The Sensuality and Brutality of Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe”

In his new film series, the director wants to vanquish any idea that British racism is somehow more repressed and less violent than the American kind.

By Doreen St. Félix

One way to measure a filmmaker’s commitment to his subject is to look at the not so minor details, such as costumes, wigs, and food. If the paraphernalia of a people doesn’t feel forged but, rather, appears to have been lifted unmolested from observation or memory, or both, then the effect is immersion—the melding of reality with the world of the screen. Black folks haven’t often felt that rush. Looking to support the film industry, over the past century we have excused everything from minstrelsy to bad drag. So when a story comes along that wants not to extract from you but to support you, you take notice. In “Small Axe,” a collection of five films by Steve McQueen about the British West Indian experience, three of which are reviewed in this column, a kind of revolutionary attention is paid to the physical world of the characters. Across the interrelated films, recurring sequences—head-wrapped women fussing over a bubbling vat of sunshine-yellow curry goat; men haggling over cards in true patois—evince the sincerity of the project’s creator, who is publicly claiming his place in a community, and who wants every aspect in the political tableau to be just so.

McQueen, who is of Trinidadian and Grenadan descent, was born in West London in 1969. His parents were members of the Windrush generation—the inaugural group of West Indians to settle in Britain in the mid-century. McQueen’s films have grappled with the struggles of other nations: the 1981 Irish hunger strike, in “Hunger,” and the story of a free African-American man who, in 1841, was kidnapped and sold into bondage, in “12 Years a Slave.” It took McQueen a while to address home. Why? In a recent interview with the Times, he explained, “Sometimes, you’ve got to have a certain maturity, and I wouldn’t have had that ten, fifteen years ago.” Maturity, here, could mean the spirit of vulnerability and plainspokenness that we feel in the anthology, which is McQueen’s small-screen début. (In 2014, I worked as a Haitian-Creole-language consultant on his unaired pilot for a scrapped HBO show, “Codes of Conduct.”) The films are neither condescending nor shy about being educations. The title comes from a proverb, popularized by a Bob Marley song, in which it is sung with portent in the throat: “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe, ready to cut you down.”

The collection opens with “Mangrove,” a feature-length film based on the Mangrove Nine, Black Londoners who, in 1971, following a protest, were put on trial for incitement to riot and affray. The trial was the government’s first, albeit reluctant, admission of racism in the British police force. When the film premièred in the U.K., in mid-November, many young Black British people expressed anger that they had not encountered the history in school. That “Small Axe” airs on the BBC, then, is a kind of populist restitution. (In the U.S., the series is available on Amazon Prime.)

Some of the Mangrove Nine were British Black Panthers. Frank Crichlow, the owner of the Mangrove Restaurant, a Trinidadian spot in Notting Hill, was not. He is the emotional center of McQueen’s film. (Shaun Parkes expertly shoulders the role.) Crichlow seems largely uninterested in politics, but everywhere politics is happening to him. Before Notting Hill was gentrified, it was the hub of the West Indian diaspora in London. The opening shot, of Crichlow strolling through the streets, places him amid construction sites, a sign of the upheaval to come. When he reaches a lime-green restaurant with a “Black Ownership” placard in the window, the viewer understands that she is about to enter a protected place. Crichlow and his cook, Aunt Betty, joke around. He sends a boy, Kendrick, to the market to buy flowers for the restaurant. Kendrick worries that he will look effete. What if someone sees him? Crichlow replies, “Say yuh in love, go!”

Meanwhile, a political movement is beginning: a scene shows campaigners huddled at the feet of C. L. R. James, the Trinidadian theorist. Crichlow’s restaurant becomes a haven for young activists and intellectuals, who are literally inventing the British-Caribbean identity. The police see the Mangrove as the cradle of an encroachment—a dreaded reverse-colonization, in which the white British way is under threat. Officers begin raiding the place. (Crichlow tries to explain, “We only serve spicy cuisine here!”) A police assault turns Kendrick, the boy who had been bashful about flowers, the color of a bruised tulip. In one lingering shot, the camera is almost level with the kitchen floor, as it traces the chaos of brutality—a colander, knocked off its base, rocking without purchase. A raid on the home of two activists is more pointed: officers knock books off the shelves, smash the printer. McQueen wants to vanquish any idea that British racism is somehow more repressed and less violent than the American kind; he spotlights the myth of the country’s politesse in order to do some smashing of his own.

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