Review: ‘Small Axe: Parts 1, 2, 3, 4 And 5’ On Amazon

Review by James Lindorf

Steve McQueen, the west London-raised son of a Trinidadian mother and a Grenadian father, made cinema history when 12 Years a Slave won the Academy Award for Best Picture. That film followed the injustice Solomon Northup suffered at the hands of white men in 1840’s America. McQueen’s latest project “Small Axe” fast forwards 100+ years and changes continents. The project is comprised of five original films set from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s that tell personal stories from London’s West Indian community. In the UK, “Small Axe” will be shown on BBC One, while in America, it is being released on Amazon Prime Video. Each segment of the anthology will be released every week, starting with Mangrove on November 20th. The title “Small Axe” is derived from the African proverb, “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe, ready to cut you down.” While Mangrove won’t be felling any tress on its own, it has damaged the bark creating an opening for the subsequent films to really make an impact. Come back to Red Carpet Crash each week to hear about the latest installment of “Small Axe” over the next four weeks.

In 1968 Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) opened a Caribbean restaurant in Notting Hill called The Mangrove. The Mangrove soon became a center for the immigrant community that had grown up in west London. It was also where Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) and the British Black Panther leader Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright) wrote pamphlets and held meetings. This was more than enough to make The Mangrove a target for police harassment. Between January 1969 and July 1970, the Mangrove was raided 12 times by the corrupt local police department. In response to the overreach, a march was organized to take 150 people to the local police station’s front door. When the protestors clashed with the police, Crichlow, Howe, Jones-LeCointe, and six others were arrested for “inciting a riot.” After initially beating those charges, the group was once again forced to face their accusers. This time at the Old Bailey, The Central Criminal Court of England and Wales, which was generally reserved for murder, treason, or terrorism cases.

Mangrove is powerfully acted, beautifully shot, but not assembled as well as it could have been. The first half of the film, which builds to the march and the trial of the “Mangrove 9,” felt like a 50-minute montage. It was event after event of an individual or the community trying to celebrate or live their lives, only to be shoved down and bullied by racist white cops. The number of characters and the way McQueen flits from incident to incident doesn’t provide a lot of ground in which you can bond with the characters beyond having compassion for their enduring injustices. Tensions start high and only rachet up from there. Each of the nine is pushed to their limits. Their mental health and the quality of their relationships are crushed under the weight the stress, frustration, and injustice.

Often the first installment of an anthology isn’t the best because of the extra work setting up the world where all future events will occur. The most important thing or a first installment to do is to set a basis for the film’s look and tone. Mangrove is a polished project crafted by skilled hands but it has a rawness and an authenticity to it that blurs the line between a fictional and a documentary film. While inspired by true events there are creative liberties taken but they feel so natural its is hard to believe everything didn’t happen exactly this way. Mangrove takes a toll on its audience, but luckily things never get too far out of hand in this installment. Unfortunately, I doubt the same will be true for all four of the remaining parts. I think everyone will be thankful for the week-long break between releases to have time to recover. Just try not to dwell on the fact that so many of the things shown in the film are still happening to this day in many countries around the world.

Part 2:

After watching a second segment, it is clear what writer and director Steve McQueen is trying to do with his anthology series Small Axe. He uses snapshots of life in west London to celebrate black people and uses that as an axe against a tree made of mystery, a lack of diversity, and racism. Giving people an inside look at what everyday life was like for the black people during these times breeds familiarity. With familiarity comes understanding and a lack of fear, which drive all forms of bigotry.

The second episode of Small Axe called Lovers Rock highlights the events during a single evening at a house party in 1980s West London, commonly referred to as “Blues parties.” The film is an ode to the romantic reggae genre, also called lovers rock. Young Black people found freedom and love in its sound at London house parties, at a time when they were unwelcomed in white nightclubs. Lovers Rock will premiere on Amazon Prime Video on November 27th.

“Lovers Rock” is nearly a plotless film focusing instead on giving viewers an inside look at a rich and authentic experience inspired by McQueen’s youth spent attending Blue Parties. What little plot there is centers on Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn). Technically underage, Martha has to sneak out after her parents have gone to bed. Meeting her friend Patty (Shaniqua Okwok) at a nearby park, the pair makes their way to the already in full swing party. As the night goes on, Martha begins to dance with a charismatic stranger named Franklyn (Micheal Ward). The two get swept up in the excitement of the party and the potential of the future.

“Lovers Rock” is beautiful in its presentation of black joy, which peaks during a scene where everyone dancing to the Carl Douglas hit “Kung Fu Fighting.” The film is all about vibe and getting lost in the moment like its characters. Unfortunately, if you don’t feel that connection, it can be a bit like watching someone playing a video game. It can be fun for a while, but eventually, you realize you’re not part of the action, and you would much rather be a part of the action. To counteract that, McQueen made the wise decision to keep the runtime to a scant 70 minutes. “Lovers Rock”is a joyous exploration of the black experience. Which acts as a balm to the anger and exhaustion produced by Small Ax part one, “Mangrove.”

Part 3:

Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen has hit his stride with the third Small Axe installment entitled “Red, White and Blue”. In the first segment, “Mangrove” sought to elicit anger from its audience with its depiction of racist cops trying to prevent the black residents of West London from living a peaceful and fruitful life. The second part “Lovers Rock” produced a sense of joy as black people were shown having fun and finding love at a house party. The prevalence of the Blues Parties came from the division of the races. The black party goes looking for a place to eat, drink, dance, and have fun created their own space after not being welcome in white nightclubs. In “Red, White and Blue”, McQueen asks how we can begin to bridge this divide and allow black people to live peacefully and genuinely equal citizens. You can see McQueen’s answer when “Red, White and Blue” comes to Amazon Prime Video on December 4th.

“Red, White and Blue” tells the true story of Leroy Logan (John Boyega), a young forensic scientist with a yearning to do more than his solitary laboratory work. In defiance of his father, Leroy turns to his childhood ambition of being a police officer. As much as the job will allow him to serve his community, Leroy’s primary goal is to challenge and change the racist system and attitudes present in the department. Leroy shines in his new career, but despite being an exemplary constable in the Metropolitan Police Force, he is despised by most of his peers. Boyega (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) is joined by a stellar supporting cast that includes Steve Toussaint (Prince of Persia), Tyrone Huntley, Nathan Vidal, and Jaden Oshenye. “Red, White and Blue” was co-written by Courttia Newland and Steve McQueen.

“Red, White and Blue” is the most thought-provoking and emotionally powerful part of Small Axe to date. While the first two parts were beautiful in their singular perspective, this film’s complexity is something to behold. Boyega turns in the kind of performance that says forget about the years I spent playing second fiddle in big-budget sci-fi films. He gave the film exactly what it needed blending stoicism, optimism, anger, and joy into a multifaceted performance. While Boyega may not be ready to take home an acting statue just yet, no one should be surprised if he earns one or two over a long career. The year or so of Leroy’s life that is depicted is anything but stable. It is filled with moments of joy, anger, frustration, fear, and even doubt. He chose an arduous path that he isn’t always sure he should stick to, but his supportive wife always makes sure he doesn’t forget his goal.

I was beginning to become fatigued by the first two episodes of Small Axe and their single-minded intensity. After “Red, White and Blue”, I couldn’t be more excited to continue this journey with McQueen. Come back to hear my thoughts on part four, Alex Wheatle, before its release on December 11th.

Part 4:

The fourth installment of Small Axe titled Alex Wheatle is a 65 minute densely packed powerhouse. McQueen was inspired by the true story of award-winning writer Alex Wheatle (Sheyi Cole), from a young boy through his early adult years. The film opens with Alex staring blankly into space as if trying to process a recent trauma. Given that it is his first day in prison, there is probably a lot on his mind. Being jailed is far from the first trauma of his young life. Wheatle spent his childhood in a mostly white institutional care home that only provides the necessities to keep him alive. Trivial things like friendship or love were not offered, and in their place, he was given verbal and physical abuse. When he ages out of the children’s home and moves to Brixton, he finally finds a sense of community and begins to find his own identity. Alex never thought that being thrown in prison during the Brixton Uprising of 1981 could lead him down the road of healing and to his future.

Alex Wheatle wasn’t strong enough to overtake last week’s movie Red, White, and Blue, but it is entrenched in the second spot with only one more segment to come. If McQueen would have pushed out the runtime, there is a chance it would be in the number one position. As it is, there is just too much packed into this one episode. We are shown a number of the ordeals Alex had to suffer through, but we never see the outcomes or how it affected him at the moment. An event occurs, and then there is a time jump, and Alex isn’t the person he was before that incident. It would have also been nice to see a little bit of his success instead of getting it in a line of text just before fading to black.

The film’s strength is in McQueen and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner’s beautiful and rich camera work and the cast’s talent. Sheyi Cole stars opposite Jonathan Jules (Fighting with My Family), with Robbie Gee (Snatch), Elliot Edusah (1917), Cecilia Noble (Black Mirror), and Johann Myers (The Lost City of Z) in supportive roles. Despite their heavy accents and use of 80’s British slang, I connected with almost every one of them. I understood who they were and what they wanted, a testament to the performances and the script co-written by Alastair Siddons and Steve McQueen.

Part 5:

“Education” is the fifth and last installment in Amazon and Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” series. A couple of things make “Education’s” fit and placement in the anthology interesting. It is the first film to focus on a child and was not initially set to close out the series. The honor was originally belonged to “Red, White, and Blue,” the John Boyega led segment.

“Education” begins with12-year-old Kingsley Smith (Kenyah Sandy) at a Planetarium, watching the show with an enormous smile on his face. The joy is short lived because while science fascinates him, Kingsley has difficulty reading at school. His problems lead his teacher to bully him and berate him for acting up with his classmates. Too lazy and unwilling to help him, the school decides he would be better off in a school for the “educationally subnormal.” The 63-minute capstone to McQueen’s opus about London’s black experience from the late ’60s to the early ’80s is available now on Amazon Prime.

Homelife for Kingsley is complicated. His parents care for him and provide for him, but their relationship lacks a lot of warmth. His father, Esmond (Daniel Francis), works as a carpenter and is seldom seen outside mealtimes. His mother, Agnes (Sharlene Whyte), works two jobs to help provide for the family and expects Kingsley and his older sister Stephanie (Tamara Lawrance) to stand up for themselves because she doesn’t have time to keep an eye on them at all times. Agnes goes as far as referring to Kingsley as “Nothing but a heap of trouble!” Kingsley’s best relationship is with Stephanie, who is the first to sense a problem and try to stand up for him but is shot down by her parents. Kingsley is quickly falling behind in a school with kids with learning disabilities, general disinterest, and no guidance. However, when one school closed its doors to him, it opened a window to a different kind of education.

Lydia (Josette Simon) is a former politician. Along with her colleague Hazel (Naomi Ackie), she works to expose how the English educational system is setting black and brown students up for failure. Her presence and the horror stories of other parents whose children were deemed “educationally subnormal” persuaded Agnes to fight for Kingsley’s future. It starts with enrolling him in Lydia’s Saturday school, where the most inspiring and hopeful scene of the series takes place. They just have to petition the Secretary of State for reinstatement to a “regular” school, no big deal.

“Education” is my second favorite installment of Small Axe behind “Red, White, and Blue.” The film is not without its faults, like the scene of a teacher passing the time by singing “House of the Rising Sun” to the class that goes on entirely too long. What the two films did that I enjoyed is that they have ambiguous endings that show promise for a future. It is how they each approach the future that makes “Education” the proper choice for closing out the series. In “Red, White, and Blue,” Leroy is older and nearly as jaded as he is determined. He knows change will happen because he will make it happen by the sheer force of will. Not because others will help or come along willingly. In contrast, Kingsley’s story ends with a community coming together to help each other and with the wide-eyed optimism of youth. They know the fight is unfair and will take years, if not generations, to win. Still, they know things will get better and instill that hope in their children. That is a true to life reaction because progress has been made, and more people than ever are invested in seeing that progress continue, but there is still a lot of work to do.

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