In any year, Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” would be a historic achievement. But in 2020, amid a worldwide reckoning on racial injustice while a pandemic has wreaked havoc on the entertainment industry — blurring the lines between film and TV — this five-part series is an auspicious game-changer.
Shining a light on little-known tales of Black pride and heroism from the U.K.’s Windrush generation, each instalment is set between the late ’60s and early ’80s and features people from the Black diaspora speaking in their own dialects and revelling in their culture. For that alone, “Small Axe” is special, but the themes in each of the interlinked stories still resonate powerfully today.
With the final chapter debuting on the BBC on Sunday, the time has come to rank the series as a whole — a considerable challenge when you consider that while satisfaction may have varied over the films, there isn’t a weak instalment to be found. Be sure to catch up on reviews of all five films from Variety critics following each segment below.
5. Alex Wheatle
The penultimate entry in McQueen’s anthology tells the story of Alex Wheatle’s transformation from orphaned outsider to cultured activist, taking us from his early days at a group home in Surrey where he was regularly abused by white adults, to his participation in the 1981 Brixton uprising for which he was imprisoned. That fascinating cultural awakening is effectively charted by newcomer Sheyi Cole, who is especially good in the small, intimate moments where Shabier Kirchner’s lens meets his haunted expressions.
It makes it all the more frustrating that the storytelling in Alex Wheatle feels both rushed and unfinished. Of all the “Small Axe” chapters, this one feels the most like the first two episodes of a miniseries as opposed to a complete coming-of-age tale. Some of that is by design — the award-winning author Wheatle goes on to become in his later life is merely hinted at in the final moments — but the 65-minute narrative blows through story beats that deserved more screen time, stunting the film’s overall impact.
4. Red, White and Blue
Arguably the buzziest chapter of McQueen’s opus in the lead-up to the release of “Small Axe,” “Red, White and Blue” sees John Boyega star as Leroy Logan, a real-life forensic scientist who decided to join the police to combat the institution’s racial prejudice from within in 1983. That puts him at odds with his father Kenneth (Steve Toussaint), who is seeking his day in court after being assaulted by a group of officers. The tension between the two men is portrayed with impressive nuance thanks to a deft screenplay by McQueen and co-writer Courttia Newland that gives both sides of the conflict equal weight and offers no easy answers.
After his impassioned speech at a Black Lives Matter protest over the summer, there’s a certain amount of serendipity for Boyega here. He delivers his finest work to date as Leroy’s initial confidence and optimism gradually gives way to anger and self-doubt as he endures one racial slur after another. That the story ends abruptly before Logan — who went on to become a superintendent — gets any tangible win is mildly frustrating, but it feels right for a film that underlines how difficult it is to instigate change in a corrupt establishment that’s unwilling to do so.
Having himself been diagnosed as dyslexic at a young age, “Education” is the “Small Axe” episode that feels the most personal for McQueen. It focuses on Kingsley (Kenyah Sandy), a bright-eyed 12-year-old who, after failing an IQ test and being unfairly branded a “disruptive influence,” is shipped off to an “educationally subnormal” school. As Kingsley’s mother Agnes (Sharlene Whyte) soon learns, in reality, these special schools are a segregated wasteland for Black kids with educational needs.
McQueen’s fifth and final chapter doesn’t just succeed in educating us on this racially biased system, which limited kids’ chances before they even begun. It also serves to highlight the importance of support systems within the community. Sandy makes Kingsley easy to root for from the get-go and carries the hour, but it’s Whyte who becomes the film’s MVP when she takes matters into her own hands. While that leads to plenty of fiery moments, it also helps to make “Education” the tenderest entry of the series.
2. Lovers Rock
There’s no “Small Axe” entry less concerned with plot than “Lovers Rock,” which follows Martha (Amarah Jae St. Aubyn making her sensational debut) as she sneaks out of her family home to go to a house party. But what McQueen’s second “Small Axe” entry lacks in narrative, it makes up for with mood: from early shots of women preparing goat curry stew that you can almost taste through the screen, to sweaty, up-close-and-personal dance sequences that evoke the pre-COVID parties of old, it’s easy to get swept up in the loving exploration of Black British culture at play.
The most joyous moment of the film — and perhaps 2020 — comes when the speakers cut out and everyone on the dancefloor sings Janet Kay’s 1979 hit “Silly Games” for four euphoric minutes, its unplanned rawness making it instantly iconic. That McQueen still finds the time in this 68-minute film to gently yet effectively remind us and his film’s inhabitants of the harsh world that exists outside of this Black haven is masterful.
When it comes to courtroom dramas that focus on matters of race, it’s rare that Black characters are permitted to be the heroes of their own story. That’s not the case with “Mangrove” — the fiercest, finest “Small Axe” chapter — which sees Caribbean restaurant owner Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), British Black Panther leader Altheia Jones-Lecointe (Letitia Wright, never better), and other activists put on trial when they’re arrested for peaceful protests. When it comes time for them to plead their case, they get to do their own cross-examinations of racist police officer Pc Frank Pulley (Sam Spruell) and it leads to multiple satisfying sequences.
Outside of the courtroom, “Mangrove” is just as striking both visually and narratively. The first hour in particular lovingly showcases the West Indian community through food, song and dance, evocatively establishing a sense of time and place. And thanks to Parkes’ passionate and empathetic performance, in Crichlow the film has a perfectly imperfect protagonist who is no less heroic for being flawed.