In his classic study of race and class in contemporary Britain published in 1987, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation, Paul Gilroy argues that diasporic Black culture provides “a complex combination of resistances and negotiations, which does far more than provide a direct answer to the brutal forms in which racial subordination is imposed” It would be a mistake to view Black culture as only responding to oppression, according to Gilroy, since such a myopic outlook would ignore the equally important ways in which such culture transcends oppression to establish its own vision, desires, and sense of community. Steve McQueen’s anthology film series Small Axe, named after the Bob Marley & The Wailer’s song, embodies robust representations of these resistances and negotiations within London’s West Indian communities from the late ’60s to the mid-’80s.
Such an alignment between Gilroy’s analysis and McQueen’s series should not come as a surprise since Gilroy served as a consultant to Small Axe. One might propose that the origins of Small Axe extend back to McQueen’s undergraduate days when attending Goldsmiths, where Glroy was a professor. Gilroy recalls first meeting McQueen there: “One day, he knocked on my door with his friend, Desmond, another Black art student. He just wanted to talk and I was happy to do that. He kept knocking on the door and he would bring his obsessions and his frustrations. .. It was clear talking to him that we had interests in common…” The Criterion release of Small Axe highlights this collaboration by providing an illuminating half-hour discussion between Gilroy and McQueen about the series.
McQueen released Small Axe on BBC 1 to achieve the widest distribution possible in the United Kingdom. It aired five consecutive Sundays starting mid-November 2020, just before the 10 o’clock news. As McQueen notes during his discussion with Gilroy, the juxtaposition between the news and the historical incidents of West Indian life portrayed within the Small Axe films forges a vital connective link between the past and the present, forcing one to view the news as anchored in a much deeper and richer past that at its worst, ignores or, at best, marginalizes. Elsewhere, during an interview, McQueen stresses, “It was important for me that these films were broadcast on BBC, because it has accessibility in the country. These are national histories.” Never before had Britain’s Caribbean heritage occupied such a prominent position on television.
Yet despite Small Axe‘s importance to those in the UK during its airing in 2020, it received little attention abroad. As a result, Criterion’s recent release of it provides another opportunity to draw attention to Small Axe’s importance as McQueen’s most significant achievement as of yet for its nuanced portrayal of Afro-Caribbean life within Britain, the brilliant way it embeds individual stories within the rich textures of their communities, and documents police violence and state repression delivered upon these communities without losing sight of the resilience, independence, and love such communities nurture despite such oppression.
Although the series comprises five individual films (Mangrove; Lovers Rock; Red, White, and Blue; Alex Wheatle; and Education), it is difficult to write about any of them alone since they comprise something far greater than any singular film can achieve. As a result, let’s focus on some of the main themes that run throughout the series and unite the films. McQueen lists some of these themes during his discussion with Gilroy, such as policing, music, and education. I add to these the categories of intimacy and resistance.
The opening scene of the series’ first film, Mangrove, establishes many of the central themes that will define the series as a whole. Mangrove draws attention to the trial of the Mangrove Nine, an event still largely ignored within British history of nine people who exposed the systemic racism of British policing as constables harassed West Indian communities, attempted to shut down The Mangrove, a restaurant and community hub for political and cultural activities, and fabricated evidence in court against peaceful protesters who demonstrated against police brutality. Before any image appears on the screen, we hear the opening bars of Rebel Souljahz’s “Long Long Time“, establishing the centrality of reggae music within the series and to its characters’ lives.
Throughout Small Axe, reggae music represents the central popular cultural form that speaks to the lived realities of Black communities living in London: their oppression, resistance, and desires. In Alex Wheatle, which addresses Wheatle’s move to Brixton, where Caribbean life thrived yet became the target of repeated police violence and his subsequent imprisonment under bogus charges of rioting and receiving a jailhouse education, reggae pulses throughout the streets like an unconscious chorus, its beats intersecting with the rhythms of daily life. The record shop occupies a near-religious experience for Wheatle. After he enters its doors, everything runs in slow motion as his gaze pans around the room, from the albums lining its walls to the customers meandering and flicking through record bins to the stylish covers of the albums themselves, enticingly calling out to Alex.
In McQueen’s 2021 documentary Uprising, which accompanies the Small Axe set and investigates the tragic New Cross fire of 1981, where 13 young Black people were killed, Wheatle reflects on the significance of hearing “Could You Be Loved” for the first time: “that made me reflect back on my own experience throughout my childhood. Could I be loved? But then to be up again, bouncing along the street, feeling confident again. You know what: I am valuable. I can be loved. It was very important for me that song.” Interspersed throughout his recollection is grainy handheld 16 mm found footage of the community from that time: kids roller skating, climbing tire swings, dashing across school halls; adults smiling along bustling streets, filtering in and out of a record shop—reminders that Wheatle’s reflection applies to the wider community and how music bolsters their own sense of identity and importance.
McQueen’s films remind viewers that their characters are extensions of wider community desires and needs. This is emphasized during the opening of Mangrove. We observe Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), owner of The Mangrove and eventually hesitant protester against police violence, ascend from the Mangrove’s stairs into the light of day. Once outside, a distant high-angle shot observes Frank walking across the street as “Notting Hill, London, 1968” appears at the bottom of the screen. The camera increasingly pulls back and up, causing Frank’s figure to recede into the distance as the brick structures of Row Houses dominate the frame, forming a dense bunker of living space cramped into a relatively tight city block.
The camera movement emphasizes that Frank’s story belongs to the community, not to himself alone, just as The Mangrove belongs to the community as much as Frank. To further emphasize the point, “Try Me” by Bob Marley & the Wailers plays, a song about support during times of pain and struggle, a function that The Mangrove serves for the local West Indian community by serving Caribbean food and rum and providing a space for calypso music, poetry, and other cultural and political activities to take root.
Yet before Frank’s ascent to the streets, we see a close-up shot of him and other men sitting around a table in The Mangrove, the camera circling and floating around them effortlessly and smoothly. Dim amber lighting further embraces the men, unifying them as Frank grabs his winnings from the table and smiles at the others before departing. The place represents a temporary respite from the daily struggles of living in Britain. Though not immune from police raids, The Mangrove nonetheless stakes out a place for the community to relax and party.
Repeatedly throughout Small Axe, certain spaces serve as havens for the West Indian community. Lovers Rock, the second film of the series, set in the 1980s, most profoundly illustrates the importance of space to create a sanctuary, in this case, in the form of a house party. The film is named after a new style of music predominantly performed by female singers that allowed couples to dance together, unlike much pre-lovers rock music, where the dancefloor was mainly dominated by men.
Lovers Rock takes place over the course of one night when teenagers sneak out of their homes, and young adults congregate at a local house party. The plot is minimal as the film instead chooses to delve into textures and details that comprise this one seemingly magical night where the party serves as a refuge from the racism, harassment, inequality, and poverty that suffuses much of West Indian life that is addressed in many of the other films. Painstaking attention is given to the setting up of the house party: close-up shots of women’s hands chopping vegetables and stirring pots of Caribbean food in the kitchen that will later be sold during the party, speaker wire being spliced and connected, a microphone being tested, cords being taped to the floor, rugs, and furniture being removed to make space for the dance floor.
This focus on the labor of preparing for the party illustrates Gilroy’s observation that sound system culture redefines performance by focusing on “the equally important work of those who adapt and rework it so that it directly expresses the moment in which it is being consumed, however remote this may be from the original context of production”. Lovers Rock draws attention not only to the DJs and dancers who perform this labor, but also to the often invisible labor of those who prepare the literal physical foundations for such sound system culture to take place.
At times Lover’s Rock luxuriates in the dancing and music, where any notion of narrative drive dramatically halts to embrace viewers in the rhythms, movement, and feeling of a singular moment. During one 10-minute sequence that involves Janet Kay’s song “Silly Games“, the party is bathed in an amber light while the camera weaves among a sea of undulating bodies, grinding hips, waving and straying hands as couples dance to the song.
An extreme close-up cuts to condensation dripping down the wallpaper, relaying the heat of bodies closely packed together in the room and a visceral feeling of sexual intimacy of sweat and saliva being exchanged among the couples. The attention to detail suggests the importance of the cultural expression we are witnessing: strangers meet and mingle, inhibitions collapse, and sexual desire is expressed through movement to the music. The couples form their own units, yet all their bodies move in unison with the music that provides a transformative moment where individual and collective desires align and permeate each other.
The utopian nature of this moment gets dramatically accented as the music drops out altogether, and the couples and individuals on the dance floor begin singing along as the camera floats among them. We watch numerous close-ups of couples dancing intimately, individuals moving their bodies to a hidden rhythm, the camera capturing a sudden connection, richness, and weightlessness created among strangers and friends. The music is no longer something they dance to but possess and use to express their desires and needs. We hear the different timbres of a wide range of voices singing together. An occasional voice trills into a higher octave, inspired, showboating. The difference doesn’t matter.
The moment is reminiscent of the sound of a gospel choir. It continues for one, two, three, four minutes—oblivious of any demands of the workaday world that obsesses over time or narrative film that mostly wants to economically advance a plot. McQueen summons all his powers as an experimental director to powerfully translate the full significance of the power of music in forging a collective identity, self-determination, and pure bliss. Although the moment is temporary, it is profound and deeply moving.
Similarly, in the series’ final film, Education, this sanctuary occurs at the end of the film in a Saturday School where children learn about Black history and culture. The film follows Kingsley Smith’s (Kenyah Sandy) struggle to overcome his learning disability and the ways in which British education marginalizes him and many other children to “subnormal schools”, a dumping ground where children are more warehoused than taught.
Eventually, Kingsley’s mother joins a female-led group of concerned parents against such schooling. o better teach West Indian kids Black history and culture, the group has established Saturday Schools. Although Kingsley at first reluctantly attends the school, he quickly becomes enraptured by the unbridled nerdiness of its students, who competitively cite times tables against one another and eagerly respond to Mrs. Batholomew’s (Jo Martin) questions. She feeds the children breakfast before the history lesson, a holistic approach to learning that understands a healthy body leads to a healthy mind.
After breakfast, Mrs. Batholomew asks, “What do you all know about our ancestors?” The camera pans around the room, taking in the children’s faces as they ponder the question, emphasizing the community being woven together through inquiry and education. Finally, a girl answers, “That we were slaves.” Mrs. Batholomew laughs and responds, “That’s what they want you to know. Did they teach you anything else? What about the Nubians? The Masai? The kingdom of Kush? So you know nothing about the people, or the richness of the cultures, or that we existed long before anybody else.”
She pulls out a children’s book, Kings and Queens of Africa for Children, and asks Stephanie (Tamara Lawrence), Kingsley’s sister, to begin reading it. As she reads, shots of Kingsley and herself occur in close-up. That intimacy and intensity relay the connection between what she is reading with who they are. Furthermore, as Criterion’s Ashley Clark points out in an informative essay accompanying the boxset, Education was shot in Super 16 mm, which gives further intimacy, like watching a home movie.
The sequence cuts to Kingsley excitedly running to his family’s dinner table as if propelled from the Saturday School. He begins reading from the same book, revealing how his interest in reading material directly impacts his reading ability. To further emphasize the importance of the Saturday School and Black history, while Kingsley reads from the book, the film suddenly cuts to outer space imagery: spidering nebulae, distant rotating planets, and other celestial bodies. This imagery, in part, resonates with Kingsley mentioning earlier Education that he wants to become an astronaut.
McQueen notes during his discussion with Gilroy that the imagery is also about transcending racial and other socio-political problems: “Putting everything in perspective: what is this? What is this race thing? What is this nonsense? What are we dealing with? In the frame of the universe, it makes it very interesting to look at.” Therefore, it is appropriate that the series ends by catapulting us beyond all the troubles and messy realities that haunt all the other characters within the other films. It is a moment of transcendence, to see the future in the present, or what historian Robin D. Kelley calls “poetic knowledge”.
Also, the title of the final film punctuates the importance of education throughout most of the Small Axe films, with a particular emphasis on Black history. We see characters from Mangrove and Alex Wheatle reading C.L.R. James’ 1989 history of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins. Kingsley becomes ignited when learning about Black history. One could even argue that Black history pulses through Lovers Rock in the form of reggae, from its syncopated beats to the Rastafarian history and myth of its lyrics.
The places where Black history does not thrive prove disastrous, such as in the film Red, White and Blue. Leroy Logan (John Boyega) abandons his successful career as a lab researcher to join the police force, intent on changing the institution from within. This leads to catastrophic consequences. Leroy is not only repeatedly demeaned by his colleagues but ultimately receives no police backup while pursuing a robber.
Kenneth Logan (Steve Toussaint), Leroy’s father, berates his son for joining the force. Yet Leroy reminds him that it is because of his father’s own British patriotism that led him to make such a decision in the first place. He accusingly reminds his father, “You wanted us more British than the British.” Red, White and Blue suggests that this loss of Black history leaves individuals incapable of adequately assessing their present moment, even when they are highly intelligent individuals like Leroy and Kenneth.
Yet what elevates Red, White, and Blue beyond a simple critique of systemic racism within policing, as valid as this is, is the intimacy and love that the film relays between individuals as they cope with life’s difficulties. Near the film’s end, Leroy is thoroughly demoralized from being passed up for promotion by less qualified candidates. He is left in the field without backup and abandoned by the only other constable of color, an Indian colleague, who quits the force.
In bed with his wife, Hyacinth (Seroca Davis), Leroy explains his frustrations. She patiently listens but then explains in a sympathetic yet direct manner: “You’re talking about giving in. You didn’t join to be a part of a group. You do it for the people who get stopped and searched and beaten, the ones who get thrown in jail for nothing, the folk who respect you. You talk about yourself. What about the sacrifice I make supporting you? You think it’s easy. And now you want to drop out for those racists. Really?”
Such lines could easily be delivered in an accusatory way. However, Hyacinth states them calmly, with love and compassion. As she delivers them, the camera moves from the foot of the bed and creeps closer and closer to the couple, emphasizing that her critique is drawing them together, not tearing them apart. Leroy listens intently, registering every word. She reminds him of the ideals that made him initially join the police. If he is going to embrace such ideals, he needs to live with the consequences that extend beyond his own well-being to that of the community. Equally, she conveys the importance that he take into account the sacrifices she has made for his decision.
Similarly, Kenneth decides to drive Leroy to his first day of basic training despite objecting to him joining the police. The camera sits in the backseat of the car as Kenneth drives. Al Green’s “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” plays over the soundtrack, emphasizing the impasse between father and son. Leroy pats his father’s knee before leaving the car. But his father remains silent. He watches Leroy approach the training station before suddenly trailing after him and calling out his name. But rather than cutting a close-up of father and son, the camera remains in the car, respectfully observing them at a distance, protecting their words and exchange from the viewer’s prying eyes and ears.
More important than words, we watch them awkwardly approach one another, wanting to embrace but tentative, unsure. A hand resting on one’s shoulder. An arm reaching across the other’s back. Finally, giving in to the moment and hugging. All the while we hear Green’s mournful voice sing, “How can you mend a broken heart? How can you stop the rain from falling down?” It is an incredibly poignant moment that reminds the viewer that despite the systemic racism of policing and the difficult situation Leroy finds himself in, he and his loved ones possess the emotional resources of love and understanding that allow them to endure put persevere over their troubles. Red, White, and Blue is as much a film about family, marriage, and love as it is about policing, which gives it an emotional depth that many other films about policing lack.
Small Axe addresses many difficult problems, such as the systemic racism of policing, which rears its head in almost every episode, and education. Equally important, McQueen harnesses the full power of filmmaking to relate the intimacy and compassion that comprises all the different stories of the West Indian communities that the films portray. Small Axe fuses together the political and poetic in a seamless way to remind viewers that oppression does not define communities; it is only one element of a much richer cultural tapestry and emotional terrain.
Kelley once lamented that we often evaluate social movements’ success on whether they realized their utopic visions “rather than on the merits or power of the visions themselves”. By this account, most movements have failed since they left existing power relations largely unchanged. However, he reminds us, “it is precisely their alternative visions and dreams that inspire new generations to continue to struggle for change.” We can witness this inheritance within Small Axe as it documents numerous individuals taking up the struggle to learn and acknowledge Black history among activists in Mangrove, prisoners in Alex Wheatle, and teachers and students in Education to McQueen’s own endeavor of presenting it within Small Axe.
Furthermore, the series suggests that its ability to present Black history during prime time television on BBC 1 was only made possible due to the struggles of people that came before McQueen to keep such history alive: the prisoners, activists, parents, children, musicians, poets, students, and teachers. One wonders if Small Axe would have been possible had McQueen never read Gilroy’s work and met him during those early days while a student at Goldsmiths. The slow gestation of Small Axe reveals the profundity of education, where ideas planted years before need room to be nurtured, mulled over, and discussed before coming into full bloom; they need communities and resources to develop and thrive. But when they finally come to fruition, they yield something powerful as Small Axe amply reminds us.
Gilroy, Paul. There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation. Unwin Hyman Ltd. 1987.
James, C.L.R. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. Secker & Warberg Ltd. 1938.
Kelley, Robi. Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. Beacon Press. 2002.