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  • James Rutherford

'Small Axe': An Extraordinary Anthology Series Depicting London's West Indian Community 1969-1982


Poster for the anthology series "Small Axe" (2020)

Small Axe (2020) is an unprecedented series of five films depicting London's West Indian community between 1969 and 1982. Originally developed as a miniseries for BBC One, creator/director Steve McQueen (Shame, 12 Years a Slave) ultimately chose to release all five episodes as full-length films, and the resultant collection is downright extraordinary.


McQueen's anthology is highlighted in particular by Mangrove and Lovers Rock, the former depicting the landmark court case of the “Mangrove Nine” in 1970, while the latter envisions a rousing West London reggae party circa 1980. Rounding out the quintet, Red, White and Blue stars John Boyega as an idealistic young officer in the London Metropolitan Police, Alex Wheatle profiles the titular British novelist imprisoned after the 1981 Brixton uprising, and Education captures the experiences of a young black student railroaded into substandard schooling notoriously earmarked for the "educationally subnormal".


With a title drawn from the proverb "If you are the big, big tree we are the small axe" popularized by Bob Marley in his 1973 song of the same name, Small Axe is an eye-opening and roundly humanistic viewing experience. Major kudos to McQueen, cinematographer Shabier Kirchner, co-editor Chris Dickens and the full cast and crew for delivering such an immersive and deeply moving history lesson to viewers. It's a monumental representation of aspiration, systematic racism and profound human endurance.

 

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