REVIEWS: Steve McQueen’s ‘Small Axe’ Film Series (2020)

Letitia Wright as Altheia Jones-LeConte in “Mangrove.” — Photo: Des Willie / Amazon Prime Video.

When British filmmaker Sir Steve McQueen makes a film, you pay attention. McQueen has quietly become one of the best directors of his generation with critical darlings such as the perhaps underseen Michael Fassbender-led films Hunger and Shame, the Oscar-winning Solomon Northup-biopic 12 Years a Slave, and his 2018 heist film Widows, which did not get the awards attention it deserved. In 2020, McQueen released a collection of films — an anthology — titled Small Axe at film festivals and later on, for example, BBC or Prime Video (on the Danish Broadcasting Corporation’s streaming service in my territory).

McQueen’s five new films have individual titles, but they have all been released under the umbrella main title ‘Small Axe,’ which refers to a Jamaican proverb that goes “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe.” As such, the proverb supposedly speaks to the power of minority groups — the power of the people — and their ability to challenge the system — governments, prejudice, and more.

The anthology film series has been discussed widely and for quite some time. One of the reasons why is that it has received a lot of critical praise, but it has also challenged the way we view art since it, for most people, has been released as if it were a limited series, even though it is also referred to, and marketed as, a collection of films. So, is Small Axe a collection of films or is it television? I think the lines have been blurred over the years, and I would rather talk about the films — or episodes — than want to discuss how one should classify them. But, for the purpose of my reviews and my year-end lists, I am looking at Small Axe as a collection of films.

Below you can find my reviews of each and every film in Steve McQueen’s new collection of films, starting with Mangrove, the longest of the five films.


“Mangrove,”


Shaun Parkes as Frank Crichlow and Letitia Wright as Altheia Jones-LeCointe in “Mangrove.” — Photo: Des Willie / Amazon Prime Video.

Steve McQueen’s first Small Axe-film, Mangrove, tells the true story of the ‘Mangrove Nine’ — nine Black activists who were tried for inciting a riot at a police protest in 1970 — primarily from the perspective of Frank Crichlow (played by Shaun Parkes), an immigrant from Trinidad and Tobago, who became known for his contribution to the Black community in Britain, in part, with his restaurant — The Mangrove — which became a cherished gathering point and meeting place.

McQueen presents Crichlow as somewhat of a complicated character, who may have been on the wrong side of the law with his previous cafe, but also someone who now just wants to make an honest living with a restaurant that serves the cuisine that he grew up with. Parkes’ Crichlow is a reluctant public figure and community hero who doesn’t initially understand his own role in history and in the community.

The eloquent and passionate activists Altheia Jones-LeCointe (played by Letitia Wright) and Darcus Howe (played by Malachi Kirby) both understand the importance of their actions, his restaurant, and their voices. They help to emphasize just how pivotal and worthwhile the arduous fight for justice is. This is a story of an unlikely leader and the men and women who knew exactly what they were fighting for, and it is a breathtaking film.

But it also, if I may use a cliche, can feel very much like a film of two distinct halves that don’t necessarily gel as well together as they may have done in theory. With the first half, McQueen succeeds in really establishing Crichlow as a character and the Mangrove as a community hotspot and meeting place. The long walk from where Crichlow was gambling to his new restaurant, which is paired with a thematically relevant quote, is one of the highlight sequences in the film. But my favorite parts of the film are the sequences in which the Mangrove restaurant really comes alive. It is almost intoxicating how well the evenings at the Mangrove restaurant are shot. The good time spills out onto the street and creates an exhilarating block party. When these scenes are juxtaposed by the sometimes very violent raids at the Mangrove, it is shot in a way that breaks your heart.

At a certain point in the film, Letitia Wright and Malachi Kirby become co-leads as the activism and the subsequent trial becomes the film’s focal point. While Crichlow doesn’t disappear from the film, his role is lessened in the second half, which, in part, is due to the fact that Jones-LeCointe and Howe chose to represent themselves, whereas a Scottish barrister — played by Jack Lowden — represents the remaining members of the Mangrove Nine. It should be said that Lowden doesn’t overshadow the characters his barrister is hired to represent, which was good to see.

Generally, I think that this second half is gripping but it is also overlong. I like courtroom dramas quite a bit, and there are some memorable scenes here, but I have to say that the courtroom scenes were not as gripping as the scenes set outside of the courtroom were. The courtroom drama of it all was not as powerful for me (except for one or two scenes) as what McQueen’s film had to offer elsewhere. I’d even go as far as to say that even though the film is about the trial and the fight for justice, the film’s best scene doesn’t happen in the courtroom. Instead, it features Wright and Parkes as they argue over whether to take the easy way out for yourself or to fight for future generations. This is an incredible scene because of Wright’s fiery passion, and, based on this scene alone, I think this is the best performance I have seen her give.

It’s difficult not to compare McQueen’s film about the Mangrove Nine to the other 2020 film about a group of activists on trial for inciting a riot, Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7. While I like both films quite a bit, I think that Sorkin’s film feels Hollywoodized, whereas McQueen’s film feels so true to life — and he communicates the importance of the Mangrove so exceptionally — that it almost feels like you can feel the heat of the curry from the Mangrove restaurant. Throughout the film, McQueen peppers in these references to the decades the film is set in, and I think he succeeds in establishing the unrest and unease in the wake of the Rivers of Blood-speech. He, and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner, do an incredible job of making it all feel genuine and real. At times it feels more like a documentary than a film, and their images sometimes get your blood boiling. I was also really impressed by the way the Old Bailey — the Criminal Court where the trial takes place — was shot. It is a daunting and unsafe atmosphere, and the way the Mangrove Nine are sometimes boxed in and ignored add to an almost claustrophobic environment and feeling.

Steve McQueen’s film feels timely. Were it not for the fact that it is a well-designed period film from top-to-bottom with appropriate costuming, music, and production design, this could’ve all actually taken place today. It is also an important story because it also highlights the community leaders that mean more to the course of history than they may know or have known. Ultimately, while I do think the first half of the film is better than the second half of the film, I was very impressed by McQueen’s gripping courtroom drama, Mangrove — an incredible addition to his outstanding oeuvre — and it made me incredibly excited about the next four films.

8 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.


“Lovers Rock,”


Micheal Ward as Franklyn and Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn as Martha in “Lovers Rock.” — Photo: Parisa Taghizedeh / Amazon Prime Video.

Let me just come out here and say it, Lovers Rock is easily my favorite film in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe, even though it is not as traditional or accessible as the aforementioned lauded courtroom film. Although there are moments of heartbreak and darkness here and there, Lovers Rock just feels so nice. In its best moments, it captures something wonderful that is almost beyond description. With a runtime of, give-or-take, 70 minutes, Lovers Rock is, obviously, much shorter than Mangrove. Appropriately, Lovers Rock is light on the plot, which could be what may turn off mainstream viewers from finishing the film.

The film tells the story of two lovers — Martha (played by Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and Franklin (played by Micheal Ward) —  who met each other and became infatuated with one another over the course of a single night at a house party in West London back in 1980. It is a loving romance film that celebrates the main characters’ community while still peppering in moments that remind you of the overall themes of the anthology film series. Whereas Mangrove relied a lot on some stellar awards-worthy acting, Lovers Rock is a very different film. It’s a film with an outstanding visual style. It’s a mood piece.

I genuinely believe that some of Mangrove’s best moments are repeated here but also improved upon in Lovers Rock. In Mangrove, my favorite scenes were the ones in which you could feel the spirit and joy of the community, and this film is chock-full of scenes that have that same feeling. In fact, I think the vast majority of Lovers Rock is an example of how stimulating a moment of joy is.

It begins with characters setting up for a house party, in scenes that showcase some clever camera angles and style, like having the camera rested on a rolled-up carpet as it is being lifted up. Already in these scenes, McQueen makes you feel incredibly nostalgic for house parties, with the way characters are so excited about the night to come, and that nostalgia is doubled in the later scenes. Once “Kung Fu Fighting,” starts playing, the film really hits its stride. This atmospheric blues or reggae party really starts to come alive.

You start to sense a passion, a tenderness, and a general feeling of amorousness as the partygoers start to dance closely. I just love that the people at the party eventually feel the mood of the moment so deeply that they continue singing and dancing even after the song that is playing is over. That is such an intense and nice feeling, to be so completely wrapped up in the moment that no one there wants to let go. I, personally, think that is the best scene in the film.

As an evocative mood piece that is scarce on narrative, Lovers Rock is a harder sell for audiences expecting something more traditional, but I think it is a much more memorable film than the rest of the films in the anthology film series. I also think that the moments of tension in the film really do manage to make the light narrative less of a problem. But, make no mistake, the film is at its best when you feel the desire and the joy of the people breathing, dancing, and living. In that regard, McQueen’s film captures the beauty in a moment of communal celebration, which is undeniably infectious.

8.5 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.


“Red, White, and Blue,”


John Boyega as Leroy Logan in “Red, White, and Blue.” — Photo: Will Robson-Scott / Amazon Prime Video.

Steve McQueen’s third Small Axe-film Red, White, and Blue tells the true story of Leroy Logan’s (played by John Boyega) fight to incite actual positive change within the British police force of the 1980s. It follows him as he makes a decision that changes his career path and, at the same time, also inadvertently seriously damages his relationship with his family. It is a film about institutional racism, as well as about how lonely it can feel when you try to be the change that you want to see in the world — ‘the bridge,’ as this specific role is called in the film.

I think this is clearly John Boyega’s best performance. He is very good in Kathryn Bigelow‘s Detroit, and that is definitely up there among his best performances. However, this is perhaps one of the more personal roles for John Boyega. He is playing a character who is a first in his profession in his district. As we’ve seen since his Star Wars-films came to an end, Boyega is a spirited, knowledgeable, and passionate individual. His performance here has everything and he gives so much of himself to the character. There is a subtlety in the moments where he’s trying to keep his justifiable frustrations suppressed. And when he finally gets to let out his anger, it is so powerful that it shakes you when his character’s justifiable outrage is ignored and shushed.

The one significant problem with this film is also perhaps the entire point of the film itself. There is no getting around the fact that this is a familiar story. You know where the story is going the moment Leroy signs up to become a member of law enforcement. The only thing that isn’t predictable about that journey is how (appropriately) abruptly the film ends. So, yes, it is predictable, and it is a familiar story, but it is familiar because of the sad and frustrating fact that it is still incredibly relevant today. Things have changed but not nearly enough.

In 2020, there were worldwide Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of unspeakable police brutality, and it was a painful reminder for people all over the world about how things haven’t really changed substantially. So, I would argue that, in a way, what makes this film familiar and predictable is also part of what makes it powerful. The ending is such a gut-punch and so incredibly sad because of how familiar this story is and because we know that the necessary changes have still not been sufficiently accomplished in spite of various attempts.

While some people may think that Mangrove is a better film, nothing in Mangrove stuck with me as much as Red, White, and Blue‘s bleak ending already does. If Mangrove is a victorious battle in an on-going fight for equality, and if Lovers Rock is a celebration of the joys of a single moment, then Red, White, and Blue is a bitter pill that one is forced to swallow when you realize that sometimes change moves at a much too slow pace for one’s impact to be truly felt. The film sees its main character, once idealistic and hopeful, chewed up and spat out of a no-win system so viciously that he has lost his spirit when he claims the world needs to be torn down and replanted anew. It is another great film by Steve McQueen. It is powerful and it is relevant, but, more than anything else, it is just so depressing and bleak.

8 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.


“Alex Wheatle,”


Sheyi Cole as Alex Wheatle in “Alex Wheatle.” — Photo: Parisa Taghizedeh / Amazon Prime Video.

Truth be told, I took quite a big break in between this and the previous film in the Small Axe film anthology series. It wasn’t because I didn’t enjoy these films, it was more due to me having little time to actually watch and review each film. But then, in late April, I finally got the chance to pick up where I left off. Unfortunately, while each of the previous three films had left a lasting impression on me, this fourth film in Steve McQueen’s film series was a bit of a disappointment to me.

This is a coming-of-age biographical film that tells the story of a young Alex Wheatle (played by newcomer Sheyi Cole), a Black British novelist, and how he became a writer. This means that the film follows him from his time at a children’s home to right after having been freed from imprisonment. It is a story about identity and finding your roots. In the film, we see Wheatle frantically searching for a community that he can call his own, so that he can find his place in the world.

These films all vary in length and runtime, and a film’s runtime can sometimes end up being very important to the overall experience. For example, I thought that the excessive runtime of Mangrove was a drawback because it was much too long. With Alex Wheatle the problem is the exact opposite. Alex Wheatle is much too short. At moments, it feels cursory. It feels like it only scratches the surface of the biopic’s subject. It feels like an incomplete, unfocused, and much too conventional biographical picture with a lot of unrealised potential. It’s a film about an aimless young man finding education and love of reading from inside of a prison cell, but that’s not really what I’ll remember the film for.

In general, Small Axe really is a tribute to these very specific communities, and if you didn’t know that already then this movie makes it plain and clear for all to see. I loved the shots of Wheatle looking at the busy street with wonder and excitement in his eyes. I loved the slow pan in the record store while the music played, which also really showed the passage of time. I thought this was really exceptional. McQueen really conveys a special feeling that we all know there.

There is a very interesting cut that also shows the passage of time and this may be the most memorable thing about the film for me. The film opens with its titular character in — if I remember correctly — a medium shot. We see Wheatle and his naked torso as he is being prepped for imprisonment. Interestingly, when he is then handed his clothes, the film cuts to another shot where is now fully clothed and holding bedsheets. I may be reading too much into things, but I read this cut as McQueen’s way of emphasizing just how bare he feels, just how incomplete his identity is, and exactly how stripped of his identity the system has made him.

I also want to say that even though this film is my least favorite in the anthology series, I did think that Sheyi Cole gave an excellent performance as he fully embodied his character who was still forming his own identity. Again, this is one of Sheyi Cole’s first performances, and I really hope he gets a lot of credit for the performance he pulls off here.

While this is still a solid film with some great and memorable filmmaking, the narrative itself is perhaps too conventional and traditional for me. This isn’t usually a problem for me, but I think it became a problem precisely because so much of the story happened off-screen that the film also felt somewhat incomplete. That said, Alex Wheatle is by no means a bad film, it just doesn’t live up to the standard set by the previous three films.

6.7 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.


“Education,”


Kenyah Sandy as Kingsley Smith in “Education.” — Photo: Will Robson-Scott / Amazon Prime Video.

At the end of Alex Wheatle, the cellmate of the titular character tells him that education is of the utmost importance, and so, naturally, the next and final film in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe film series is titled Education. This is the shortest film in the Small Axe collection, but, thankfully, not the least involving. Though it’s not as good or as memorable as the first three films in the collection, it worked better for me than the previous film, Alex Wheatle, did.

Education primarily follows young Kingsley Smith (played by Kenyah Sandy) and his family as they try to cope with the fact that his difficulties with reading comprehension leads to him being classified as ‘sub-normal’ by the British School System and sent to a special needs school that is barely supervised.

McQueen’s film is an examination of institutional racism and inequality, and it brings awareness to how some children have been intentionally forgotten or pushed aside by school systems. Characters in McQueen’s film make the case that the system is stacked against the children of these communities, and it is absolutely infuriating to watch Kingsley being cast aside.

However, like I mentioned with Alex Wheatle, this film suffers from its much too short runtime. In general, I think that the controlling idea of Education is sound and involving. Unfortunately, I don’t think that the film does anything particularly new with this particular story. In the end, Education is too short and perhaps even too limited in perspective to actually do anything substantial other than to just bring awareness to the issue. Like with the Alex Wheatle film, there are hints to what transpired after the events of the film, such as the tease that suggested Education‘s characters hoped Margaret Thatcher would do something for the children of these communities. But I wanted McQueen to do more with this suggestion. I wanted more scenes with the support group that wanted to help the Smiths, but I also wanted more scenes with Kingsley and his sister.

So, I think the film is too short and perhaps even incomplete. But it must be said that Education did move me to tears, which the previous film did not. I think that the scene where Kingsley shows that he is learning is so very powerful precisely because the film shows us why he learned what he did. The film shows us the power of a good teacher and the way the right material can open anyone’s eyes.

Reflecting now on both this film and the entirety of the Small Axe anthology film series, I must stress how important these films seem. Although they are standalone, they are all united by common themes of community, much needed awareness, and the unveiling of institutional racism. These are films about the people who helped to start change, the difficulties they had, and about how their work lives on in today’s activists. At the end of Education it is the powerful act of learning about his people’s history that helps Kingsley to sharpen his skills as a reader. This act of having one’s eyes opened is a powerful note to end the film series on. By bringing awareness to — and educating viewers about — issues of institutional racism that is unfortunately ingrained in so many systems all over the world, McQueen’s films also reminds us that the fight to incite positive change is not yet over. He reminds us that perhaps we need to educate ourselves further to continue the fight in a meaningful way and succeed in becoming the bridge that Red, White, and Blue mentioned.

7 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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