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Small Axe

Steve McQueen III, who is probably best known for his film, 12 Years a Slave, brings a new concept, a collection of 5 feature films that stand on their own but are being packaged as a Limited Series on Amazon Prime. The subject is the experience of West Indian immigrants in London between 1960 and the early 1980s. While each film stands on its own, I find it much easier to think about all of them together. This is an excellent collection of stories that are immersed in their particular eras. The first, Mangrove, is based on the true story of the trial of the Mangrove Nine who were arrested for inciting a riot in defense of the treatment by police of the owners and patrons of the Mangrove, a restaurant that served as a focal point for the West Indian community. Lover’s Rock takes place almost entirely during the night of a party for the West Indian Community. Red, White, and Blue is a biopic about the early career of Leroy Logan who formed the first Black Police Association and eventually became Superintendent of the London Metropolitan Police. Alex Wheatle, also a biopic, is based on the early life of Wheatle who was for a time a DJ and then spent time in prison as a result of the Brixton Riots that occurred after several black young people were killed in a fire suspected to be arson. Finally, Education, a story of a young boy of West Indian heritage who is sent to a school for “subnormal children” because he is considered a “disruption”. The films are connected by the rampant and overt racism the community experienced. But they also are connected by a theme of resilience and a sense of community through which these people changed the world they lived in. In Mangrove, two of those who were indicted served as their own counsels, and their finesse in the courtroom was every bit as sophisticated as the counsel hired to defend the others. I was reminded frequently of the other courtroom drama this year, Trial of the Chicago Seven. Red, White, and Blue and Alex Wheatle were interesting. Neither delved much into the later periods of their lives when their most significant accomplishments would happen; rather, the focus was on their formative years and the circumstances that led them down their chosen paths. I loved Lover’s Rock for its immersion into the Black community, how it brought in and protected even its more “deviant” characters, how the director created such a sense of joy and community while just moving the camera around the party. My favorite was the last one, Education. This one for me told the most poignant story and really, in some ways, provided the material through which the other stories threaded. There is one scene when the teacher is singing an awful version of House of the Rising Sun that is funny but, the way the camera moves around the classroom, also devastating. It was the right one to cap off the “series”. McQueen is a master storyteller who weaves together several experiences into a group of films that stand alone but also have coherent messages that connect them. It was also fascinating to examine racism through the eyes of another culture. I loved this collection of films, and I highly recommend all of them. I ended up using the subtitles feature on my TV – I needed it, especially for Alex Wheatle. (2020; 4.5 stars)

About Gary Burkholder

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