Within the Divide: Steve McQueen’s ‘Small Axe’ (2020) – NYFF

by Patrick Preziosi

Between 1970 and 1984, the BBC undertook the Play for Today drama anthology project, commissioning more than 300 television plays––most of which were adapted from plays or novels––that would typically run anywhere between 50 to 100 minutes. Its luminaries are culled from a specific era in British film, wherein a renewed interest in social issues was bubbling up to the surface; it’s apropos that before each went down their own directorial paths, Play for Today (as well as Film4 and ITV) assembled the likes of Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Stephen Frears, Alan Clarke, and more. Many went into feature filmmaking, and some, like Clarke (before his untimely death in 1991), continued to produce what we loosely refer to as cinema under the auspices of television studios, some who’d only air the segment once, if at all.

The cinema vs. television debate here becomes less pressing, with the absence of a theatrical screening upon release being the only defining demarcation (which, nevertheless, has become nullified as repertory programming has often presented these projects and their ilk), and therefore engenders a singular artistic liberation that neither medium in its respective “ideal” format can offer. Steve McQueen has also inhabited the role of director in a similarly roundabout way, with a career in video art vaulting him into the realm of prestige filmmaking, announced with 2008’s Hunger. Now, with the serialized Small Axe, whose post-festival release sees BBC One and Amazon Prime acting as bicontinental distributors, McQueen similarly straddles himself across television and film, and like Clarke and the others before him, cherrypicks from within the divide.

For so consummate a formalist, McQueen’s also hampered himself by keeping subjects at arm’s length, which in turn, has wielded his own sense of craft against himself with films marred by over-literalization, both in their visuals and their characterization. The three out of a promised five installments that have been introduced to the festival circuit (they were supposed to premiere at Cannes, but were instead unveiled at the New York Film Festival)––Lovers Rock, Mangrove and Red, White and Blue––already vary in quality, but McQueen tinkers with the episodes’ contextualization, free as he is to forgo certain writerly etiquette and foreground a solid sense of worldbuilding.

Small Axe is set within London’s West Indian community, its five episodes taking place within the timeframe of the late 1960s to the early ’80s. McQueen himself was born in 1969, and his displayed confluence of history and fiction evidences a secondhand internalization of events the director would’ve been too young to comprehend at the time,such as the quasi-titular Mangrove 9, a group of Black protestors unjustly tried in 1970. This isn’t to say McQueen isn’t incisive, or that his films subsequently suffer from such an approach; instead, the director ably skirts matters of both historicity and relevancy, while he himself parses the events as best he can through film. Such as in Red, White and Blue, a knotty biography of Leroy Logan, one of the first Black police officers on the London Metropolitan Police Force (and later, superintendent), which stems itself unceremoniously after 80 minutes of discomfiting, institutional racism, never validating nor invalidating Logan’s chosen career path. In an interview with New York Film Festival programmer Dennis Lim, McQueen admitted to being unaware of Logan, before growing fascinated with the figure the more he learned.

When McQueen is more hemmed-in by historical specifics––as opposed to letting characters roam within the established temporal and physical settings––the resultant work is the director at his baggiest. Mangrove is the weakest of the three, but still fulfills its festival centerpiece status (although it’ll be the premiere of the series when it has its air date), running a comparatively marathon 124 minutes, while bearing a relatively conventional courtroom-set dramatism. A more television-beholden means of introducing each character effectively glosses over some of the potential nuances, although each performance––in their simultaneous emotiveness and liveliness––anchors the otherwise unfocused first-half. The restaurant of the title sits at Mangrove’s center, opened by one Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes); Frank’s business becomes a magnet for police harassment, which rains down as soon as the doors officially open. The Mangrove becomes the locus for the violent inequalities suffered by the Black community, and Frank’s own pushback against such a towering system of oppression also brings a leader of the British Black Panthers, Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright), broadcaster and activist Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby), and his wife, Barbara Beese (Rochenda Sandall), into the fold.

The parade of police brutality is harrowing, where every welcome lull could still be the site of an unceremonious crackdown. After the Mangrove’s kitchen is torn apart for the umpteenth time, McQueen and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner linger on a toppled-over colander, which seems to wobble into infinity–– the sustained shot is a potent image of aftermath, and a prime example of McQueen’s predilection for durational play now serving the larger narrative at hand. Elsewhere, London’s rapid development is reinterpreted digitally, a clever acknowledgement of passed time between the inciting protest and the following trial, which brings to mind the time-lapsed tower construction in David Fincher’s Zodiac.

Still, Mangrove doesn’t feature the condensed construction of its peers, and thus betrays the more free-flowing writing of Lovers Rock and Red, White and Blue. The courtroom scenes reign-in the flamboyant visual palette to prioritize the intricacies of elocution, which becomes its own conduit of self-actualization as many of the defendants decide to represent themselves. But it’s the depiction of the racist and instigatory PC Royce (a reliably repugnant Thomas Coombes) that ultimately lessens Mangrove’s status within Small Axe. McQueen opts for a too-cleanly delineated villain archetype, as Royce comes to singularly represent the abhorrent police practices, rather than figuring into the entire system at large. The expected, catch-all pardoning verdict does resonate, but a closing title card reveals that Frank Crichlow was no less targeted by the police after the film’s own events close. The universally recognizable courtroom drama resolution lets the true perpetrators off too easy, making Mangrove feel like an isolated event out of time, instead of the kind of continued commonality Britain’s overwhelmingly white––and subsequently, racist and xenophobic––institutions still perpetuate.

It speaks to McQueen’s adroit handling of the relationships each episode in that Red, White and Blue acknowledges the cruel, unfortunate reality as detailed by Mangrove’s closing statement, without sharing any repeating characters or places. This doesn’t necessarily excuse Mangrove’s half-hearted shrugging off of implications, but still exemplifies the singular cinema-television model McQueen has carved out. However, Red, White and Blue does similarly contain a cursory handful of establishing passages––including a tense, childhood run-in with the police––but with the viewpoint affixed nigh-entirely to Logan (played here by John Boyega), the fractured pacing befits the subjective experience.

Logan––who’s on track to becoming a research scientist––decides to join the MPS, after his father, Kenneth (Steve Toussaint) is assaulted by two police officers over a nonexistent traffic violation (in a tragic, true-to-life scene, Logan walks straight past his father in the emergency room, unable to recognize the man after the beating he suffered). Logan aspires to be a force of change, as much a community representative as he is a policeman, considering nearly all his now-cohorts are white. Despite gliding through the live-in, physical admissions exam, Logan is equally ostracized and ogled by his coworkers, an overwhelmingly venomous work environment that culminates in a racial slur scrawled on his locker. Encouragement comes fitfully from friends and family: Logan’s father is reasonably resentful; his expecting wife, Gretl (Antonia Thomas) eventually reconciles with her husband’s decision; his older family friend Jesse (Nadine Marshall), a “Met liaison”, is the one to suggest his enrollment; her son, a member of seminal soul group Imagination, Leee (Tyrone Huntley) remains good-willed, but still refers to the Met as “the Beast”.

This particular installment brings McQueen closest to Clarke, as his shape-shifting technical palette maintains an objective overview of a situation punctuated with intervals of violence, intolerance and a frayed family unit. The camera here is exacting, giving durational weight to some of the more fraught police house interactions (the latent racism always threatens to manifest), as well as embedding the surrounding environment with a general unease, especially in a steadicam-heavy sequence which sees Leroy chasing down a perp through a textile factory, his calls for backup ignored. As McQueen comes as close to achieving the hardheaded malaise of Clarke’s Made In Britain and The Firm as anyone has in recent memory, the resolutely tender passages retain a purposefulness attuned to the inherent complexities of the project. Leroy’s relationship with his father––as captured in a parting embrace through a car windshield (soundtracked to Al Green, no less), or the closing drink the two share––does little to alleviate the sting of seeing this young man don the uniform that symbolizes such entrenched prejudice. Is this a provisional career decision for Leroy? History says otherwise, but McQueen’s own film bristles at the very fact.

The strongest film of the three, Lovers Rock, is also the shortest, and almost paradoxically, the loosest. McQueen’s method of characterization here is wonderfully ephemeral, wielding Mangrove’s own misguided temporal isolation to considerably affecting ends. The in medias res opening implies an impending DIY sound system birthday/house party––not unlike similar sequences in Franco Rosso’s Babylon (1980), released the year in which Lovers Rock is set ––with a breathless avalanche of preparatory actions taken, from the turntables and speakers’ assembly, to the rearranged furniture (a plastic-wrapped couch ends up in the garden), to the food simmering on the stove top. Elsewhere, within the red-lit heat of the dance, tricky setups and long takes will be interrupted by lusty montages that momentarily exist as their own entities, tracing a specific, physical through line, such as hands grabbing dance partners’ hips, or the flickers of lighters touching the tips of joints and cigarettes. By taking stock not just of such ubiquitous party-time habits, but also how they influence the space they’re occurring therein––sweat begins to drip from the walls, smoke turns the dance floor into an even hazier reverie––McQueen makes the event a universe unto itself.

As many noted the night of the premiere, Lovers Rock’s combined narrative and aural elements are reminiscent of another director-courting television series, that being France’s Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge, which yielded filmmakers such as Claire Denis, André Techiné, Olivier Assayas and Chantal Akerman crafting coming of age stories judiciously yoked to the specifics of their chosen decade. Similar to those films, like Assayas’ Cold Water or Denis’ U.S. Go Home, McQueen conspicuously limns the free flowing 68 minutes with an inkling (namely in the meet-cute of Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn’s Martha and her suitor, Franklyn, played by Micheal Ward) of a more pronounced plot, but wisely lets the camera get distracted.

McQueen can’t help but tease conflict, to varying results. At its best, Lovers Rock intimates the unrest on the fringes of the party, such as a roving, neighborhood group of white, male teens, whose silent presence serves as an unassailable reminder of the time period. Conversely, there’s an act of sexual violence near the middle which deflates the carefully sewn-together atmosphere, a relatively rude introducing of conventional drama. But from that abhorrent act, McQueen derives one of Lovers Rock’s richest strands, as we see the perpetrator later absorbed back into the crowd, and participating in the collective catharsis of the DJs repeatedly running back The Revolutionaries’ “Kunta Kinte Dub”. It’s a clear-eyed take on the communal power of music, wherein truly anyone––for better or for worse––can be a welcome participant. That isn’t to say every needle drop is emblematic of this rationale, as unfettered joy erupts with a few stray seconds of Sister Sledge’s “He’s the Greatest Dancer”, Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting” and Janet Kay’s “Silly Games”, which then evolves into a music-less singalong from the crowd after the song itself ends.

The lovely morning-after coda of Lovers Rock continues the trend of each Small Axe episode inviting predictions of overlap and whatnot (a fellow critic and I posited a possible Dekalog-like use of background characters; so far, we have been proven incorrect), considering McQueen’s backgrounded interest in Martha and Franklyn suddenly takes center stage, as if to affirm some sort of status of recurrence. It’s a tantalizing game of withholding, which makes time spent with the characters across Lovers Rock, Mangrove and Red, White and Blue all the more valuable. That no one is treated like a standard television character is how McQueen is able to achieve the weighty contextualization that makes the entire project all the more enthralling, left are we to apply one richly rendered set of temporal parameters to another, and deduce the relationship for ourselves. For a director who has had to awkwardly parcel the attributes of his work within his standalone films, the Small Axe format is entirely befitting.

Patrick Preziosi is  a graduate of Literature (BA) from the State University of New York at  Purchase. Based in Brooklyn, NY, Patrick began pursuing film criticism  after a foray into music criticism. Patrick has written on  film for Little White Lies, Metrograph Edition, Photogénie, The Purchase Phoenix and the Irish Film Critic.

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