So Much of 2020 has been devoted to discussing, debating and contesting history, from the removal of statues (“erasing our history”, as the plaintiffs would say) to re-evaluations of the British legacies of slavery and colonialism, all driven by the resurgence of the black population Lives matter. In this context, Small Ax could not have chosen a better time, or found a better form of expression. Far from “erasing” British history, Small Ax enriches it. It fills in large gaps in our national history that many of us hardly even realized were there. It will undoubtedly be Steve McQueen’s masterpiece and a British television landmark. Yet this series of five films represents just a glimpse of that lost history: the experience of Caribbean immigrants in London from the late 1960s to the 1980s. The fact that this was virtually unexplored territory tells of its own story.
When it comes to social history, there is a tendency on British television to adopt a dry and sober docudrama mode or to dramatize the story to death with lots of dialogue, witty edits and bombastic exaggerations. Small Ax does neither. Their stories are based on real people and events: the Mangrove Nine trial; a typical reggae party all night in 1980; the early career of pioneering cop Leroy Logan; the harsh coming of age of writer Alex Wheatle; and the story of a clever schoolboy from the 70s rated “educationally subnormal” (based on McQueen’s own experience). But they are full of emotion, passion, feelings, day-to-day experiences, food, music, conversation, dance, sensuality – life.
Much of that life comes from the wonderful artists. Some of them are already familiar, like John Boyega and Letitia Wright. Some are underrated veterans, such as Shaun Parkes, Llewella Gideon, Steve Toussaint, and others that we are likely to hear the most of (Sheyi Cole, Amarah-Jae St Aubyn, Micheal Ward, Naomi Ackie, to name a few). Many are young black British people who play characters that could be their own parents or grandparents. There is a commitment and a conviction in their performances.
But credit must go to McQueen as Small Ax’s chief instigator and creative leader. Despite being an established, Oscar-winning director, it seems like he’s still an outsider. He brought the sensibilities of an artist to film and stands out even more on the small screen. Shabier Kirchner’s superb camera work is wonderfully fluid, intimate, and intuitive (notice how each movie is shot in a different format). The production design is perfect but aesthetically consistent. And McQueen gives ample space to dialogue-free moments mainstream television would have eagerly avoided: waiting in the sunlit back room before the verdict at Mangrove; the sprawling dancefloor scenes at Lover’s Rock; the lingering image of Wheatle lying helplessly on the floor, straitjacket and almost catatonic. The director knows that there is as much power in images as there is in words.
McQueen’s alien sensibilities are similar to what might be seen as a collection of alien stories. Most of them are located in the safe spaces that Caribbean immigrants could carve out from a dominant white culture that was often hostile to them. One of the aspects that Small Ax stories run through is, of course, racism, on all scales, from institutional to informal: “Go and swing from the trees like you’re at home in the jungle,” he suggests 12 years. Old Kingsley’s education teacher. Small Ax is a validation of Black Britain’s collective resourcefulness and resilience in the face of such adversity, but it is also a celebration of the minutiae; the gradations of Caribbean accents, the rituals of the dance floor and the meals, the music and literature, the language and expressions (we have never heard so much sucking our teeth on our screens). Non-Caribbean viewers who watch Small Ax find that they they are the outsiders, drawn to a parallel Britain of which they knew little.
We can pat ourselves on the back as a nation for how far we’ve come, and we can take pride in McQueen and his colleagues for raising the bar for British television, but let’s not forget how long it has taken to get here and how. there is much more to go. That could have been brought home this summer by watching Boyega, fresh off his turn as Leroy Logan, giving a passionate speech in Hyde Park in support of the Black Lives Matter protests. As Leroy’s father tells him in red, white and blue, “The world just moves on. Always do. Big change … that’s a slow turning wheel. “
Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.