Small Axe – Reviews

by Ken Bakely

These are my reviews of all five entries in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe, a five-part anthology about the West Indian community in London during the 1970s and ’80s. The series is available in the United States through Amazon Prime, and in the United Kingdom through the BBC iPlayer service.

Jump to Review:

Mangrove | Lovers Rock | Red, White and Blue | Alex Wheatle | Education


The first entry in the series, Mangrove, dramatizes real-life events that took place in 1970. The film is more or less an ensemble piece after a point, but begins by largely focusing its attention on Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), the owner of The Mangrove, a Caribbean restaurant in Notting Hill. Because Crichlow is Black, and his restaurant is used as a meeting place for local activists, including Black Panther organizer Altheia Jones (Letitia Wright), the establishment is frequently and arbitrarily raided by police. After staging a protest against the police’s treatment, they are arrested. Crichlow, Jones, and seven other defendants are put on trial, alleged to have incited a riot. They become known as the Mangrove Nine, and face an unfair challenge from the systemically racist system that has put them on trial in the first place. From here, as McQueen moves the focus of the film from the establishment of its setting to a courtroom drama, we see the proceedings play out at length. Difficult questions arise of how to navigate this situation, in which the deck is so deliberately stacked against their prevailing; from the start, it takes a herculean effort for the group to ensure that the jury isn’t all-white, and as the trial takes its toll, some even begin to wonder if it would be less trouble to plead guilty and take a lesser sentence, than risk something potentially worse.

McQueen, directing from a script written by he and Alastair Siddons, helms Mangrove through a myriad of settings, from establishing the community ties of The Mangrove, to its blistering invasion by the police forces, to the cold and intimidating courtroom where the Mangrove Nine are tried. Most commendably, he and a dynamic cast are able to handle the transition into the courtroom scenes – which do take up the vast bulk of the second half of the film – without it feeling too much like a deliberate transition. Though the film is strong from the beginning, the trial is arguably where the movie comes alive the most, casting aside some uneven exposition in the first act and becoming a present and urgent chronicle. These sequences mostly move with a sharp rhythm that feels neither stagey nor presumptuous. Whereas a weaker courtroom drama based in history might falter towards self-evident and staid sermonizing, Mangrove stays the course, showing the immense dedication the activists showed and the crushing difficulties they endured without ever making it feel like the script is working from a road map. That the fight is won is an undeniable triumph, but it is never questioned – and indeed, it is explicitly said – that winning a battle mustn’t be confused with winning a war. This is a solidly made first entry that both crackles with the natural drama of the courtroom setting and moves on a much more unsparing and thoughtful level.

Review posted December 18, 2020

Lovers Rock

The resplendent Lovers Rock takes place almost entirely during a house party in 1979. There is certainly a lot to see in regards to the fashion and the music that embody the setting: McQueen is more than apt to let us take in as much of the moment as we can, and Shabier Kirchner’s sumptuous cinematography casts every location in warm, enveloping lights. This is not merely window-dressing, however; it’s something of an entry into understanding the exuberant accomplishments on display here. While the script, written by McQueen and Courttia Newland, eventually focuses on a budding romance between two attendees – Franklyn (Micheal Ward) and Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) – that forms over the course of the night, it’s just as true to say that this entry examines and builds a study of a community, and does so with both remarkable economy of time and outstanding craft. At 69 minutes with credits, the film is still able to submerge us in its time and place. We as viewers become acquainted with the surroundings: though there may not be some exhaustive explanation of the different characters encountered, it is to McQueen’s credit that everything feels so fully, spectacularly sketched out and detailed after only a matter of minutes. There’s no curve or point where the film seems to consciously broaden its scope; it’s just that well-orchestrated from the start.

Understandably, much has been made about the film’s setting; people interact in close quarters, dancing, embracing, kissing. After nearly a year in which such gatherings can’t be safely conducted, there’s a definite yearning many have shared regarding the act of merely watching it unfold. But I’ll certainly stress that Lovers Rock is so much more than the strength of that topical observation. It’s a concise, moving achievement of filmmaking and storytelling that holds up all its own. McQueen expertly presents a richly textured snapshot of an entire environment, and people living within it. There are moments of fear and dismay that are still outnumbered by those of great spirit and soaring hope. The relationship between Franklyn and Martha builds throughout, typically through a series of subtly staged moments. They are performed with little dialogue, or least very little exposition. The movie doesn’t feel the need to cascade information upon us.

That McQueen and company are able to achieve this with such aplomb – making it look like an effortlessly created array of anecdotes – is a testament to the skill on display. One sequence demonstrates this particularly perfectly. The title Lovers Rock refers to the subgenre of reggae of the same name – a style of music heavily featured within – and there is one sequence in which the lovers rock song “Silly Games” plays. The partygoers are caught up in the moment, and in the song’s wistful lyrics and swooning melody; they then sing it themselves. It’s a short scene that says so much, communicating the overriding vision of the film. This is not merely a slew of images or ideas presented for their own sake. It’s a way to envision, and it’s a way to provide a certain reenactment of its particular setting. But it’s also a closely intimate portrait of its central characters, in the context of an enrapturing act of celebration.

Review posted December 18, 2020

Red, White and Blue

Based on true events, Red, White and Blue is set in 1983, and follows Leroy Logan (John Boyega), who decides to join the Metropolitan Police force after his father, Ken (Steve Toussaint), is assaulted by two white officers. He is convinced that the system could best be changed from the inside, and is open about his aspirations to address the racism of the system from within. His family and neighbors are baffled by his idealistic beliefs, and are furthermore angered by his decision to join an organization that has caused them so much pain and trauma. Though police leadership tell him that they are making broad overtures to recruit more Black officers into the forces, and he sails through training with stellar marks, the problems extant are still far beyond that which can be solved through the work of just one person at once – and that the powers that be aren’t actually interested in addressing them. And upon joining the force, Leroy is immediately despised by his white colleagues, who scrawl racial slurs on his locker and deny him reinforcements when he is pursuing a suspect. Red, White and Blue examines the spirals of hardship that Leroy experiences, as his soaring hopes from the start of the feature are gradually worn down by the harsh and unrelenting realities of the system as it truly exists – with his initial desires to lead a sweeping reform clashing against what he soon confronts.

McQueen expertly depicts this entry with precision and unrelenting honesty, never attempting to steer the narrative into any pat conclusions which would infer easy answers. And the film is spectacularly anchored by a magnificent lead performance from John Boyega, who delivers a performance of conflicted, exhausted, and heartrending grit. The movie asks sincere and tough questions about what it really requires to call for change in systems that are built and maintained explicitly to deny such possibilities. It can be disheartening and dismaying to consider, and McQueen works deftly to show the costs of not only what Leroy experiences, but how this retroactively affects his own expectations and desires that have brought him here in the first place; Boyega’s strong performance is augmented by Toussaint’s towering supporting turn as Leroy’s father, and the two share some truly dynamic scenes that explore their worldviews. Red, White and Blue is open in expressing the chasm between the ideals of easy fixes and the true realities of how hard – perhaps impossible – it is to bring meaningful reform to these entrenched systems of society. It’s forthright in its direct style and engaging in its impassioned delivery, and though we might wish to learn even more about Leroy Logan’s story in the scope of this film, what McQueen has brought to the screen is accomplished and well-considered.

Review posted January 16, 2021

Alex Wheatle

British author Alex Wheatle spent much of his upbringing in children’s homes; these were environments which were cold and unloving, and left him without much of a sense of community. It was not until he reached young adulthood in the early 1980s that he began to develop relationships and an identity, all taking place in the runup to the 1981 Brixton uprising, in which Wheatle was arrested amid a wave of unrest against the local police forces. This film, which is simply named after its subject (and he is played here, quite movingly, by Sheyi Chole), follows anecdotes and moments in Wheatle’s early life leading up to this pivotal, historical moment, which also served as the genesis of his writing career. He meets friends in the West Indian community and learns to express himself through art, embarking on a path that will eventually lead him to his future – forged through the complexities, challenges, and inspirations alike that he encounters.

It’s a fascinating story, and one that McQueen clearly seeks to tell with clarity and sprawl, but when trying to summarize the key points of a life, Alex Wheatle doesn’t quite feel as accomplished or comprehensive as the other Small Axe films. The script, written by McQueen and Siddons, struggles to encompass everything it wishes to in a contained, hour-long runtime. There are so many events, and so much to think about. While they are realized with great detail, this also means that it can be difficult to fully absorb and consider them. However, McQueen does succeed in creating a portrait of Wheatle as a person; at the film’s best, it’s a compelling case study in how to depict a subject’s development and inspiration without many of the tropes that a more traditionally mounted biopic might fall into. It’s a study of community and individuality, of the person and the collective and how they influence and shape each other. Alex Wheatle is a fascinating film: it’s never without a lot to say or a free sense of exploration in looking at ways to construct a profile of its subject. It doesn’t quite succeed as much as the other entries in this series, in terms of feeling as self-contained or as singularly involving – it’s easy to leave with many more questions about Wheatle’s life, perhaps somewhat helped by the presence of pre-credits title cards – but as a personal account of one’s experiences, and an example of how to depict the otherwise insular experience of personal and artistic growth, there’s still a lot here to commend.

Review posted January 27, 2021


Education, the fifth and final entry in the Small Axe anthology, depicts the effects of systemic racism within the education systems and the related bureaucracy around it. Set in the early 1970s, it follows Kingsley (Kenyah Sandy), a student who is taken out of his school due to poor testing scores. He is relocated to a “special” school, which in reality were institutions set up to take children – disproportionately students of color – out of the system entirely, by placing them in so-called “educationally subnormal” schools in which there were few qualified instructors and even less organized learning (indeed, one scene sees a teacher do nothing except exhaustively warble the entirety of “House of the Rising Sun” as his students struggle to stay awake). Both of Kingsley’s parents (Sharlene Whyte and Daniel Francis) work long hours to make ends meet for their family – which also includes Kingsley’s older sister, Stephanie (Tamara Lawrence) – which means they aren’t able to immediately investigate the extent of what their son is being subject to. But as a political movement within the West Indian community stirs – such as the publication of an investigative study into the practices of these schools and the government policies that administer them – the extent of this crisis is brought to light, and ways to challenge it begin.

Here, McQueen takes a pastiche-like approach to the story; the film examines its subject matter from the lens of the individual, and eventually, the collective potential for action and change. Education doesn’t pretend to end with clean resolutions or easy fixes, but it is a film that expertly and thoughtfully examines the relationships within communities and the power of solidarity. There are few moments in the entire anthology more powerful and rich with careful hope than that which closes out this one, which comes close to singularly realizing, at least in part, what is possible. As a reminder that while these massive, deeply-engrained problems still exist – but change can be realized – it’s hard to imagine a better and more fitting finale to both this story and the series as a whole. And Education is realized with excellent performances – particularly from Sandy and Whyte – and typically intuitive direction from McQueen, who economically guides us through this story in its 65-minute runtime, from a script he co-wrote with Siddons, and alongside Shabier Kirchner’s intimate and forthright cinematography. This is a fitting finale for this accomplishment, both as a well-made movie and representing another thoughtful symposium on Small Axe’s themes and ideas.

Review posted January 29, 2021

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