Turbine Studios, 2020
Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Steve McQueen, et al
📷 : Licensed from Shutterstock
Nonfamily dramas with strong socioeconomic themes
Movies and TV shows about toughness and athletic competition
Small Axe is a series of five film shorts ranging from just over one hour to a little over two. The distinct docudramas focus on the experiences of people from the Caribbeans living in Britain between the late 1960s and early 1980s. The filmmakers exquisitely capture the aesthetics and cinematography of the era through dim lighting, signage, and tight spaces. Afros, big glasses, bell bottom pants, and soulful sounds of Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up,” Al Green’s “Still in Love,” and Bob Marley’s reggae take us back to the house– and on‑campus parties of the period, further driving home the old-school feel.
As depicted in “Mangrove,” the first episode of the series, any place Blacks gather is viewed by British law enforcement as a place where crime and conspiracies are plotted, even Mangrove Restaurant where West Indian cuisine is served. Despite immigrating to Britain to pursue “educational and economic opportunity,” people from the Virgin Islands and countries like Jamaica and Antigua endure suspicion by police who patrol their communities on foot and by car. Men are continuously and casually harassed, beaten, and arrested by police who simply resent them for standing alone on a corner, walking down the street, or even looking them in the eye.
The brutality reminded me of documentaries like Eyes on the Prize that chronicled the Jim Crow South, where Blacks were relegated to segregated communities and forced to adjust their upbeat and confident demeanors when White police officers came around. They did this out of fear of being beaten and/or arrested—for being Black. And interactions with police traumatize and change people when there is no justice and accountability.
In 1970, the late Roscoe Lee Brown starred in a film set in the segregated South called The Liberation of L.B. Jones. I remember my older sister watching it on television when I happened to see a scene where two White officers on patrol in a Black community at night, stopped a woman walking home with a bag of groceries. One coerced her into the back seat of their vehicle and let her out sometime later. Clearly ruffled and shaken, she was without one of her shoes, turning her ankle as she got out of the car. Her blouse was buttoned incorrectly, and her skirt was twisted. I was young—very young—but even I knew what happened in that back seat.
The sweaty officer slicked his hair back, got in the front passenger seat, (His partner remained in the driver’s seat during the assault.) bid the woman ‘Good evening,’ and calmly drove off. Watching the police encounters across several of the Small Axe episodes brought back this memory of the police operating in Black neighborhoods in the South with impunity. While similar scenes are not depicted in Small Axe, the series shows women like Altheia Jones and Barbara Beese being dismissed, arrested, and frequently called derogatory names by law enforcement. Played by Letitia Wright (Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Panther) and Rochenda Sandall (Line of Duty, Criminal: UK), both women vehemently protest, resist police action, and lead calls for justice and accountability.
In the “Red, White and Blue” segment, Leroy Logan, played by John Boyega, joins the London police force with the aspiration of changing the way policing is conducted in West Indian communities. He quickly learns how challenging this is when his fellow mates are unwelcoming in the station house and unsupportive on the streets. During walking patrols in the community, he is also treated as a traitor by residents, soon realizing that it is lonely being a bridge between his community and the police. Frustrated, he breaks down and declares “Sometimes I think this earth needs to be scorched, replanted, so that something good will come of it.”
Not all West Indian experiences in Britain are portrayed as negative though. “Lover’s Rock” depicts a house party where young men and women dance, drink, smoke ganja, and even fall in love. A slice of heaven, the party makes it clear that the group strives to carve out a space where its members can freely express themselves and tune into their culture through music and dance. Many of the songs played by the DJ are quite familiar to the group as evidenced by several sing-alongs. Even a spiritual bonding occurs during the playing of a highly popular instrumental reggae tune called “Kunta Kinte.” The music, dancing, and even cat-mouse love games at the party are entertaining, though the sing-along and single-song dance scenes go on for much, much too long.
Long, drawn-out, over-narrated, and monotonous or silent scenes are the downsides of Small Axe, particularly when contrasted with the substantially shorter emotional scenes. In “Alex Wheatle,” Alex, played by Sheyi Cole (Boxing Day, Made in Hollywood), is shown laying isolated on a floor in a straitjacket and revealing his deadpan eyes for 1 minute and 45 seconds. No music, no movement, no dialog, only this long period of silence. On the other hand, an emotional scene over a family dinner in “Education,” the final episode, is short-lived, only 60 seconds. I cannot help but feel that the audience needed to share in the family’s emotion and feel its pain in order to connect with the cost and significance of racist educational practices. In crucial moments like this, the films missed opportunities to immerse the audience in the stories and give viewers the space to absorb the messages being posited.
The big takeaway from Small Axe though, is for Blacks in the U.S., specifically Baby Boomers and older, to appreciate the similarity in struggles with Blacks in Britain. In doing so, it broadens viewers’ perspectives about the treatment of Blacks in the West and informs thinking about strategies for progress. If you like good music and can tolerate the dim aesthetics of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, this could be a worthwhile view. Listen carefully to the dialog though. Occasionally, the West Indian dialect and British accent can be tough to discern.