“Small Axe.” Huge, beautiful, vibrant impact. Here, reader, is some of the richest and most rewarding viewing around right now. And right now is when we need it.
The first three BBC films in co-writer and director Steve McQueen’s five-part London anthology, narratively disconnected but a wondrous whole nonetheless, premiered on Amazon Prime Friday, with new installments added weekly. I can’t force you to watch it. I can only try to convey why these stories (many from real life), taking place among London’s West Indian communities in the late 1960s through the 1980s, have so much to offer to anybody, anywhere.
“Big change — that is a slow-turning wheel,” says the Jamaican London immigrant played by Steve Toussaint to his policeman son, played by John Boyega. The late-night kitchen table scene, a quiet, perfect coda, caps the third film in the anthology, “Red, White and Blue.”
Everything in the first three “Small Axe” films spins on the wheels of change, who gets to control the speed, who represents the brute force of racism, and who rises up as an equal and opposite force. The series title comes from the Bob Marley protest song: “If you are the big tree / We are the small axe / Ready to cut you down.” McQueen’s work, however, is more poetic and dramatic than it is polemical. These first three are superb individual works, as different from each other as McQueen’s overall achievement stands apart from most everything else this year.
“Mangrove” starts it off, premiering Friday. In 1970, the “Mangrove Nine” stood trial after arrests made during a street clash between police and Notting Hill residents protesting racially-motivated police harassment and brutality. Like [“The Trial of the Chicago 7,”](
And what scene-setting! McQueen and co-writer Alastair Siddons create a swirl of community, with Frank Crichlow’s Mangrove restaurant, its West Indian aromas wafting all around Notting Hill, serving as the community gathering place. Raided by the police with painful regularity, the Mangrove’s protectors (“Black Panther” costar Letitia Wright among them) take to the streets in protest. Several cracked skulls later, “Mangrove” goes to court, with key figures on trial representing themselves.
Shaun Parkes centers the story as Crichlow, but this is a true ensemble piece, full of joyous, extended musical breaks. With its dub, American pop and soul tracks, “Small Axe” is 2020 1/4 u2032s soundtrack par excellence. Life among the Caribbean sub-communities goes on, though the ingrained racism of the white Metropolitan Police hangs over those streets like a mist.
The system, Crichlow says at one point, is “crooked as a damn ram’s horn.” How the trial comes out will be news to many American viewers. But “Mangrove” is more than its story’s courtroom resolution. It’s about the bloodstream of a neighborhood, long before Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant got there.
Premiering Nov. 27, “Lovers Rock” (about an hour in length, roughly half of “Mangrove”) works its own immersive magic. It’s a virtually plot-free survey of an all-night house party in 1980. McQueen and co-writer Courttia Newland drew from their memories of 1980s house parties, and what they meant to their respective London communities.
“Lovers Rock” is small: It’s about a young woman (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn who meets a young man (Micheal Ward) at a West London house party the woman attends with her friend (Shaniqua Okwok).The men scope out the ladies; the women brush off the more aggressive prospects. The film operates as an extended musical number, realistic but transporting, though McQueen keeps one eye, always, on potential dangers. The DJ spins everything from “Kung Fu Fighting” to Janet Kay’s “Silly Games.” Then, as dawn breaks and the newly acquainted lovers-to-be glide along on a bicycle in a rapturous extended shot, “Lovers Rock” turns into an expression of pure romantic possibility.
“Star Wars” alum Boyega stars in the third “Small Axe” film, “Red, White and Blue” (Dec. 4). It’s a pleasure to see what he can do with a leading role after being stuck in the margins of a franchise.
Like “Mangrove,” this one’s based on fact, in this case the story of London police officer Leroy Logan, of Jamaican descent and a research scientist by training. Like “Lovers Rock,” “Red, White and Blue” tells a story of 1980s Britain in all its divisions and prejudice. Logan tosses aside his scientific career because his community needs faces like his on the side of law enforcement. I’m here, he tells his fellow recruits, “to bring change to this organization from the inside out.”
Those are fighting words to the white establishment in uniform. Logan endures constant scrutiny, vicious taunts, locker defacement and worse. His white colleagues refuse to offer backup in a pursuit. All this, to Logan, provokes memories of his own father years earlier, suffering a bloody, unprovoked stop-and-search arrest. Father cannot understand why Logan believes these minds can be changed at all.
At a mere 80 minutes, the script by McQueen and Newland feels amazingly full, and Boyega’s careful delineation of how each new insult, and roadblock, affects him emotionally proves his talent the best possible way: through character, and action. I knew nothing about Logan’s life and career before seeing “Red, White and Blue.” Everything that happens to him, every unspoken code of silence, every racially messed-up exchange, feels like it could be Chicago in the 1980s, or Chicago now. Or anywhere now. The wheel turns; “Small Axe” shows how hard, and how necessary, it is to keep it spinning.
‘Mangrove’ running time: 2:04
‘Lovers Rock’ running time: 1:08
‘Red, White and Blue’ running time: 1:20
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