Steve McQueen and the making of history with Small Axe

Letitia Wright plays Altheia Jones in Mangrove by Steve McQueen

If you are the big tree,
we are the small axe
Bob Marley, 1973

Small Axe is the overall title of five films created and directed by Steve McQueen, based on the real-life experiences of London’s Caribbean community between 1969 and 1982. They were premiered on BBC One weekly from 15 November 2020 in the following order: Mangrove, centred on the trial of the Mangrove 9 at the Old Bailey in 1970 for incitement to riot following a protest march against police harassment. Lovers Rock, named for the soulful reggae that blasts out of the sound boxes of a blues house party that lasts throughout the night. Red, White & Blue, depicting the early part of the life of Leroy Logan, who joined the London police force in hope of helping to reform it and was later a founding member of the Black Police Association and its chair for 30 years. Alex Wheatle also traces the early life of a real person, after leaving institutional care and witnessing the Brixton uprising of 1981, years before he published Brixton Rock in 1999, the first of many successful young adult novels. The fifth film, Education follows a fictional school boy’s family based around the real-life facts behind the 1971 publication by Bernard Coard, How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System: The Scandal of the Black Child in Schools in Britain

Steve McQueen

McQueen was born in London in 1969 of Trinidadian and Grenadian parents. His experience of school in the 1980s was very bad. He was dyslexic and had to wear an eyepatch because of a lazy eye and, as a new head teacher later confessed, the school was institutionally racist. Following Chelsea College of Arts and Goldsmith’s College he studied film at the Tisch School of the Arts in New York. 

McQueen’s work has gained many awards including an Oscar in 2013 for 12 Years a Slave, an adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir. He also directed and co-wrote Hunger (2008), about Bobby Sands and the 1981 Irish hunger strike, Shame (2011), about an executive struggling with sex addiction, and Widows (2018), set in contemporary Chicago. 

In 2006, he visited Iraq as an official war artist and produced Queen and Country, which commemorates the deaths of British soldiers by presenting their portraits as a sheet of stamps. He was awarded the Turner Prize in 1999, a British Film Industry fellowship in 2016 and the Award for Cinematic Production by the Royal Photographic Society in 2020. He was made a CBE in 2011 and knighted in 2020. 

There is a powerful sense of life and the span of life in all of McQueen’s work. In 2019 he invited 3,000 London primary school Year 3 classes to participate in a monumental collective photographic portrait of more than 76,000 young Londoners alongside their classmates and teachers. Filling the vast Duveen Gallery at Tate Britain, Year 3 is a giant snapshot of the city’s cultural diversity. 

The voices that tell the story

Each film in Small Axe is a vehicle for the voices of the past. The historical blank, the silence and disregard for the experiences of the Windrush generation and their children is somewhat repaired in each film. The actual events, the trial of the Mangrove 9 in 1971, Haringey Council’s Educational Segregation Policy of 1971 and the Black supplementary schools’ movement, the New Cross house fire of January 1981, in which 13 young Black people aged between 14 and 22 were killed and the Brixton Uprising of 1981, are all there as facts from the past but also as the experiences of peoples’ lives.

McQueen brings to life the presence and the voices of the Mangrove 9, the mother who comes to understand how the schooling system is failing Black children, the father who cannot believe that his son would join a police force that assaulted and beat him up. When he is serving a four-month prison sentence after the 1981 Brixton uprising we meet Alex Wheatley’s Rastafarian cellmate who speaks of African liberation and hands him The Black Jacobins, CLR James’s seminal account of Toussaint L’Ouverture’s 18th-century slave revolt and the Haitian revolution. And in Lovers Rock the music takes over with ‘Silly Games’ by Janet Kay, as the blues party moves together in a harmony of joy and sensuality, and we know that it is a temporary release from the daily tribulations of living in a racist society.

McQueen directs black actors who look, dress, talk, eat, walk like the age, place and time of their histories. We watch the unfolding scenes in which they live again as in the painful ebb and flow of argument with Frank Critchlow for and against Darcus Howe and Altheia Jones-Lecointe of the Black Panther Party deciding to organise a protest march to the police station. Later we see them again, arguing, uncertain, brave and afraid, deciding on their plea and whether they should take the stand and defend themselves. This decision led to their acquittal on all the major charges and to the first judicial acknowledgement of racial prejudice in the Metropolitan Police Force. In each film McQueen completes the historical record with the continuous interaction between the factual events of history and the responses of the Caribbean community. All of this is achieved with the great camera work and choreographic skills of a superb film maker. 

Learning from the past

McQueen says ‘these films are commenting on the past, in order to look at the present and how far we’ve come... Sometimes, we wish we had made more progress but it’s undoubted that we have made progress’. These accounts of racist repression and resistance show humans not as the objects but as the subjects of history. This is the greatest lesson of all, that we are the result of past conflicts and struggles, that we can determine our futures ourselves, and, in the words of Karl Marx, ‘make our own history, but not in circumstances of our own choosing’.

Susan Davidson

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 280 February/March 2021