'Small Axe': A Searing Portrait Of Racism And A Community's Will To Survive

Nov 20, 2020
Originally published on November 20, 2020 1:45 pm

Steve McQueen has made searingly powerful films about historical injustice, from slavery in the American South to a 1981 hunger strike in a Northern Irish prison. But only now has he dramatized the experiences of Black women and men in the U.K., specifically the West Indian neighborhoods of London where he grew up. He clearly has a lot to say: His anthology Small Axe, which he directed and co-wrote, consists of five dramatic films, each one telling a different story set between the 1960s and the 1980s.

I haven't seen the last two films in the series, Alex Wheatle and Education, which will air later in December. But the first three are terrific: Engrossing, vibrantly shot and superbly acted, they draw us deep into a community defined by its strong bonds, often expressed in joyous scenes of characters singing, dancing and sharing meals. But they also show how hard-won that joy is.

The first film, Mangrove, is an electrifying account of a landmark 1971 trial that exposed anti-Black racism within London's Metropolitan Police. Shaun Parkes plays Frank Crichlow, a Trinidadian immigrant who owns a restaurant called the Mangrove that becomes a favorite meeting place for Black Londoners. Before long, it's being raided by white police constables, driving away patrons and destroying Frank's property. Darcus Howe, an activist played by a sensational Malachi Kirby, urges Frank to respond to this campaign of intimidation by organizing a protest.

The community organizes a march to a local police station, where Frank, Darcus and seven other demonstrators, known as the "Mangrove Nine," are arrested and charged with inciting a riot. That setup might bring to mind the recent film The Trial of the Chicago 7, but the legal drama here has none of Aaron Sorkin's glib self-satisfaction.

It's also more cinematic: McQueen's camera boldly captures the lopsided power dynamics of the courtroom, where dishonest cops and a biased judge seem bent on upholding the status quo. But justice of a sort does prevail, and Mangrove becomes a stirring tribute to the power of impassioned home-grown activists like Frank, Darcus and Altheia Jones-LeCointe. She's played by a terrific Letitia Wright, so memorable in the Marvel superhero movie Black Panther.

Mangrove has a clear thematic link to the third Small Axe film, Red, White and Blue. It's another fact-based story of police injustice, but a more somber, intimate one. John Boyega, known for the most recent Star Wars trilogy, gives a genuinely star-making performance here as a cop named Leroy Logan. He joins the force in 1983, hoping to fight the institutional racism that has already devastated his community, including his own father, Kenneth, who was violently beaten by two cops for a parking violation.

Leroy believes the only way to transform an unjust system is from within. Easier said than done: He witnesses and experiences no shortage of mistreatment by his white colleagues, especially when they ignore his call for backup while he's chasing a suspect. The real-life Leroy Logan went on to spend three decades with the police and became one of its most important reformers. But his brilliant career is only hinted at in Red, White and Blue: This is Leroy's origin story, a reminder that even the smallest steps can bring about necessary change.

Micheal Ward and Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn are strangers who connect on the dance floor in Lovers Rock.
Parisa Taghizadeh / Amazon Prime Video

The sublime second film in the anthology, Lovers Rock, is one of its most unique: It's the only story here that isn't based on real-life figures. Arriving between the harder-hitting Mangrove and Red, White and Blue, it feels like a respite — a blast of pure, unfiltered bliss.

The movie takes place over one glorious night at a 1980 house party in Notting Hill. McQueen revels in the little details: We watch as a few men clear away furniture and hook up speakers, while a group of women work and sing in the kitchen, cooking goat curry and other Jamaican dishes. The title refers to lovers rock, a genre of reggae music that will figure heavily on the evening's playlist. But it also establishes the movie as a romance between two beautiful strangers, played by Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn and Micheal Ward, who seal their mutual attraction on the dance floor.

Running a short 68 minutes, Lovers Rock is a thrillingly immersive piece of filmmaking: The gently swaying camera puts us right there in the room as everyone sings and dances the night away, pulling us into a kind of trance in which time itself comes to a rapturous standstill. Given McQueen's tendency to focus on human suffering, it's wonderful to see him cut loose here: Lovers Rock is easily the most exhilarating film he's ever made. It shows that joy itself can be an act of defiance, an expression of a community's life force and its will to survive.

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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. British director Steve McQueen, who's best known for his movies such as "Widows" and the Oscar-winning "12 Years a Slave," has a new project unlike anything he's ever done. It's called "Small Axe," and it's an anthology of five films set in London's West Indian community. Our film critic Justin Chang says that in a year of galvanizing anti-racist protests, the films reveal a picture of Black lives and structural racism outside the U.S. New films in the collection will be rolled out every Friday on Amazon Prime Video between now and December 18. Here's Justin.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: Steve McQueen has made searingly powerful films about historical injustice, from slavery in the American South to a 1981 hunger strike in a Northern Irish prison. But only now has he dramatized the experiences of Black women and men in the U.K., specifically the West Indian neighborhoods of London, where he grew up. He clearly has a lot to say. His anthology, "Small Axe," which he directed and co-wrote, consists of five dramatic films, each one telling a different story set between the 1960s and the 1980s.

I haven't seen the last two films in the series, "Alex Wheatle" and "Education," which will air later in December, but the first three are terrific. Engrossing, vibrantly shot and superbly acted, they draw us deep into a community defined by its strong bonds, often expressed in joyous scenes of characters singing, dancing and sharing meals. But they also show how hard-won that joy is.

The first film, "Mangrove," is an electrifying account of a landmark 1971 trial that exposed anti-Black racism within London's Metropolitan Police. Shaun Parkes plays Frank Crichlow, a Trinidadian immigrant who owns a restaurant called the Mangrove that becomes a favorite meeting place for Black Londoners. Before long, it's being raided by white police constables, driving away patrons and destroying Frank's property. Darcus Howe, an activist played by a sensational Malachi Kirby, urges Frank to respond to this campaign of intimidation by organizing a protest.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MANGROVE")

MALACHI KIRBY: (As Darcus Howe) My brother, this government will never take up its responsibility to you and this community, not unless it sees people on the street. Let us organize a demonstration.

SHAUN PARKES: (As Frank Crichlow) We're not in Trinidad now, boy. This is Notting Hill.

KIRBY: (As Darcus Howe) This is Notting Hill. This place, the Mangrove, it is Notting Hill, whether you can recognize so or not. This is the front line. The Mangrove - this is coming into (ph) - the Black community is your community, the Black community who rely on the Mangrove just as much as you rely on them. Take it to the street.

CHANG: The community organizes a march to a local police station, where Frank, Darcus and seven other demonstrators, known as the Mangrove Nine, are arrested and charged with inciting a riot. That setup might bring to mind the recent film, "The Trial Of The Chicago 7," but the legal drama here has none of Aaron Sorkin's glib self-satisfaction.

It's also more cinematic. McQueen's camera boldly captures the lopsided power dynamics of the courtroom, where dishonest cops and a biased judge seem bent on upholding the status quo. But justice of a sort does prevail, and "Mangrove" becomes a stirring tribute to the power of impassioned, homegrown activists like Frank, Darcus and Altheia Jones. She's played by a terrific Letitia Wright, so memorable in the Marvel superhero movie "Black Panther."

"Mangrove" has a clear thematic link to the third "Small Axe" film, "Red, White And Blue." It's another fact-based story of police injustice, but a more somber, intimate one. John Boyega, known for the most recent "Star Wars" trilogy, gives a genuinely star-making performance here as a cop named Leroy Logan. He joins the force in 1983, hoping to fight the institutional racism that has already devastated his community, including his own father, Kenneth, who was violently beaten by two cops for a parking violation.

Leroy believes the only way to transform an unjust system is from within. Easier said than done. He witnesses and experiences no shortage of mistreatment by his white colleagues, especially when they ignore his call for backup while he's chasing a suspect. The real-life Leroy Logan went on to spend three decades with the police and became one of its most important reformers. But his brilliant career is only hinted at in "Red, White And Blue." This is Leroy's origin story, a reminder that even the smallest steps can bring about necessary change.

The sublime second film in the anthology, "Lovers Rock," is one of its most unique. It's the only story here that isn't based on real-life figures. Arriving between the harder-hitting "Mangrove" and "Red, White And Blue," it feels like a respite - a blast of pure, unfiltered bliss.

The movie takes place over one glorious night at a 1980 house party in Notting Hill. McQueen revels in the little details. We watch as a few men clear away furniture and hook up speakers while a group of women work and sing in the kitchen, cooking goat curry and other Jamaican dishes. The title refers to lovers rock, a genre of reggae music that will figure heavily on the evening's playlist. But it also establishes the movie as a romance between two beautiful strangers, played by Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn and Micheal Ward, who seal their mutual attraction on the dance floor.

Running a short 68 minutes, "Lovers Rock" is a thrillingly immersive piece of filmmaking. The gently swaying camera puts us right there in the room as everyone sings and dances the night away, pulling us into a kind of trance in which time itself comes to a rapturous standstill. Given McQueen's tendency to focus on human suffering, it's wonderful to see him cut loose here. "Lovers Rock" is easily the most exhilarating film he's ever made. It shows that joy itself can be an act of defiance, an expression of a community's life force and its will to survive.

DAVIES: Justin Chang is a film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed "Small Axe," the new collection of five films by Steve McQueen. The series begins today on Amazon Prime Video.

On Monday's show, activist Catherine Coleman Flowers talks about her campaign to bring basic sanitation to the nation's poor. So many people in rural Alabama lack sanitary waste disposal that a study documented the re-emergence of hookworm, an intestinal parasite previously thought eradicated. Coleman Flowers has been awarded a MacArthur grant to continue her work. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF JANET KAY SONG, "SILLY GAMES")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Seth Kelley directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SILLY GAMES")

JANET KAY: (Singing) I've been wanting you for so long, it's a shame. Oh, baby, every time I hear your name, oh, the pain. Boy, how it hurts me inside 'cause every time we meet, we play hide and and seek. I'm wondering what I should do. Should I, dear... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.