Steve McQueen’s Small Axe

John Boyega in Steve McQueen’s Red, White and Blue (2020)

Eleven years ago, artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen, winner of the prestigious Turner Prize in 1999 and awarded an Oscar for 12 Years a Slave (2013), started working on an anthology series for the BBC. Six hour-long episodes rooted in the West Indian community in London between the late 1960s and early ’80s eventually became five stand-alone features. “I was trying to fill a gap as best I could,” McQueen tells Deadline’s Mike Fleming Jr. “These are very personal stories about the London I know. The smell, the food, the clothes, the aesthetics, the touch and feel of the time that has unfortunately not been represented because people weren’t given a chance to make these movies.” The Small Axe project takes its name from the 1973 song by Bob Marley: “So if you are the big tree / We are the small axe / Ready to cut you down.”

If Cannes had taken place this year, McQueen would have become the first director with two films in competition. But as 2020 would have it, one of them, Lovers Rock, wound up premiering last month at a drive-in as the opening night presentation at this year’s New York Film Festival. The NYFF has also screened the other Cannes selection, Mangrove, and this past weekend, the festival premiered the feature that wraps the series, Red, White and Blue. Education, the story of a sharp eight-year-old boy of Afro-Caribbean heritage kicked out of the school system for failing a discriminatory intelligence test, and Alex Wheatle, based on the life of the novelist jailed in the wake of the 1981 Brixton uprising, will first be seen in the UK in a few weeks on BBC One and in the U.S. on Amazon Prime, which will begin rolling out the series on November 20.

Gentler and more soulful than dub or ska, lovers rock is a subgenre of reggae that emerged in the mid-1970s and became popular at the sort of house parties McQueen’s aunt would sneak off to on a Saturday night. Reviewing Lovers Rock at the A.V. Club, A. A. Dowd finds that the director of Hunger (2008), Shame (2011), and the heist thriller Widows (2018) “has never made a film this loose and joyful. Lovers Rock is almost a hangout movie, trading the muscular, sometimes ostentatious camera moves of his earlier work for a more sensual, roving approach.” The year is 1980, women are singing and cooking in the kitchen, men are setting up the sound system, and white neighbors are glaring from across the street. The night is young and the music is loud when Martha (newcomer Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) arrives and catches the eye of Franklyn (Micheal Ward).

In the Los Angeles Times, Justin Chang calls Lovers Rock “a vision of community in warm, cramped quarters—imagine the opposite of ‘social distancing’ and you’re halfway there.” At the Film Stage, Vikram Murthi writes that the film’s “fluid, handheld camerawork, courtesy of Shabier Kirchner, foregrounds positive vibes, detailing every inch of the tight dance floor and basking in the glow of unencumbered joy. These gatherings represent a release from a socially and politically marginalized group, but that subtext merely pulses underneath Lovers Rock, contextualizing the film without ever overwhelming it.” And at In Review Online, Luke Gorham notes that McQueen “also introduces certain dramatic conflicts that threaten to disrupt the Lovers Rock’s low-key vibes, specifically a sexually rapacious local and an emotionally-disturbed cousin, but as if inverting Widows’ histrionic register, he manages to reconcile these developments with welcome restraint, elegantly absorbing them into the film’s swoony mood.”

The mood is anything but swoony in Mangrove, and as Odie Henderson points out at RogerEbert.com, “the racist actions and rules that merely peered through the prior film’s outpouring of festive joy are now front and center in this riveting courtroom drama. By comparison, Mangrove is nearly twice as long and about four times as violent.” The Mangrove was a restaurant opened by Trinidad-born Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) in the late 1960s in Notting Hill. The cooking of Crichlow’s Aunt Betty (Llewella Gideon) drew Black activists and intellectuals as well as the occasional white celebrity (Mick Jagger, Vanessa Redgrave), while the sign out front—“Black Ownership”—drew the ire of the racist cop Frank Pulley (Sam Spruell), who led over a dozen raids of the place. When the community organized a peaceful protest, the police cracked down hard and arrested nine demonstrators, charging them with inciting a riot.

It’s during the trial that “the drama really sparks into high gear,” finds the Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney, and the shift is “signaled by arresting cathedral-like shots of the Old Bailey’s Neo-Baroque domed ceiling accompanied by the dissonant strings of Mica Levi’s sparingly used score. The transition also gives the excellent principal cast ample opportunities both for impassioned oratory and amusing disruption.” While Notebook editor Daniel Kasman is quite taken with Lovers Rock, Mangrove, as “a human drama,” strikes him as “disjointed, gap riddled, and blandly staged.” The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, on the other hand, argues that the film is “clear-sighted and genuinely passionate with performances which are straight from the heart.” Mangrove is “the story of a system,” writes the New Yorker’s Richard Brody, “and its exposure of the nodal points of systematic oppression (and of the exhausting exertions that it imposes on its targeted victims) has a vast historical scope—and an analytic power that reflects all too grimly on the present day.”

In Red, White and Blue, John Boyega delivers what David Rooney calls “a performance of smoldering gravitas, maturity, and integrity” as Leroy Logan, a forensic scientist who joined the Metropolitan Police in the mid-1980s after his father (Steve Toussaint) was severely beaten by white cops. Logan’s aim was to change the system from within, a mission he took on practically alone. “This is a not a coddling film,” writes Odie Henderson. “It’s an angry one, a tricky meditation that forces you to put yourself in the shoes of someone you might actually consider a traitor or a fool.” At the same time, Red, White and Blue “isn’t solely focused on political point-scoring, as we’re also given a vivid cross-section of the West Indian community, where seemingly inconsequential side characters come freighted with their own emotive back stories,” writes David Jenkins in Little White Lies. “It’s hard to think of a more reflective and candidly philosophical film for this moment of widespread malaise, distrust and darkness.”

All five stories that make up Small Axe are “as relevant now as they were then,” McQueen tells Paul Mendez in Esquire UK. “It’s only now that people are waking up to the fact that there’s been injustices against Black people for decades in this country, and centuries elsewhere. It took a pandemic. It took a brutal killing. It took millions marching. For people to think, ‘Possibly I should think in a different way.’ And only possibly, it’s not actually done yet. Millions of people on the street before change can even be considered, before people can think that even possibly something could be wrong! The world is not a healthy place. If you really want change, if you are really serious about it then, hey, it starts from the beginning. Education.”

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