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.
James S. Williams From Film Quarterly, Summer 2021, Volume 74, Number 4 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 …
Christina Sharpe’s conception of “wake work” concentrates on how visual and expressive culture renders and contemplates death and the afterlife of slavery in black life. For Sharpe this entails a focus on how “literature, performance, and the visual culture observe and mediate this un/survival.” Her assessment of existence “in the wake” as a critical positioning attends to the structural and affective with reference to a range of connotations including “the keeping watch with the dead, the path of a ship, a consequence of something, in the line of flight and/or sight, awakening, and consciousness.”
Historically, the study of the idea of black film has been a fraught, insightful, and generative enterprise—be it a matter of industrial capital and its delimitation of film practice in terms of profit, or the tendency to insist that the “black” of black film be only a biological determinant and never a formal proposition. In many ways, the black film as an object of study mirrors the history of America, the history of an idea of race. While the field continues to shift and change, and the study of black film becomes more common, it is often still tokenized by the industry. Discussion about black film and media is booming in academic programs (e.g., American Studies, Women and Gender Studies, English) and in Film and Media Studies, but it is doing so even more in nonacademic spaces, with blogs, podcasts, and think pieces proliferating at a rapid pace. We offer our manifesto, recognizing that film manifestos never whisper. Their messages envision political, aesthetic, and cultural possibilities. They demand and plot. They question and insist. What follows are expectations bundled as concerns for not only the renderings of black film to come but, as well, the thinking on blackness and cinema that we hope will thrive and inspire future discussions. We are devising new terms of engagement with current developments in mind.