In the most memorable scene from director Steve McQueen's Shame, a man jogs through Manhattan at night. His journey is filmed in a minuteslong tracking shot, allowing us to fully savor the sight of him passing illuminated windows, then fading into the shadows. His run keeps taking him into darkness, but he is forever racing toward the light.
That scene encapsulates McQueen's ethos. He has made movies about hunger strikes (Hunger) and slavery (12 Years a Slave), but he doesn't wallow in suffering. He faces harsh truths because he believes honesty will lead us to the promise of a better world—the promise etched on the face of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) when he is reunited with his family after more than a decade of torment in 12 Years.
With Small Axe, McQueen's five-part meditation on Black life in Britain, now streaming on Amazon Prime, there's never been a better time to be a fan. All of his work is personal, but this is the first time he has made films that directly reflect his experience as a London-born son of Grenadian and Trinidadian parents. Here are reviews of the five installments of Small Axe, all of which are alive with confrontation and aspiration—the aspiration of a storyteller speaking from his soul.
Mangrove takes its name from The Mangrove, a Caribbean restaurant in Notting Hill that was terrorized by police for decades. When the restaurant's owner, Frank Crichlow, protested against the repeated abuses of power, he and eight other activists were falsely accused of inciting a riot. Without the clichéd triumphalism of courtroom dramas, Mangrove re-creates the 1971 trial of the Mangrove Nine. There are soaring speeches, but the core of the film is the wounded, weathered gaze of Crichlow (Shaun Parkes)—a reminder that the Mangrove Nine won the trial but not the war: The restaurant continued to face police persecution and closed in 1992.
Can one dance party drive an entire movie? McQueen gives it a shot in this poetic, imperfect film set in West London in 1980. It's free of backstory—McQueen wants us to focus on basking in beautifully kinetic moments, like a roomful of people rocking out to Carl Douglas' "Kung Fu Fighting." There isn't enough of a narrative to sustain an hourlong movie, but McQueen captures the joy of movement and the pain of stillness palpably and perfectly.
Red, White and Blue
Early in Red, White and Blue, Leroy Logan (John Boyega) announces, "I'm thinking of joining the force." "You're going to be a Jedi or something?" a friend asks. It's a cheeky nod to Finn, the swashbuckling ex-stormtrooper Boyega played in Star Wars, but we're light years away from that galaxy. Logan was a real person—a child of Jamaican parents who joined the London police force after his father was assaulted by officers in 1983. Logan believed he could reform the organization from within, a dream that Red, White and Blue portrays as noble and naive. McQueen makes the case that the problem wasn't a lack of people of color on the force—it was (and is) the force itself.
Alex Wheatle has written over a dozen books and was awarded an MBE—one of the classes of appointment to the Order of the British Empire—for services to literature, but McQueen's brief cinematic biography is not about that Alex. It's about the Alex who was jailed for his part in the 1981 Brixton uprising and found a literary mentor in his cellmate, a Rastafarian named Simeon who changed his life by introducing him to The Black Jacobins, a history of the Haitian Revolution. McQueen tells the tale with fluidity and compassion, but it can't help feeling unfinished. Now that the man Wheatle was has been immortalized onscreen, someone should make a movie about the man he became.
Imagine you've been forced into a school deemed "educationally subnormal"—an institution where a teacher's (very bad) performance of "House of the Rising Sun" counts as a lesson. That's the fate that befalls 12-year-old Kingsley (Kenyah Sandy) in Education. It is inspired not only by McQueen's childhood, but by countless stories of children of African and Caribbean descent whose lives were tarnished by criminally bad British schools. The injustices onscreen make you want to shriek with fury, but McQueen isn't simply asking for your rage. He's begging you to understand that education and liberation are often one and the same.
SEE IT: Small Axe streams on Amazon Prime.