7.During his discussion of Kerry James Marshall’s 2015 painting Untitled (policeman), Darby English comments on the irresolute tension of the painting’s depiction of a Black policeman: “[Kerry James] Marshall tells us not how to think. Rather he asks us to hold the ideas ‘black’ and ‘policeman’ at the same time, and, further, to hold this excruciating pose.” Darby English, To Describe a Life: Notes from the Intersection of Art and Race Terror (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019), 29.
8.See Bernard Coard, 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 (London: New Beacon Books, 1971).

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