Ranking the Small Axe Films

Small Axe is available for purchase at The Criterion Collection on Blu-Ray. The description of this anthology series from the Criterion website: “…Steve McQueen offers a richly evocative panorama of West Indian life in London from the 1960s through the ’80s—a time defined for the community by the terror of police violence, the empowering awakening of political consciousness, and the ecstatic escape of a vibrant reggae scene.”

I am sure there is better and more valuable analysis of this anthology as a while. I am instead breaking it down by its individual pieces. While in many respects, the anthology is truly meant to be experienced as a whole, its individual pieces all truly can stand on their own two feet.

5. Red, White and Blue [2020]

“Big change. That is a slow turning wheel.”

The third Small Axe film featured the biggest star of the whole enterprise, and, as a result, might be the most disappointing. Much like other mixed bags from McQueen’s filmography, RWB suffers from being pulled in different directions that makes it feel disjointed. On one hand, the film is a moderately successful (if slight) small scale character study with a charismatic star. On the other hand, the film is also one of McQueen’s failed protest novels.

John Boyega once again plays a cop who thinks the police and the community will be better off if he is a Good Cop. This is a very real phenomenon in the world, and perhaps that means it is worth exploring. On the character side of things, you do get a true sense of who Boyega is and why he makes the decisions he makes. Unfortunately a lot of that understanding comes from Boyega being given dialogue where he very directly states for the audience’s benefit why he feels the way he does and why he is making his decisions.

These moments feel similar to the “political” scenes not just in this film but in all of McQueen’s films. These moments in his film feel like the characters are suddenly breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to the audience. They do not just fit with what else is happening in the movie, or at the very least they do not fit with the scenes that work best in his films.

 

4. Alex Wheatle [2020]

As discussed above, Steve McQueen is a filmmaker that struggles to do “protest novels” while also being one of the best at “vibes” (for wont of better terms). Alex Wheatle marks one of his best attempts at trying to balance the two.

Much like with Red, White & Blue, this movie is a small-scale character story. It is more successful on that level because it relies more on “showing” rather than “telling.” We get to experience Alex Wheatle’s awakening and radicalization and feel his journey. There are far fewer moments of characters telling us exactly what is going on with his development.

Now, the story is not told in some profound manner or anything like that. It feels somewhat of a conventional A-B-C narrative. But it works well enough for the story of Alex Wheatle and contributes nicely to the larger Small Axe panorama.

 

3. Education [2020]

Education had similar strengths and issues of all the non-Lovers Rock entries from this film anthology. The first half of the film really beautifully captures what it means to be a young child being failed by your institutions but trying to make your way through life anyway. Then the second half of the film is a history lesson. Now, that history lesson deserves to be taught and deserves to be known about! Let there be no mistake. As I discuss throughout this piece though, the stark contrast between the scenes where McQueen shows human beings being human and when he is trying to directly tell audiences stuff is a weird mismatch. Once you recognize that dichotomy, it is hard to see anything else when you watch a Steve McQueen film.

 

2. Mangrove [2020]

Mangrove is a film that explores many important ideas about the black experience inside the Western European white empire. Systemic racism in all of these countries. Colorism. Police brutality.  The limits of respectability politics. The value of radicalism. The false dichotomy between the two. And those ideas are not just worthy of being examined but they need to be looked at and have been for far too long underserved in even the best works of art about the human experience.

The question then becomes is Steve McQueen the ideal artist for exploring these issues in such a way? Politically, he seems more than qualified – there can be no mistake about that. There is more than plenty of evidence over the years that McQueen is intellectually as credible as any filmmaker on these issues. Terms and ideas mentioned and discussed in the Small Axe anthology that rarely if ever get mentioned from major studio films.

With that in mind, Mangrove turns out to be a very handy film to showcase the strengths and weaknesses of McQueen.

The “vibes” scenes in this film are immaculate. The dancing. The food. It is all so gorgeous. However, much of the political commentary scenes in the first half of the film are clunky and awkward. They lack the humanity that McQueen gives to his characters when they are otherwise hanging out.

Mangrove was the first film where I started to theorize that McQueen really struggles at the “protest novel” aspect of his films. When he explores humanity by capturing their everyday existence, he is one of the best there is. It’s a truly fascinating contradiction.

Anyway, this film is solid enough overall. The courtroom drama of the second half works, and Shaun Parkes (of The Mummy Returns fame!) gives what should be a breakout performance.

 

1. Lovers Rock [2020]

There is so much you could talk about one of the most spellbinding films of the decade. But all I really want to call attention is the “Silly Games” sequence which is simply put one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in any movie. In fact, I feel like I have never seen anything quite like it before.

In this sequence, McQueen shows the immense beauty of people free to exist in just those few moments of a given day when we are allowed to just live our loves and the great potential we as a people we could have if we ever get to know true liberation. I can watch this sequence at any moment on any day. I am currently listening back to Janet Kay’s rendition at this very moment as I edit this piece.

Beyond just that sequence though, this movie fully articulates the immense ability of Steve McQueen to capture the absolute wonder of human beings. The position of the camera. The lighting. The angles. The, above all else, love. McQueen loves these characters, and you can tell that he loves the people. This is one of my favorite films of all time and possibly one of the best.

 

Overall Thoughts

Steve McQueen is someone I have given a great deal of consideration to in the last few years without having actually watched anything new from. I loved 12 Years and Widows in the theaters but never watched them back properly.

Then I started to notice some pushback against 12 Years, and I remembered the decidedly mixed reaction to Widows. And I started to wonder if either of those two films were truly good. Then I saw Loves Rock (and only Lovers Rock), and my angst about Steve McQueen seemed to be at ease. For a time.

But the doubts about his talent seemed to only be getting louder and stronger, and I decided it was time to dive all the way in and see what I could find. So, I re-watched 12 Years and finally watched all of Small Axe in order. And I came to some conclusions that you saw discussed time and time again above.

McQueen, as most clearly seen in the instant classic, Lovers Rock, is a lover of people and truly sees the beauty in humanity. He is also someone who is aware of the great wrongs that exist in the world and not just on a surface level. He also has a burning desire to tell the world about so many of those unforgivable wrongs and all the while creating beautiful portraits of humanity.

And McQueen is still in the process of figuring out how to best do that.

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