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Steve McQueen and the Art of Gathering

The director’s “Small Axe” anthology intimately portrays Black spaces.

Parisa Taghizedeh/Amazon Studios
Shaniqua Okwok and Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn in “Lovers Rock.”

Mangrove, the first film in Steve McQueen’s five-part anthology series, “Small Axe,” begins with Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), the proprietor of a local West Indian restaurant, walking through the Notting Hill section of London while “Try Me” by Bob Marley and the Wailers plays in the background. He crosses a construction site where Black children are happily running around a makeshift playground comprised of overturned trash bins, construction beams, an old mattress, and a baby carriage. In the background, there is graffiti that reads “Eat the Rich” and “WOGS Out” (derogatory slang for dark-skinned foreigners). This opening sequence sets the scene not only for Mangrove, a film based on the real-life story of a Caribbean restaurant that became a focal point for Black organizers in London in the 1960s, but the entirety of McQueen’s new project.

Although the five films, which explore various moments in Black British history from the 1960s to the 1980s, look at vastly different subjects using a range of styles (from the somewhat traditional biopic about a Black police officer, Red, White, and Blue, to the standout Lovers Rock, which could almost be classified as experimental cinema), there is a devotion throughout to documenting the improvised scenes of Black social life. The subjects of “Small Axe” fight back against racism through the simple act of assembly. They gather in Caribbean restaurants, house parties, Brixton record stories, and special Saturday schools set up for Black children to learn the histories left out of British primary education. They create these spaces largely by pooling resources, borrowing this or that from a friend, turning making do into an art form.

In Stolen Life, his 2018 collection of essays about the politics and aesthetics of Black life, the philosopher Fred Moten writes that “the first and most serious black crime is black sociality.” He also describes the natural tendency to gather as a form of fugitivity when undertaken by Black people in a racist society. McQueen would seem to understand this acutely, lacing his scenes of Black sociality with both the high of rule-breaking and a somber recognition of what the consequences will be. McQueen, though best known to American audiences for his Oscar-winning Twelve Years a Slave (2013), actually made his directorial debut with Hunger (2008), a film about the 1981 IRA hunger strike, starring the Irish actor Michael Fassbender. Which is to say, McQueen has from the very beginning of his career been interested in what it means to stake out a piece of British territory for your own. In “Small Axe,” we watch as these separate spaces, which require neither resources nor validation from white society, attract violent intrusions from police and other racist elements. That friction between Black social autonomy and those who resent it is the essence of the dramatic tension we see unfold in “Small Axe.”

The Mangrove was a real Caribbean restaurant that opened in Notting Hill in 1968, quickly becoming a central meeting place for Black activists and leftist intellectuals. In its first year, Crichlow had the restaurant put out a bi-weekly newspaper, The Hustler, which covered local news stories affecting the West Indian community of London as well as articles about the Black Power movement. The restaurant’s role as a community resource made it the target of frequent police raids, which the film depicts with brutal reality that I might have once described as gratuitous; however, after the proliferation of corporate H.R. narratives about “unconscious bias” and “microaggressions,” it was refreshing to see an acknowledgment that racism is, in fact, very often conscious and macro in its violence. A subsequent protest organized by the community results in arrests: The latter part of the film dramatizes the court case of the so-called “Mangrove Nine,” including Black Panther organizer Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright) and civil rights activist Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby). The trial in 1970 was a watershed moment in the history of British race relations, as it marked the first official acknowledgment of racial bias within the Metropolitan Police Service.   

In Mangrove, McQueen presents Frank Crichlow as a more reluctant activist than the record shows, drafted into it by necessity—a simple businessman’s desire to keep his restaurant open. Crichlow’s defiance as expressed in the film reads as only accidentally profound, like when he yells at a racist police officer: “We only serve spicy cuisine.” This choice feels right, as it allows for Crichlow’s political journey to feel like the basis for a lesson that carries over into the other films—that to be Black and desire any kind of existence, even the quiet one of serving goat curry to customers, is to be seen as an agitator.

The second film in the series, Lovers Rock, is named after a style of music that emerged in Great Britain in the late 1970s, a fusion of reggae and soul with lyrics that explored romantic subject matter. The music was played at house parties called “blues dances,” where Black Londoners, excluded from the city’s main dance halls, set up their own clubs. McQueen begins with the setting up, the cooks in the kitchen making curry and saltfish, the D.J. rehearsing his “toasts,” a Dancehall practice of speaking over the riddim to hype up the audience, a tradition considered a precursor to rap. “Shouts out to all the ladies worldwide,” the D.J. says to himself in the empty room, “all the girls lookin’ for a man tonight.”  

The film follows a young couple, Franklyn (Micheal Ward) and Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) who meet and fall in love over the course of the evening. It contains little action other than the pair’s intense stares, the swaying of unnamed bodies to music, and the intimacy of a crowded house party. It is hard to have a conversation in such a place, and so the dialogue is fittingly sparse, allowing us to focus on what really matters—the music and the fashion. In a much-discussed scene, the D.J. plays “Silly Games” by Jamaican-British singer Janet Kay. Kay’s hit was the first lovers rock song ever to appear on the BBC’s flagship music program, Top of the Pops. When the track ends, the crowd continues to sing, squealing to hit the high notes, moving rhythmically with their eyes closed in a trancelike sequence that goes on for over four minutes. In an interview with Slate, McQueen seemed to reference the moment, telling writer Dan Kois “it’s almost like an expelling. One expels the weight of the nonsense that one is dealing with. It’s church. It’s church in a way. It is church.” That nonsense, it turns out, is just outside. When Martha briefly runs out of the house to chase after a friend who has left without saying goodbye, she is accosted by a group of young white men who begin taunting her with ape sounds. 

The precarity of secret, sacred spaces like the lovers rock house parties comes into sharp relief here and yet again in a later film in the series, Alex Wheatle. A tender mini-biopic of the Jamaican-British novelist, the film touches on the infamous New Cross house fire in 1981, when a dance party meant to celebrate the birthday of a young West Indian girl became the site of a fire that left 13 dead. Though the case remains unsolved, many in the community suspected it was an act of arson committed by far-right groups who had been antagonizing the neighborhood. The moment was a catalyst in setting off the 1981 Brixton Riots, which Wheatle was arrested for participating in. “We’re in the middle of a friggin’ war,” Wheatle says when he hears the news in the film. 

Yet it’s not this incident that radicalizes Wheatle, but rather the close-knit sense of community he finds in Brixton after a childhood spent in an orphanage in Surrey, where he endured cruel acts of racism. It is the gestures, styles, and rhythms of life in Brixton’s West Indian community that suffuse Wheatle’s life with meaning, and it is this precious new life that he wants to defend when he faces off against the police during the riots. After the standoff with the police, he celebrates by singing at a dance party (Wheatle was also a founder of the Crucial Rocker sound system). As the crowd cheers, he belts into the mic: “Uprising. / It’s an uprising. / There ain’t no work and we have no shilling. / We can’t take no more of this suffering / so we gon’ riot in a Brixton,” his sound now inflected with a Jamaican patois distinctly different from the Surrey-accented English he grew up speaking.  

The other two films in the series are Red, White, and Blue and Education. In the first, McQueen offers again a biopic, this time of Leroy Logan, the son of Jamaican immigrants who left his job working as a research scientist to join the Metropolitan police after seeing his father assaulted by two London police officers. The film pays homage to the stubbornly persistent belief that institutions can be reformed from the inside. Education explores a pattern of discrimination in the British school system that resulted in Black children being funneled into remedial schools for the “educationally subnormal.” The film looks at the efforts of West Indian activists and parents to create supplementary opportunities for their children, “Saturday schools” as they were known. The film ends with a little boy named Kingsley (Kenyah Sandy) spending his first day in one of these Saturday schools, which hosts a “Black History Discussion Group” where they discuss figures like the Black Trinidadian Marxist Claudia Jones. McQueen himself attended a Saturday school, telling The Guardian’s Lola Okolosie that it was there that he nurtured a love of art and furthered his political consciousness, realizing “there is a problem,” in Britain, “and the problem isn’t you.”

As the series ends with the Saturday schools, we think back to how it began, in the hot kitchen of Frank Crichlow’s Mangrove. At the trial of the Mangrove Nine, Darcus Howe (who represents himself) tries to explain to the jury what was at stake in the police raids that were trying to shut the place down, saying, in so many words, that a restaurant for Black people in London in the 1960s was by default a social institution: “Frank Crichlow wasn’t conscious of the fact that he was forming a community restaurant, but that sense of community born out of struggle in Notting Hill was so profound that there was no other way for it to be,” he explains.

Here and across the five films, McQueen gives community the kind of political resonance we have come to associate more closely with the word collective, therein insisting that in the simple act of gathering—for food, for music, for spiritual nourishment—his subjects are the kind of fugitives Moten speaks of, enjoying lives they have stolen back for themselves. “Small Axe” takes its title from a Bob Marley lyric: “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe.” As people sit in the Mangrove, laughing and waiting for their food, McQueen shows us how sharp a blade Black joy can be.