Small Axe

How much do you know about West Indian life in London from the 60s to the 80s? If not much, not enough, or not at all, Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame, 12 Years a Slave and Widows) is here to rectify that. He’s made five feature films for the BBC, all stories based on actual events, covering daily life for the London Caribbean community throughout those decades. It’s a monumental achievement that gives English Blackness its greatest popular entertainment exposure, I would suggest, ever. All five are now available on Foxtel in Australia.

The films have no recurring characters and are solely linked thematically, but McQueen hascurated them in a particular order and I suggest you follow it. The first two are the best, so if you only want to dip your toes, you can enjoy them and move on. But watching all five has a cumulative power; this is indeed a case of the whole adding up to more than the sum of its parts.

Mangrove: The first in the series and the second best. A relatively conventionally constructed courtroom drama, made unconventional by its dramatic ingredients: the Black London community that the whole series shines a light on. The proprietor of the Mangrove restaurant in Ladbroke Grove is continually harassed by the police; when he and his community demonstrate, they are brought up on charges which they fight in court. The most ‘historically educational’ of the series and a true eye-opener. Also the longest at a smudge over two hours. * * * 1/2

Lovers Rock: The best one. In a little over an hour McQueen offers a massive slice of young West Indian cultural life in London in the 1980s. Two people meet at a house party. That’s it. But it’s so much more: a film about music, mating, toxic masculinity and predator culture, Rastafarianism, sexuality and sensuality (this is the most sensual film of, say, the decade?), youth, food, dance, safe space and above all, community. The most artful of the five, bordering on experimental, it’s joyous, enthralling and magical. This is the one you’ll watch twice. * * * *

Red, White and Blue: The true story of a young man who joined the London police force and became the literal poster boy for minority recruitment, while dealing with the realities of racism within the force, this 80 minute entry features an excellent central performance from John Boyega.  My fourth favourite. * * *

Alex Wheatle: The least satisfying entry is a character study based on one of the writers McQueen engaged in a ‘writer’s room’ designed to generate material for the series. This is the one that suffers the most from Foxtel’s lack of having Closed Captions available for this series: the patois is dense and deep and I have to admit to being unable to follow a lot of it (and clearly missing a lot of nuance and humour). If you have Closed Captions available to you in your viewing region, and you aren’t up on your Caribbean patois, turn them on. * * *

Education: My third favourite is a charming hour-long depiction of a seminal year or so in McQueen’s own childhood, when he got shunted off to a school for “special needs” students. Touching, warm and possessing the most humour of the five. * * * 1/2

SERIES OVERALL:

* * * *