Alfred Hitchcock said a movie could be a slice of life or a piece of cake. Steve McQueen’s Small Axe is, triumphantly, both. This five-film anthology set in London’s West Indian neighborhoods between 1968 and 1984 is packed with conflict and tragedy — and sensuality and joy. McQueen invents an elastic form to convey the depth of his thought and feeling for a milieu he loves. He doesn’t throw away his shot. He recharges the community protest/courtroom drama (Mangrove), reggae musical (Lovers Rock), police exposé (Red, White and Blue), coming-of-age biopic (Alex Wheatle) and social-justice j’accuse (Education). Small Axe, though, is not a collection of genre pieces linked by depictions of institutional racism. It’s an organic group portrait of marginalized Londoners challenging authority by carving out proud and distinct lives. Their deep-rooted spirituality and zest — expressed in language, music, movement and cuisine — imbue the series with passion and exuberance.
Just as romantic yearning surges through Lovers Rock, real-life struggle energizes the fact-based chronicles of Black cop Leroy Logan (John Boyega), abandoned boy (and future novelist) Alex Wheatle (Sheyi Cole), the Mangrove West Indian Restaurant — a target of police harassment and the focus of a history-changing trial — and a grassroots campaign to prevent educational authorities from warehousing Black students in schools for “the educationally subnormal.” But it’s the unexpected connections among these stories that make Small Axe a continuous delight, whether it’s celebrating reggae as a life-giving force (Lovers Rock; Alex Wheatle), exploring families under pressure (Red, White and Blue; Education), or dramatizing different modes of activism (Mangrove; Education).
McQueen and his co-editor, Chris Dickens, disregard storytelling conventions to arrive at stunning, climactic moments of truth. As G.K. Chesterton noted of Charles Dickens’ novels: “The primary elements are not the stories, but the characters who affect the stories.” McQueen’s live-wire gallery of vital and courageous men and women stirs us immediately and indelibly.
— Michael Sragow