I became familiar with British filmmaker Steve McQueen’s work last year while writing a thesis on his 2008 film Hunger, based on the 1981 Irish hunger strike. Hunger is a devastating film no matter how much or how little Irish history you bring to it: the excruciating loss of life makes the viewing experience wrenchingly universal. As my thesis progressed, I trusted McQueen enough to watch his hugely successful and critically acclaimed 2013 film 12 Years a Slave. As a Black American, I’d previously had no desire to see yet another slave movie (providing no new insights or history), and I’d heard certain scenes were absolutely torturous to sit through. But after watching Hunger and his 2011 film Shame, it was clear that McQueen was doing something far more complicated than the basic exploitation of pain as entertainment.
McQueen’s films are steeped in the political, and in the complicated humanity and inhumanity of ordinary people pushed to the extraordinary. Hunger is about Bobby Sands, but it’s mostly about the decay of a mind and body fixated on becoming political capital. Shame is about the decay of the human mind as the powerful, hyper-sexualized body it only somewhat controls, grapples with repressed abuse. And 12 Years a Slave is about a typically individualist American who only understands injustice when it’s his Black body on the auction blocks. Most of McQueen’s films focus on the corporeal flaws of their protagonists without diving into the polemic—at least they did before the 2020 release of his Small Axe series.
McQueen created, co-executive produced, directed, co-wrote, and edited this suite of five films (which originally aired on BBC). While offering varied narratives of West Indian life in England from 1968–1982, the films are unapologetic in their mission to educate. But McQueen doesn’t appear to be writing to a white gaze so much as writing in solidarity with Black Britons who may not have known their own history, and who most certainly have never seen themselves on screen in such raw and familiar ways.
Black American history and the Troubles in Northern Ireland have produced hundreds of books and films, yet little has been greenlit around Black British history, and in particular West Indian immigration to England (including the colonial factors that led to emigration). In fact, many Black Britons have made a name for themselves playing famous Black American Civil Rights figures (see: David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma or Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman in Harriet) with little opportunity to portray their own, distinct British histories (Oyelowo and Erivo, for instance, are both first generation British of Nigerian descent). By telling other people’s stories, McQueen has stockpiled enough capital to finally normalise the use of patois, Caribbean slang, and near-constant teeth-sucking (which is familiar to most with exposure to common Caribbean gesticulations) on screen. McQueen is a first-generation West Londoner of Trinidadian and Grenadian descent and these films read as an achingly authentic tribute to his culture.
The first film in the series, Mangrove, centres around its namesake restaurant which became a hub for the British Black Panthers. Letitia Wright gives a mesmerising performance as leader of the movement, Altheia Jones-LeCointe, using every muscle of her slight frame. The film could have been told from her perspective, but instead we circle around the restaurant and its previously apolitical owner Frank Crichlow (played by Shaun Parkes), who is constantly harassed by the police. Through this framing we see how ordinary people are often forced into radicalisation by injustice. The showdown between cops and activists comes to a head during the historic trial of nine Black activists known as the Mangrove Nine, as they successfully put the racism within Scotland Yard on the record.
There is, as can be expected with McQueen, a nod of solidarity with England’s other European colonies as the main, racist antagonist, PC Frank Pulley (played by Sam Spruell) describes Black Brits as “just like the micks”. There’s also the brief inclusion of the young and sincere Scottish lawyer Ian Macdonald (played by Jack Lowden), the real-life barrister who represented a few of the Mangrove Nine and subsequently went on to become a leading figure in immigration law.
The second film in the series, Lovers Rock, centres around a sweltering house party doused with the genre of music—a romantic style of reggae music—the film is named after. Although not based on a true story, it’s the most visceral of the films. Similar to Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, we are confronted with issues of consent and how the extra complication of Blackness blurs already tenuous lines. How can bodies that vacillate between hyper-visibility, hyper-sexuality, and invisibility claim any agency? When reality flickers, what sounds, whose smells, and which voices remain long enough for the audience to discern?
Lovers Rock sways in the remnants of the fleeting as McQueen gives us unapologetic, Black sexuality in a way that is unprecedented in his work, and in most mainstream works. There’s danger and delicacy, repugnancy and romance at every turn. It’s in this film that McQueen reminds us of his artistic background. While there’s no main white character in the film, the fear, anger, and urgency brought into the house party is a direct result of the hatred and racism each character faced before, and as soon as they leave, this Caribbean séance. And the party is a conjuring of sorts, as the first fifteen minutes of the film show every detail of assembly, from the DJ’s tools to the procurement and assembly of food, wardrobe and make-up. The film is also bookended with an unidentified Black man carrying a cross as big as his body—seemingly as cloak, protection and invocation for him and his community.
As if to reward the non-art-film-loving audience that stuck around, the third film brings us back to the most traditional of narratives: Good cop vs a sea of bad, racist cops. Red, White and Blue is about Leroy Logan (impeccably played by John Boyega), a Black cop trying to make positive racial change from inside a system that brutalised his own father. Before retiring and becoming a writer, Logan had a long career with many interesting stories of fighting and beating “the system”, but McQueen avoids making his Black protagonist “magical” by instead highlighting his mortal, two-fold battle with the expectations of a racist society, and the conflicting and unrealistic expectations of his immigrant father in that society. Through Boyega, we see Logan’s naïveté, affections, virility, and stubbornness. Conversely, as in Mangrove, the white, English characters in the film are overwhelmingly one-dimensional—white people are mostly caricatures of evil white people. By doing this and centring the Black experience, McQueen makes us question our entertainment expectations, as the reverse has been customary since the dawn of cinema.
In the most moving of all the films, Alex Wheatle, we follow an orphaned Black child, from his vile treatment in a children’s home in Surrey to his awkward communion with the Black community of London. We watch Wheatle (the now acclaimed novelist) as a sensitive soul who is utterly lost and alone in worlds not of his choosing. McQueen uses his signature cinematic tools to amplify Wheatle’s (played as a wide, glassy-eyed adult by Sheyi Cole) internal echo chamber of anger and alienation. About seven minutes into the film, as Wheatle is punished for sticking up to bullies, he is placed in a straitjacket and dumped on a cold floor while being called a monkey. He is then left alone as the camera pans in and then out from his still, dejected body. Similar to harrowing, drawn-out scenes in 12 Years a Slave and Hunger, Wheatle doesn’t blink for at least ninety seconds in this take, and when he finally does, we feel the awful recognition of his resignation.
The absence of a female-centred story in the series is perhaps most noticeable in this film, with its coming-of-age talk of getting women’s “legs back,” (signifying sex as a one-sided rite of passage) without a contrary point of view or rebuttable. 12 Years a Slave was widely criticised for its portrayal of Patsey, most notably by Roxane Gay who said: “What I resent in 12 years a Slave is how the suffering of women is used to further a man’s narrative,” and that observation is not resolved in these films.
The last film, Education, is loosely based on McQueen’s own experience as a child in a so-called “educationally subnormal” school. We follow twelve-year-old Kingsley Smith (played by Kenyah Sandy) as he’s corralled into this school by an impatient and imbalanced education system. His motley crew of new classmates include a clear-eyed and precocious Black girl who suffers from appalling internalised racism, and a young white girl who barks like a dog when spoken to—implying that every disappeared child, every statistic, has a story worthy of their own film.
By including neglected white children in this vortex, it’s apparent that the State (Margaret Thatcher was the Secretary of State for Education and Science at the time) is the ultimate oppressor. The film’s presentation of social stratification isn’t as simple as righteous vs unjust, as much as overworked and ignorant parents falling victim to a system willing to make poor children of all races casualties in the name of a 1980s, neoliberal order. Similar to Frank Crichlow, who has his hands tied with running the Mangrove, Smith’s parents don’t initially have time to address or comprehend the full picture of injustice, as every second of their waking lives is spent trying to keep their family above water.
Popular series like Watchmen and Lovecraft Country are compelling and otherworldly to many viewers because of their unearthing and rewriting of American history. While the Small Axe films are also only based on history, they convincingly document a people staying afloat to invent a Black-British culture. This follows the long tradition of American films like Brooklyn, and even Gangs of New York, that portray the American (Irish) immigration experiences. But Small Axe stands in more of a direct conversation with Made in Britain (Tim Roth’s 1982 big-screen debut, chronicling the life of a white, teenage skinhead) by centring the Thatcher-stretched underclass, as well as the victims of the victims of England’s nihilistic nationalism. The technicolor world of New Wave and New Romantic Britain, courtesy of outlets like MTV, did little to educate people outside of the Isles on just how precarious things were, socially and economically, in late 1970s and early 1980s England. Fascism was on the rise, and a clear contingent of white Britons did not want to see what they viewed as scant resources go to Black and Brown immigrants.
McQueen may not have had the perspective as a child growing up in these circumstances to see the bigger, class warfare picture playing out, but this series uses this central tenet to educate and entertain. As an older “dread” explains to Wheatle in prison: “There’s enough talk of ism and schism and racism… me no defend nobody against the charge of racism, ‘cause Rasta don’t discriminate. But the main thing you have to worry about in this here country is the system of class and classism.” McQueen deftly acknowledges how this insight isn’t always easy to find while fighting for basic livelihood and survival. During a protest in Alex Wheatle, a Black Briton carries a (somewhat infamous) sign saying: “MRS. THATCHER SENDS SYMPATHY TO IRELAND BUT NOTHING FOR 13 YOUNG BLACKS IN LONDON ENGLAND.” McQueen’s catalogue tells us that he knows the flaws and intricacies of that postulation better than most.
It’s clear why McQueen chose Hunger and 12 Years A Slave as his first big projects, or perhaps why those production teams chose him, and why he took his time to make Small Axe, his labour of love. Very few directors are equipped to address the unflinching complications, the unsaid, and the unexplained strength of communities bound and buoyed by oppression. Fittingly, “Small Axe” is both a Jamaican proverb and a Bob Marley song: “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe, ready to cut you down.”