Small Axe: A guide to all five episodes of Steve McQueen’s BBC series

As the revered director prepares to move to the small screen with his anthology series, Micha Frazer-Carroll explores the five stories of Caribbean people living in London from the Sixties to the Eighties

Saturday 14 November 2020 08:07
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John Boyega in the ‘Red, White and Blue’ episode of ‘Small Axe'
John Boyega in the ‘Red, White and Blue’ episode of ‘Small Axe'

Steve McQueen is back on the scene, but this time, he is taking on a new medium. After becoming the first black filmmaker to win the Academy Award for best picture, and after winning the equally prestigious Turner Prize for his art, the 12 Years a Slave director will show Britain his take on television this weekend – in the form of anthology series Small Axe (BBC One). The idea for these five separate films, which each tell different stories of Caribbean people living in London from the 1960s to the 1980s, has been on McQueen’s mind for 11 years. “I needed to understand myself, where I came from,” he told The New York Times this week.

Over the course of those 11 years, Britain voted to leave the EU in a racially fraught campaign, the Home Office was revealed to be stripping Caribbean “Windrush” migrants of their citizenship, and, this year, we saw a summer of protests against racist police and state brutality. More than 70 years after Caribbeans first arrived on Britain’s shores, it is clear that McQueen’s films are more relevant than ever – a point reiterated by critics lucky enough to catch them at the New York and BFI London film festivals. So, if you plan to tune in to the series (which you should), here is your guide to the upcoming films.

Mangrove

Sunday 15 November

The series opener, which will be broadcast on Sunday, centres on the true story of Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), who owns a Caribbean restaurant in Notting Hill called Mangrove. Like most black-owned businesses in racist 1970s society, Crichlow’s restaurant isn’t just a place to eat, but an important community hub for black locals, intellectuals and activists (including the glorious Black Panther and Black Mirror star Letitia Wright). But the business is subject to relentless police raids – so one day Crichlow and his friends decide to take to the streets and protest the racism so blatantly targeted at their community. This takes our protagonists to the courts, with nine people being arrested and charged with incitement to riot and affray.

True to McQueen’s craft, Mangrove feels like a multidisciplinary work of art. Each detail of the film is highly intentional and sometimes experimental – ska music rocks under the scene transitions, camera shots drift to the floor to convey the true chaos and brutality of police raids, and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner’s choice to shoot on film stock makes the protests feel incredibly real. Parkes and Wright’s performances are particularly outstanding, as they range through joy, pain, anger and struggle.

Lovers Rock

Sunday 22 November

Despite being the Caribbean soundtrack of the Sixties and Seventies, “lovers rock”, the romantic love child of reggae and soul, rarely pops up in British cinema. McQueen’s second film in the series, named after the sensual genre, is changing this. Lovers Rock follows the fictional story of young love at a 1980s “blues party” – a type of house party that became popular in black communities due to racism on the clubbing scene. As for its cast, this film belongs to emerging black actors, with Amarah-Jae St Aubyn making her screen debut alongside Bafta 2020 Rising Star winner Micheal Ward.

This film will make lockdown viewers’ hearts yearn for a type of party that doesn’t quite exist any more in 2020 – exemplified by a long, drawn out a capella rendition of Janet Kay’s hit “Silly Games”. Such is Lovers Rock’s tendency to play around with time, you feel as if you are actually at a party rather than just watching one. But amidst everything, Lovers Rock, like Mangrove, is a feast for the eyes, with Little Women costume designer Jacqueline Durran doing an impressive amount of the heavy lifting.

Amarah-Jae St Aubyn and Micheal Ward in ‘Lovers Rock’

Red, White and Blue

Sunday 29 November

Small Axe’s third film returns to the realm of non-fiction, following the childhood of former Met police superintendent Leroy Logan (played by John Boyega). In Red, White and Blue, Logan is a forensic scientist who decides to go into the police force after he sees his father assaulted by two policemen. Logan naively believes that as a black man, he can change the racist institution from within – a notion that unsurprisingly leads to a painful family confrontation. Regardless, Logan continues into the force, where we follow his experiences of racism, his futile attempts to tackle it, and his eventual use as a prop for diversity hiring.

This film is a plunge into the 1980s – alongside the melancholy voice of Al Green, we get the look, feel and sound of Thatcher’s bleak Britain. It’s also a jarring reversal of Mangrove; rather than following a protagonist who has been unfairly targeted by the police, we instead watch criminal punishment play out through the eyes of law enforcement. If there is one word to sum up Red, White and Blue, it is “uncomfortable”. It’s one of the riskier premises in the series, but also perhaps the most relevant to conversations black people are having around the world today.

Alex Wheatle

Sunday 6 December

Unlike Mangrove, Lovers Rock or Red, White and Blue, neither of the last two films have been screened at any film festival. Critics haven’t gained access to them yet either, so their details have been kept largely under wraps. But we do know that the fourth instalment, Alex Wheatle, follows the true story of the award-winning writer of the same name, played by debut actor Sheyi Cole. Wheatle spent his childhood in a predominantly white institutional care home with no love or family, but we see him finally gain a sense of community for the first time in Brixton, where he develops a passion for music and DJing. Things take a turn for the worse once again when the infamous Brixton riots of 1981 see Wheatle imprisoned – leading him on a difficult journey to confronting his past.

Education

Sunday 13 December

Education follows 12-year-old Kingsley (another screen debut, from Kenyah Sandy), who has a budding passion for astronauts and rockets. But he’s dubbed “disruptive” by his teachers, so is moved to a school for students with “special educational needs”. Kingsley’s parents (Sharlene Whyte and Daniel Francis) work two jobs, and are unaware that the move symbolises a type of educational segregation – until a group of Caribbean women decide to do something about it.

Small Axe debuts on Sunday 15 November on BBC One and BBC iPlayer

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