- There’s plenty of debate as to whether Steve McQueen’s Small Axe is television or cinema (he insists it is cinema, and I wholeheartedly agree), or whether it is five separate works, or one larger work that runs 406 minutes (just under seven hours). But, there can no debate as to McQueen’s talent and accomplishments to date- he is simply one of the greatest cinematic artists working since his stirring 2008 debut Hunger
- The title for the series here “Small Axe” comes from a song by the Wailers and indeed, reggae music (and music in general) plays an important part in the five films. Each of the five films are about true to life events in London’s West Indian community from the 1960’s to the 1980’s. The characters don’t overlap at all. Each film is about systemic racism – “state sponsored” is used often- (usually centered around the police force -who give the Germans in the 1930’s and 1940’s a run for their money- but other political forces as well – such as the school system)
- Mangrove is the first film (and longest at 127 minutes)- it is a court-room drama and it is hard not to think of Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago Seven (this is the “Mangrove Nine”) coming out in 2020 as well. It is about racism in the police force and in the courts. Sam Spruell is the face of evil as PC Pulley and Alex Jennings (as the judge) could be his brother
- Like all of the films—the costume and production design is absolutely perfect. It is clear that McQueen cares about the authenticity of every stitch and every wallpaper chosen over the nearly running seven hours. Helen Scott does the production design throughout and Lisa Duncan the costume at least in this section. In Mangrove we get lots of 1960’s browns/yellows—we have Letitia Wright’s orange umbrella
- There’s a great shot when McQueen lets the camera wait on a colander slowly coming to rest on the kitchen floor after a raid of the restaurant.
- At 41 minutes the best frame in the Mangrove film – Shaun Parkes (devastating as Frank Crichlow the restaurant owner) is on the far left of the screen on the phone with Malachi Kirby on the right. Each of the three principal actors- Parkes, Kirby, and Letitia Wright have moments to excel and showoff their acting talents. Wright gets the quivering chin speech about her unborn child, Parkes gets the low-angle shot in the jail cell and the reading at the sentencing as McQueen stays on his face and Kirby gets the cross-examination of PC Pulley
- A recommend film- sharply written
- Lovers Rock is the second entry – a brisk 70-minute movie
- This is not a film that resembles many others (like Mangrove’s courtroom drama). Lovers Rock isn’t about plot, this is about a party, and as far as forward-moving action, not much happens. It is McQueen’s mood-piece with long sections without any dialogue (though the soundtrack is more of a character here than any others). It is the most optimistic, it is largely free of white intrusion and therefore the happiest—though McQueen is sure to show evil lurking just outside of this party in at least three separate spots
- the best comparison for Lovers Rock is to Renoir’s A Day in the Country – Partie de campagne. This is a short film from a great master (yes that is McQueen). It is about mood (Renoir uses weather, McQueen music), a celebration, a respite, a haven, an eden (with the police and white thugs kept at bay (for a short window of time) outside)
- Lovers Rock starts with party-seekers getting off the train, the musical equipment and speakers getting set up—“vibes is nice”—a slow montage of thumbing through records, puffs of smoke, and red stripe beer… atmospherics
- McQueen is interested in capturing that feeling of relief and release—the buzz of getting ready and going to a party (sort of like the intoxicating scenes of driving around (fast) in Hollywood listening to music in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood)
- Red lighting, the orange/brown wallpaper
- Mini-montages, men’s hands on women as they dance
- the song “Silly Games” is played and McQueen uses slow-motion to capture bodies in love (or lust) in motion, the wall sweating. After the slow-motion McQueen makes the music fall off- and we get a sing-along in a non-musical (certainly used by PTA in Magnolia or Roy Andersson in Songs From the Second Floor).
- Formally audiacious as well- McQueen uses both slow-motion and fast-motion. At the 40 minute mark or slow the slow-motion camera gliding left to right, patterned shirts blending into the wallpaper. It covers an entire song. Later- he’d use The Revolutionaries “Kunta Kinte” song in fast-motion, a protest song (the slow motion song was about love). This is a bold formal choice in a 70 minute film to have 10 minutes of it in either slow or fast motion— he’s experimenting here closer to how he did in Hunger or how say Gaspar Noe would
- This is a Highly Recommend/Must-See film
- Red, White and Blue is the other highlight of the series along with Lovers Rock. John Boyega gives the best performance in any of the films (and they entire larger ensemble gathered is superb) as Leroy Logan. He’s moral, intelligent, naïve, and physical – a great role for Boyega
- largely gone here are the warmer brown/orange/yellow color tones and the reggae music. This is sort of early 1980’s pop music (from “White Lines” to “Uptown Girl”) and the color blue used brilliantly throughout (of course it is the police uniform color)
- the pervading color of chose in the realistically designed mise-en-scene— there’s a blue fence at the school in the opening shot (no fence is that blue), in the science lab, the locker room, blue plaid flannel under a blue members only jacket, blue adidas jumpsuit, the curtains in the dorm, the blue hat of the assailant after a massive tracking shot through a factory
- a breathtaking shot at the 8-minute mark—Boyega and his wife in front of a window in silhouette with a blue glow
- even a blue streetlight bouncing off on his car window (like Todd Haynes’ Carol)
- a razor-sharp character study like McQueen’s Shame
- Lines like “are you going to be a jedi or something?” when he says he’s going to join the force
- Great use of Al Green’s “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart”—McQueen has a 90-second shot of Boyega making up with his father – and McQueen keeps the camera in the backseat of the car as they drive, park, get out, and makeup (through the front window in the distance)
- Strong wideshots of the imposing board room (with five white superiors) at the 39 minute mark
- Highly recommend/ Must-See border
- There’s just much less to offer cinematically in Alex Wheatle and Education. They share the themes of course: people from the West Indies as victims of corrupt racist systems (and people). It is moving, intellectual, political narrative filmmaking. In Alex Wheatle there is a nice 360-degree shot in a record shop and in Education you will be gutted by the scenes of the young Kingsley Smith character both struggling and eventually learning how to read.
- However, when you combine them- it is the quietest two hours of cinema by far in (stylistically, visually, formally) in Steve McQueen’s career. There’s are just scenes here that are shot reverse shot—narrative and acting that go on and on that is atypical of his previous work.
- Evaluating the entire Small Axe work is a tougher task. Certainly you can compare and contrast with something like Kieslowski’s’ Dekalog or Three Colours If we’re talking about Dekalog there’s nothing that touches A Short Film About Killing. But there is nothing either that rises quite to the level of say McQueen’s long-take car ride shot of Colin Farrell’s character through Chicago in Widows either. The Small Axe films are connected to each other, even the ones that are radically different in tone are constructed that way by McQueen for a reason. Lovers Rock and Red, White, and Blue are 2 ½ hours of some of the finest cinema I’ve come across yet for 2020 as a year. I’m going to call it a Highly-Recommend/Must-See film for now but the unambitious final 2 hours give me a bit of pause
Really fantastic stuff here, and what an ambitious project. You make me excited to watch Red, White and Blue again – I don’t think I was drastically underrating it the first time but I simply didn’t notice some of the things you pointed out. Its final scene really hit hard, with the talk about the wheel of change being slow to move. It was a great midpoint of the series, reflecting on the past three instalments and what’s to come. Lover’s Rock is indeed the high point of the series, the Silly Games musical moment is a seriously strong contender for best scene of the year. Really fine transcendent cinema.
In Education I appreciated those space bookends. Perhaps it could have been more of a recurring motif, but I think they beautifully capture his aspirations and potential.
It was Alex Wheatle that was the only major disappointment for me, though certainly still at least a recommend as you pointed out. The shot of him lying on the floor, staring, with the camera slowly pulling in, and then the same shot returning later – I found that impressive visually and formally.
@Declan- agreed- such an ambitious project– one of the few highpoints of 2020 cinema
What is the best film of 2020?Small Axe,Mank or I’m thinking of ending things.
@Malith I believe I’m on the same page as Drake in saying that of those three, it’s ITOET.
Nomadland gives it a run for its money though. I have as an MS and just a smidge above ITOET. A second viewing is needed though, and I haven’t yet finished my list of anticipated 2020 films.
On the 2020 yearly archive page, will Small Axe be listed as one film or five? Separating the sections would counteract the lamentable lack of archiveable (is it archivable or archiveable?) movies from the year haha.
@Graham– haha yeah I’m not sure- I don’t think there’s a right answer on this one. I think there are some comments, observations that belong to all five, and some that are specific to the individual entries.
It must have been really something to get to study the whole project and post such a great write up about it. I haven’t watched Small Axe yet, unfortunately. I’ve been a big admirer of McQueen’s work ever since I first got around to Hunger and I think there is something deeply mesmerising about all of his films (as of today, I’m also missing out on Widows). I don’t think I can get into it referring to them in general, but I think he offers a very cinematic experience as a director – there is just such intimacy and closeness to his approach. I don’t think you can go wrong with pointing out that he simply doesn’t fail to communicate any sense or emotion. His photography is always unparalleled and I really like how he’s unfraid to make the viewer feel disturbed. It is a strange combination for a film, to be this harsh and so beautiful all the same. This is more of a personal preference, but I also really admire the way he manages to handle historical and political themes – honestly, harshly but also delicately, giving insight as to who these people are and how that manifests through their actions and not vice versa – if that makes any sense at all. I’m looking forward to watching this and by what you’ve written, I take it you recommend it.
@Drake-I think you should break up the final bullet point into two. And have “I’m going to call it a Highly-Recommend/Must-See film for now but the unambitious final 2 hours give me a bit of pause” in a seperate bullet point. Hard to locate where the grade is.
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