Produced by the BBC and Amazon and currently on view on the Salto platform, the mini-series in five films of unequal duration and autonomous in their narrative directed by Steve McQueen in 2020 received for the first two parts, Mangrove and Lovers Rock, which were to be released in theaters before the pandemic, the label of the Cannes Film Festival 2020. Lovers Rock was screened in 2021 and the festival organized a meeting with the British director (see his transcription on the site). A striking series to which we wish a wider distribution.
Small Axe immerses us in the West Indian community of London from 1968 to 1983, in which the cinema was hardly ever interested. We had brought in these people to rebuild the city devastated by the German bombings and then marginalized them when we needed them no longer. The director’s parents are from it, themselves coming from Grenada and Trinidad. In Small Axe, the song by Bob Marley that gives the series its title, the chorus refers to a Jamaican proverb: ” If you are the big tree / We are the small axe / Sharpened to cut you down (If you are the big tree / we are the little ax / sharpened to bring you down). Steve McQueen dedicated his series “to George Floyd and all the other blacks, visible or invisible, who were killed for who they were, in the United States, the United Kingdom and everywhere else.”
Clearly committed, the five films are an ode to resistance against discrimination. They pay tribute to the courage and solidarity of the West London Caribbean community in the face of police persecution but also celebrate its joie de vivre, in particular the blues evening full of dance, danger and seduction of the splendid Lovers Rock where the camera truly embraces the music and the bodies. They also reveal the wealth and quality of black actors, insufficiently sought after by cinema in the United Kingdom as elsewhere.
“Out the baboons!” “,” The black man must know what his place is, like the Irish! “: Mangrove starts in 1968 and reports on the unbearable police harassment to which members of the West Indian community are victims in the London borough of Notting Hill, in particular on the occasion of the opening of the Mangrove restaurant initiated by Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes). A peaceful protest against the violation of rights turns into a clash with the police, and the film focuses on the 1970 trial against him and eight of his clients and friends. With the support of a British Black Panthers activist and a skilled lawyer, the police are stuck and themselves accused, starting with a particularly racist officer. If these eleven weeks of trial where we talk about race are historic, it is because they act as the first self-defense of the community on the model of the American civil rights movement but also an affirmation of diasporic identity. The radicality of this trial film marks the entire series, with a point of view claimed in the script and assumed in the direction: while Caribbean immigrants want to be part of British society without denying their culture, the Police harassment is emblematic of a general, contemptuous and racist position, which marginalizes this population and violates its rights. Representing solidarity, creativity and the courage of resistance invites us to look history in the face. “We won the battle but we will see for the war”: it is also deliberately in the present that the series is anchored.
From then on, the sensuality of the festive evening of Lovers Rock is also an act of resistance in the face of ambient hostility. This episode takes its name from a gently swaying reggae school where bodies are invited to undulate and meet, music that truly haunts the film. Absolutely superb with its colors, its lights and a mobile camera that slips between the dancing bodies and looks for the postures and the gestures, this episode renders in a magnificent way the preparation and the atmosphere of the party as much as the jealousies, the frustrations. and the loneliness in a party where the collective pleasure of community affirmation also passes through a trance which calls for “bringing out the lion” Rastafarian. Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn), a young woman who is followed to her father’s beard at the party, will witness this complexity laden with macho ambiguity. As in all of his films, Steve McQueen dares to make the scenes last and is justified in his Cannes masterclass as a need to take the time to enter into this complexity. This episode is dedicated “to all lovers and rockers”.
“Don’t be a mobster and don’t bring a cop over to my house!” »Says his father to Leroy Logan when he is still young. Yet this is what will happen since he becomes it himself, first rejected by his father but supported by his wife. Red White & Blue deals with the possibility or not of changing an institution from within, starting with the police itself. This episode is inspired by a young man of Jamaican origin who enlisted in 1983 in the hope of reforming the police, and left it twenty years later after having risen in the hierarchy. John Boyega interprets it with great conviction while Steve McQueen puts his know-how at the service of the relentless analysis of the racist police system. What could be more current?
The fourth episode is named after its protagonist, Alex Wheatle, and it is indeed from his experience and through his gaze that the film is constructed. Orphan in fragile health and victim of racism in his home, he is moved to Brixton which vibrates with black culture, starting with music. He sets up his own band, the Crucial Rocker Sound System, but this will land him in jail. This is indeed happening at the time of the riots in Brixton which caused the fire started by the National Front which killed 13 young blacks in 1981. “If you don’t know your past, you don’t know your future”: his companion in cell will guide him on the path to his emancipation. After discovering black authors, he became a multi-award winning children’s writer.
Education is the fifth episode and is inspired by Steve McQueen’s own experience as a dyslexic child, he was placed in the 80s in an institution that did not recognize his disorder. He transposes the story in the 70s around Kingsley (Kenyah Sandy) that his mother (Sharlene Whyte) only understands when she realized that children who dropped out of school were being moved to “schools for the mentally retarded”. Women activists mobilize parents not to accept this marginalization, seeing it as segregation, and direct them towards an alternative playful school that takes black culture into account. Touching as much as terrible, this last episode also analyzes the racial defects of British institutions from a very human episode.