James S. Williams
Tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Ugly, hurtful, joyous, painful. —Steve McQueen
This is how Steve McQueen presents his project in “Small Axe” (2020) to honor recent Black British history—a story of systemic injustice and discrimination, protest and resistance, that has never before been properly narrated in British cinema. 1 Yet despite its compelling period re-creation of London from the late 1960s to the early 1980s and its eminently accessible, linear and realist style (aided by low-lit, muted browns, greens, and blues shot by cinematographer Shabier Kirchner), the experience of watching this sweeping pentalogy—Mangrove; Red, White and Blue; Alex Wheatle; Lovers Rock; Education—often seems, paradoxically, to work against the historical record, even to the point of swerving away from Black history at the very moment of retrieving it. 2
One sees this most graphically in Mangrove, the only film to provide a date and location (“Notting Hill, London, 1968”) as a formal element. The film is just settling into its pace as a serious courtroom drama about the momentous Mangrove 9 trial when, with no attempt to open up the cavernous chambers of the Old Bailey to the glare of the outside world and media, McQueen inserts an extended collage sequence of black-and-white photos charting the construction of the “Westway” elevated highway at the northern end of Notting Hill. The fleeting images are juxtaposed so fast that it is impossible to identify such messages as “Get us out of this hell,” daubed on walls by local residents due to the unbearable noise its construction generated. The link between local grass-roots protest and the Mangrove 9 is encouraged by the pounding music of Toots and the Maytals’ “Pressure Drop,” a song about revenge (“Pressure going to drop on you!”).
Yet for anyone unfamiliar with the issues of Westway and its chronology—the highway opened to traffic in July 1970, the original Mangrove demonstration occurred in August 1970, the trial ended in mid-December 1971—the collage sequence, however aesthetically arresting, seems at best an abstract diversion, at worst historical obfuscation. Similarly, a CGI-ed tower block continually glimpsed under scaffolding in the far background during the film’s early scenes—an obvious contemporary reference to Grenfell Tower—contradicts the historical fact that construction of the tower did not actually commence until 1972. 3 Any intended message about the continuity of working-class Black struggle and protest is obscured.
A lack of clear historical context and period is visible also in Red, White and Blue, where the decor suggests the late 1970s, even though Leroy Logan, who worked for the Metropolitan police force in Islington, didn’t join the force until 1983. There is, strangely, no mention here of the Brixton Uprising of April 1981, creating the sense of a historical vacuum that is compounded spatially by the effective compartmentalization of the Black communities portrayed in “Small Axe” (Notting Hill, Brixton, a generalized North and North-East London) depicted in the five wholly self-contained films in which they appear. It is telling that the political implications of the title Red, White and Blue are fully grasped only post-credits, at the very end of the film, when the famous black-and-white photograph by Vanley Burke, Boy with Flag, Winford in Handsworth Park, 1970—showing a young Black boy alone on a bike holding a Union Jack flag in his hand—suddenly appears, untitled, at the center of a black screen. The film’s central question of cultural identity—that is, the challenge faced by Leroy of how to be Black in Britain and lay claim to a British identity of one’s own making—is made fully concrete, but it comes too late and feels somewhat of an afterthought. As in Mangrove, this suggests an overall acute underlying tension in “Small Axe” between a push toward history and the pull of the aesthetic.
McQueen’s ambivalent approach to history is demonstrated self-reflexively in his extravagant process of fabulation in Alex Wheatle, in which the eponymous Alex (Sheyi Cole) is commanded by “Dread” Simeon (Robbie Gee) in their shared prison cell to tell his personal story. His account, which counters the official narrative of the illegitimate child “Alphonso” conveyed at the start by a bureaucratic (white) male voice off-screen (confirmed at the end as that of a member of the Social Services personnel), takes the form of a series of extended flashbacks that brilliantly betray the selective work of memory and the powers of self-invention and fantasy. A mash-up of tones, registers, and rhetorical flourishes is created, from the beautiful tracking shot of Alex’s wide-eyed arrival by car in a Brixton that manifests itself like a Black wonderland, to his boy’s own adventures in petty crime, the embarrassing and sometimes farcical scenes of cultural and linguistic disconnect (he declares he’s not African but from Surrey and will alternate between acquired whitespeak, Jamaican patois, and hastily learned street banter), and the patently embellished episodes of doing wholesale business as “Yardman Irie” with a local drug lord or immediately shouting back, “Fuck off, bacon!” to a policeman who picks on him while he’s queuing outside a club. As with much of “Small Axe,” but here explicitly, the viewer is left to speculate as to where history ends and fiction begins.
It is a curious, if slightly perverse, irony that in a film devoted ostensibly to the life of Alex Wheatle, affectionately known as the “Bard of Brixton,” the only sustained literary moment offered to the audience is of “New Crass Massahkah,” by dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, who is not formally credited. This is heard over a carefully presented series of iconic black-and-white photographs of the New Cross Fire in January 1981 and the consequent protest march through London the following March. By contrast, all that one hears from Alex is a rather lame rap performance to friends on the first night of the April Brixton Uprising that immediately follows in the film (“So we riot inna Brixton”).
The Brixton events themselves assume here an unreal, abstract, disconnected quality, for although the seeds of unrest have been planted from the outset with escalating police raids and persecution, the violent frenzy of the front line is conveyed in a 1980s saturated televisual style with layered slo-mo video effects and soon consigned to the back of the frame as Alex escapes to safety in a side street by hiding in a trash can. The actual scale and specifics of the Brixton Uprising (the consequences of “Operation Swamp 81” in the area) are all but lost.
Alex Wheatle highlights the extent to which “Small Axe” is not a historical chronicle with pretensions of providing historical truth. Rather, its approach to Black history, which McQueen raids selectively for personal stories and elements of local legend and folklore (like the man seen everywhere hauling a giant cross in Lovers Rock), is tangential. Indeed, engaged at a cultural and mythical level with these times, McQueen is ultimately concerned less with collective experience—such as the shared common stories of the Windrush generation and its descendants—than with individual acts. Despite paying tribute to Black community and solidarity, like the Black women activists who open Kingsley’s (Kenyah Sandy) mother’s eyes to the realities of her son’s miseducation in Education, he champions exceptional individual achievements against the odds by unlikely heroes and pioneers who struck out audaciously on their own and transformed themselves in the process—whether the Black Power militants Altheia Jones-LeCointe and Darcus Howe, who took the brave and dangerous step of representing themselves at the Mangrove 9 trial in order to be able to cross-examine the police; or Leroy Logan, who went against his own Jamaican family and friends by joining the Met police to try to reform the structurally corrupt force from the inside.
The emphasis is always on an individual journey that remains in progress. Thus the final titles of Mangrove focus exclusively on Frank Crichlow’s (Shaun Parkes) dogged persistence in running his Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill despite years of continuing police harassment. It is entirely logical in this reformulation of “racial uplift” aesthetics that Education concludes out of time in the outer space of the planetarium where it began, but reimagined now in deliberately makeshift fashion as a galaxy of African history and legend—including tales of Nigerian kings and queens like Amina, in a proto–Black Panther universe—with which the twelve-year-old Kingsley can learn finally to read and not just wonder but soar.
Performing Black Masculinity
It comes as no surprise in view of McQueen’s past work in Hunger (2008) that what lies at the core of the portrayals of conflicted self-identity and self-transformation in “Small Axe” is the male body. His Black boys, adolescents, and men here are by turns lost, vulnerable, broken, and beaten, often literally so. By contrast, the Black female figures, however secondary and one-dimensional (benign enablers like Kingsley’s older sister in Education, admiring sistas like Dawn in Alex Wheatle, loyal life partners like Leroy’s wife, Grets, in Red, White and Blue), are all confident about what they want and fully aware of the sacrifices required to obtain it.
McQueen’s ambiguous narrativizing of history informs his presentation of masculinity throughout “Small Axe.” In Red, White and Blue, the themes of identity as performance and of how to play and win at the games of a racist society as a young Black man with aspirations are made explicit at every stage of Leroy’s (John Boyega) journey. It is his aunt Jesse (Nadine Marshall), a former police liaison, who convinces him to give up forensics research and join the police force by selling him an idea of masculinity of benefit for the community: he is a naturally active man who needs to “express himself.” If Leroy comes to suffer increasing doubts about the validity of his identity as the official poster boy for “colored” officers and his self-appointed role as a bridge between Black and white communities, resulting in regular periods of full-frontal self-contemplation in the mirror, his manhood is never in doubt: he is a man’s man, a supreme athlete, a golden boy comfortable in his skin (witness his playful self-presentation as a Jamaican: “We JamDams”).
Leroy is counterposed to his artistic best friend “Leee” John (Tyrone Huntley), lead singer with the soul band Imagination, in a detail that further muddles the historical period since the band is presented as if at the height of its fame, which was 1981 or 1982 rather than 1983. Where Leee’s sexual identity remains indeterminate (or, as Leroy’s father, Kenneth (Steve Toussaint), puts it, “funny”), Leroy is endowed with superhuman strengths that flirt with stereotypes of Black male physical prowess, as when he suddenly flings himself into the air to subdue a dangerous criminal. Leroy’s idea of mutual respect and understanding between communities is conceived in resolutely masculine terms as a “man to man” proposition. When he becomes himself a victim of racial discrimination by being denied a promotion and is subjected to vicious racist slurs from within his own ranks, he articulates his anger in those same terms: “You’re not men!”
Such displays of male potency and defiance, accompanied by an underlying anxiety over performing black masculinity, all intensify in Alex Wheatle. The lanky, fragile Alex has to learn physically to be a Black man in Brixton by rehearsing the “black strut” demonstrated by the older Dennis in the hostel. Mirrors chart Alex’s journey into black manhood, from the moment in the barbershop when he looks quizzically at his self-reflection as “white” under the bemused gaze of the barber. Alex is presented as down-the-line straight, his friendships with men cautious and guarded, always heterosexual, never intimate. His warm embrace of Simeon is like that of a son respecting his father who has taught him the crucial lesson that one must “unlearn what he learn,” which comes down to class and the “classism” instructed by such early works as C. L. R. James’s influential The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution.
The camera plays it straight, too: at no point is Alex or Leroy made the erotic object of the gaze; even when Alex is presented topless and forced to strip fully naked in front of the drug gang, the camera coyly declines to reveal all. McQueen thus plows the normative territory of black male identity and sexuality in chaste and sober fashion, in striking contrast to his flagrant poetic license with history. He focuses instead on a more universal test of Black male experience: namely, how to rechannel and sublimate the negativity of daily experiences of discrimination and injustice into something unique and affirmative. Boyega’s powerful, remarkably controlled performance shows the immense personal effort consistently required to negotiate racist social codes and successfully process rage and frustration after each new blow. Leroy is pictured repeatedly on the running track and in the boxing ring, letting off steam; only rarely does he give full vent to his emotion and temper, slamming the pool balls down onto the pool table in the staff room after being deliberately left stranded without backup in a dangerous situation.
Red, White and Blue unfolds as a taut drama of positions and coordinates, of projections and self-projections. The intensive use of angles (including wide-angle and overhead shots), subjective and objective POV shots, and the play of distance between extreme close-ups and long shots make it the most formalist and dialectical of the five films. The struggle between father and son plays out in an extended relay of crafted reflections and intricate split-screen effects, framings, and angles that unfold in a public restroom where Leroy confronts Kenneth in silence in the mirror. The latter has just heard that his “day in court” seeking justice for a brutal and unprovoked attack by the police will never arrive.
The film’s formal structure and conceptual design can make it appear a somewhat dry academic exercise in form, with the mirrors standing in also for the glass ceiling Leroy is up against. Its symbolic heaviness is not entirely relieved by the inspired choice of three different tracks by Al Green that underscore the changing emotions between father and son. Most notably, “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?” accompanies the moment when Kenneth is viewed through a stationary car’s window as he catches up with Leroy in long shot to say good-bye on his first day of police training.
The reconciliation scene between the two men will take place in the family kitchen, where the tenderness of final acceptance is sealed by a series of shot/countershot maneuvers as Leroy announces: “I’ll be like my mother was to me, for you. That is what you chose, I must support that.” An objective shot of Leroy raising his glass of rum to Kenneth seated opposite him cuts to a reverse-field shot of the same glass, now blurred in the left foreground of the frame. This is followed by a subjective point-of-view shot from Kenneth’s perspective of his own glass meeting Leroy’s, which now occupies the right of the frame. Such a precise alignment of held objects produces the effect of a mirror reflection, soon flattened out by a final, lateral view of the pair facing each other across the table drinking (the final shot of the film). Their clinking together of glasses has rewritten and redeemed (if only through wordplay) the smashing of Kenneth’s spectacles during his beating by the police. The scene expresses the transcendent strength of the Black patrilinear tradition, with the father formally passing on the baton to the new generation represented by his son, himself now a beaming young father. This is consummate filmmaking, even if it serves to reinforce McQueen’s belief in the exceptionality of individual male self-expression within the norms of sexuality and family.
Revelations in Black Space and Time
There are instances in “Small Axe” of McQueen flexing his poetic muscle more freely and adventurously, aiming squarely to deliver on the powerful statement of authorial intent contained in the title, which itself echoes the 1973 song by Bob Marley and the Wailers:
So if you are the big tree
We are the small axe
Ready to cut you down (well sharp). 4
Such experimental moments, unencumbered by a deferential honoring of heroes, burst suddenly through the anthology’s composed carapace. They take the form of signature long takes and slow, gliding, lingering, and caressing zooms or tracking shots on and around the displayed male body. In Alex Wheatle, for over a minute and a half, the camera gently and painfully zooms into and away from the comatose body of the teenage Alex, who has been straightjacketed and thrown to the ground by school security guards. Such hyperstylized moments, sometimes repeated as if in a loop like McQueen’s earlier gallery work, diverge dramatically from narrative purpose. For example, there’s an expressionist long take, captured through a peephole, of Frank’s howling in rage and agony after being physically maltreated by court warders in Mangrove. Such shots also provocatively place the male body on the same level with objects, like the protracted medium close-up of a pan spinning on the floor after another raid on the restaurant in Mangrove. Similarly, one sequence in Red, White and Blue introduces troubled Black male teenagers at a youth club with a long shot of a stunted treetop signifying wasted potential, then culminates in a ten-second panning shot tracing the seemingly random, back-and-forth movement of a flock of birds in the sky.
In fact, what seems to propel “Small Axe” from within is a desire to use a combination of style, physicality, and pure presence to forge timeless, transformative, and redemptive moments of Black reality that transcend the commonly prescribed codes of social performance and code switching. Such moments are achieved most powerfully within the immersive set-piece dancing sequences of Lovers Rock. The scene that is already widely celebrated and cherished occurs when the partygoers unite instinctively for a mesmerizing a cappella rendition of Janet Kay’s plaintive “Silly Games,” which, with its impossibly high, sweet, soprano notes, points to McQueen’s fondness for exceptionalism. It hardly matters that dancing at a blues party at the end of the 1970s rarely involved direct bodily touching. This transportive event of shared sensory pleasure and emotion, freed of the white racist gaze that patrols the series, appears to suspend historical time in order to reveal fresh, liberatory forms of Black time and space. Its force is intensified later in characteristically male terms when the thundering, raw, instrumental dub of “Kunta Kinte” by the Revolutionaries takes over. The camera roves freely and intuitively among the swirling bodies and colored lights as it records men skanking together furiously in ritualized fashion, some flailing around shirtless, radiant with sweat, while wailing against Babylon.
McQueen has described the filming of these exhilarating visceral scenes as “for real,” avowing: “It was a spiritual experience. It wasn’t performative…. It was Black people seeing other Black people, feeling what they were feeling.” 5 The scene is a manifestation of the extraordinary energy and commitment of the ensemble cast of brilliant new Black British actors playing their parents and grandparents in what historian David Olusoga has termed a “special circularity.” 6 It is arguably at such euphoric, free-form moments that the historical and the aesthetic, so long in uneasy tension in “Small Axe,” genuinely come together and fuse.
Yet, as ever with McQueen, there are limits and contradictions to this dynamic process of revelation. The only instance of same-sex intimacy or desire in all of “Small Axe” occurs in this same scene, when the birthday girl, Cynthia (Ellis George), having narrowly escaped rape in the garden, is briefly shown on a bed, still in her red dress, kissing another Black woman, a gesture that is awkwardly returned. This is not just another rather forced contemporary gesture by McQueen; rather, it’s as if the strictly denied (even if undeniable) male homoeroticism of the male dance scenes was being crudely displaced and projected onto the two women and unceremoniously dumped there in bed with them. 7
Such confusions complicate any simple celebration of “Small Axe” as a visionary historical and cultural work. Yet in this bold, impassioned, and frequently moving attempt to transmit Black experience, Steve McQueen has nonetheless thrown down the gauntlet to a new generation of Black British filmmakers both to advance the continuing fight for social and political justice and to embrace the totality of the Black everyday, viewed from all angles. 8
1.The epigraph is from David Olusoga, “These Are the Untold Stories That Make Up Our Nation,” interview with Steve McQueen, Sight and Sound, December 2020, 35.
2.The restrained use of sexual or violent content reflects “Small Axe”’s status as a commission for the BBC, although no compromises are made with language, whether racist abuse or patois for which no subtitles are automatically provided.
3.Grenfell Tower was the site of a terrible modern tragedy on June 14, 2017, when the high-rise public housing structure went up in flames, trapping residents and leading to seventy-three deaths; the conflagration was due to the low-cost flammable material with which the building had been clad in a “renovation” geared to making it prettier for its wealthier neighbors.
4.The lyric allegedly referenced Jamaica’s three big record companies who controlled reggae at the time; there is no clue as to McQueen’s veiled target among UK production companies today.
5.Olusoga, “These Are the Untold Stories,” 35.
7.This highly problematic sudden lurch toward same-sex desire also recalls the moment in McQueen’s 2011 feature, Shame, when Brandon (Michael Fassbender) enters the scarlet shadows of a gay bar and forces a stranger who abruptly kisses him to go down on him. Brandon’s brief encounter with queer pleasure is presented as merely a symptom of his descent into abjection.
8.One such young director directly taking up the challenge is Lyttanya Shannon, who is currently preparing a documentary entitled Subnormal, inspired by Education. It is one of two documentaries newly commissioned by the BBC with McQueen as executive producer. The other is Black Power: A British Story of Resistance, by acclaimed British-Ghanaian filmmaker George Amponsah, which aired in March 2021.
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