Crash Course: Small Axe

Is “Small Axe” a series of movies or an Anthology TV show?  This is the question that has been tearing apart the critical community and as I write this intro, having not yet watched most of them, I’m not yet sure.  “Small Axe” is a series of five films (episodes?) made by the acclaimed British director Steve McQueen (of 12 Years a Slave fame) each about the common theme of the black British experience during the 20th century.  Some, but not all, of the installments played at film festivals and they were financed by and debuted on the BBC in the UK and premiered on Amazon Prime stateside and I don’t know that they ever would have played in theaters even without the pandemic.  In the past that TV premieres likely would have been the end of the discussion for me.  I tend to be pretty strict about this sort of thing and when I deem something to be TV I generally don’t write about it on the blog or deem it eligible for things like my year-end top ten lists or The Golden Stakes.  I don’t have a lot of patience for wishy-washy “don’t put things in boxes” protestations, boxes create order dammit!  I also bristle at the rather snobby undercurrent that often pervades these discussions implying that as soon as something is good it needs to be “saved” from the TV label and join all the real movies at the grown-ups table.

On the other hand… it has become rather difficult to make these judgments in a year where I’m not really watching much of anything in theaters and there have been plenty of movies that went straight to some sort of streaming service or HBO like they’re “real” movies as it seems inane to insist on theater screenings in a year where those basically don’t exist.  So that would point to them being treated as real movies right?  They are by and large self-contained movies of a feature-length coming from an established film auteur.  On the other other hand… the fact that they’re a “series” complicates things.  I certainly don’t consider individual episodes of “Black Mirror” to be movies even if those are self-contained stories, some of which are long enough to be features.  I also consider the project this is most commonly compared to, Krzysztof Kieślowski’s “The Decalogue,” to be a TV show even though it often gets roped into movie canons despite having premiered on Polish television and having hour-long episodes.  Amazon, for their part, put the series in their TV section and their interface describes it as “season one” of a “series” with “episodes,” but then again maybe I’m letting the framing dictate this a bit too much.  McQueen could have easily “fooled” us by putting each “episode” out into theaters and we might have never known they were conceived as an anthology series.

So in case you couldn’t tell, I’m a bit torn.  But maybe I just need to watch them before I can come to a final judgment and even if I do end up deciding this is a TV show for the purpose of year-end honors I think there will still be value in writing about the latest Steve McQueen project for the site as I come to my judgment.

Mangrove (12/25/2020)

The first installment of “Small Axe” is easily the longest of the five episodes and the one that can most easily be considered a stand-alone feature.  It tells the real-life story of the “Mangrove 9,” a group of people arrested at a protest that occurred outside the Mangrove restaurant, which had been a central meeting place for the West Indian community in London and had frequently been the target of harassment by the police.  So in terms of subject matter it’s not too hard to view this as something of a smaller scale British version of another of this year’s bigger movies, Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7.  Unsurprisingly Steve McQueen’s approaches his film differently from Sorkin, who has a bit more of a maximalist inspirational approach.  This isn’t to say that McQueen’s film would be called “minimalist,” in fact it’s probably his most accessible film with the possible exception of Widows, but I’m not sure McQeen finds anything “inspirational” about this story even if it [spoilers] ostensibly has a happier ending.  The racial discrimination that by the police that sparks the initial protest in the film is almost comically overt and terrible, the kind of behavior that you’re almost shocked they thought they could get away with (though the victims are rather pointedly not shocked).  When it transitions to the courtroom the film doesn’t wildly diverge from the usual tropes of the legal drama but it does effectively show what these people were up against and give a good idea of how clear the injustice of them even being on trial in the first place.

Lovers Rock (12/26/2020)

“Mangrove” is a full two-hour movie and the third movie “Red, White, and Blue” is about 80 minutes, but three of the other five “Small Axe” movies only run between 60 and 70 minutes.  That would have been considered a semi-routine feature length in the 30s or 40s and does count as feature-length by The Academy (who consider 40 minutes the cutoff), but it’s also shorter than several premium TV episodes and is also short enough that it would make theatrical exhibition impractical without some sort of added content.  “Lovers Rock” is the first of the “short” episodes and is also noteworthy for being the only of the five films to not deal with any real historical figures or events.  Instead this focuses on a common house party in West London attended by various young West Indians.  So, you could kind of view it as a less comedic black British version of something like Dazed and Confused where you’re sort of dramatizing one memorable coming of age night for some young people.  The film is named after a subgenre of reggae music and this party is being DJed by someone who clearly knows their Caribbean music because the film has quite a bit of music playing in the background and some of the highlights are moments on the dance floor when people start to really get into the music.  Were this not part of a five-part collective this likely would have felt a bit like it was missing something and could have used some expanding, but within the context of “Small Axe” its purpose is very clear: it’s trying to show positive side of West Indian British life apart while putting the struggle and strife we see in the other films more into the background.

Red, White, and Blue (12/27/2020)

So, this actually isn’t my first time watching the third Small Axe movie Red, White, and Blue.  I’m on a mailing list where Amazon occasionally has me take part in online focus groups and a couple months ago they had me watch this one film out of the context of the larger Small Axe packaging.  I had heard about Small Axe beforehand so it wasn’t like I was out of the loop at the time but I did feel it fair to watch it again within that context given that that first one was technically a work in progress version (though I didn’t notice any changes in the final cut).  When I watched it the first time I liked it, but it kind of felt like it was missing, that it felt somewhat incomplete compared to Steve McQueen’s other films.  I still basically feel that way now but viewing it as an installment of an anthology makes that incompleteness feel a bit more “right.”  The film goes back to the topic of police violence previously examined in “Mangrove” but this one dramatizes the life of Leroy Logan, who was one of the first black men to join the London Metropolitan Police over the protests of his father, who had been a victim of police brutality.  From there it becomes a sort of black Serpico with him needing to deal with being something of an outsider and pariah within the department despite trying to be a good cop.  But unlike Serpico this doesn’t necessarily end with him taking down the “bad apples” and instead ends somewhat abruptly with the audience kind of led to believe that changing institutions from the inside is perhaps not so possible.  There probably were ways to end this more hopefully, I looked up the real Logan and it does appear that over the course of several decades he did make some incremental changes to London policing, and I feel like there could have been room to tell some of that were this a full film rather than an 80 minute entrant in an anthology.

Alex Wheatle (12/28/2020)

In the lead up to my watching Small Axe the consensus I’d gleamed was that the fourth film “Alex Wheatle” was the weakest of the five, and in essence I agree with that.  The titular Alex was a young man who was imprisoned for a role he played in the 1981 Brixton Riots who would later go on to be a novelist who wrote about his old neighborhood some twenty years later.  This installment is specifically about his youth in Brixton and unlike many of the other Small Axe episodes this isn’t really about any one aspect of society failing black people so much as it’s more of a sweep of what life was like in this place and time.  I think more than any of the other episodes here this doesn’t really feel like it was ever going to be able to stand alone as a feature film even in an expanded form, or at least it doesn’t feel like it would have been a particularly notable one.  It does however make sense as kind of filler episode in an anthology series, the equivalent of something like that episode of Black Mirror about the soldiers in the VR simulation: not something you’d be crazy for on its own but worth watching as part of an overall package.  But maybe that’s selling this thing short.  Wheatle does prove to be a pretty intriguing protagonist early on and the film’s dramatization of the time leading up to the Brixton Riot itself is quite good, in fact I think McQueen gravitated to this story because he wanted to address that riot without just making Mangrove all over again but it’s not quite sure what it wants to do with this story after that point and seems to run out of material despite the rather short running time.

Education (12/31/2020)

The title of the last Small Axe film gives a pretty clear indication of what the theme is, it’s the failures of the British education system when it comes to black children.  Specifically it’s about a particular scandal in which it was discovered in the early 70s that many black children were being systematically placed into “special” schools where they receive sub-optimal education.  In the film this is represented by the experience of a kid named Kingsley who is sort of a fictional composite of many kids in a similar situation at the time.  He appears to be dyslexic and does struggle with reading as a result, but rather than put in the extra effort to educate him they put him in a remedial school which is plainly a joke where the teachers actively don’t bother to educate anyone.  I think this was selected as the final entry in the series in part because it ends on a slightly more hopeful note than some of the other films.  Much of McQueen’s goal in making “Small Axe” was to provide black Brits with the same kind of canon of civil rights stories that American children get, but given that Steve McQueen generally isn’t the rosiest person these movies don’t have a lot of “we shall overcome” to them.  But “Education” is something of an exception as it ends not with the kind of quiet resignation the other films end with but instead with an example of the community coming together to provide something of a half-solution to the issue at hand.

In Conclusion:

You know, I was kind of hoping that over the course of watching the Small Axe series my position that they were TV rather than film would have weakened over time, but I must say having seen all of them together I’m more confident than ever that this is an anthology TV series rather than a true set of five movies.  And there’s nothing wrong with that, TV can be great!  Things don’t just become “movies” because they’re well made, movie people don’t need to butt in and announce “we’ll take it from here” the second a TV series like this comes along and frankly I worry I’ve already waded a bit too much into those waters by covering it on this movie blog at all.  Having said all that, this is certainly a really worthwhile piece of work regardless of what you label it.  These are important stories worth telling and, when collected together, the five films make a pretty powerful statement about what British history in the 20th Century has looked like.


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