Review: Small Axe

By Rachel MacFarland

I have one more TV review, since my foray into fancy television is now over (I had a housesitting gig. There were channels). And it was because of a review, from 88Nine Radio Milwaukee, that I found this series, so who knows; I always hold hope that my own reviews will strike similar inspiration. 

The series is Small Axe, released on BBC One in the UK and Amazon Prime Video in the US, created and directed by Steve McQueen (the British filmmaker, not the American actor). Small Axe isn’t a show, but rather a collection of five separate films under an umbrella title, a reference to Bob Marley, his 1973 song “Small Axe,” and the greater African proverb—”if you are the big tree, we are the small axe.” 

Like a collection of short stories, or individual songs on an album, each episode stands alone, but with obvious connections of theme, perspective, and style. For example, each episode is set in London in the 1970s (if it isn’t always London, it’s somewhere in the UK, and if it isn’t always the 1970s, it is early 1980s; you get the idea), and takes a Jamaican/Black point-of-view. I struggled at times to understand accents, but I am easily smitten with accents, and don’t mind being a bit lost in the lyrical world of language/speech. It’s like wandering a foreign city—you have only to give yourself over to your other senses. 

And this series is rich in sensory experience. I’m no expert on film-type or camera lenses, but the films’ colors are as textured and intricate as a loom-woven tapestry, and the chosen angles and long shots seem to slow time, giving the viewer the ample pleasure of simply taking in the scene. The architecture and wallpaper, the furniture, the style of dress, the street scenes: McQueen has created a whole world within a world within a world, and it’s a wonderful escape, even as it offers revelations of truth and lived experience. 

As I mentioned earlier, there are five films, and it makes sense to address them individually, because again, like an album or a short-story collection: order is important.  

Mangrove: In my creative writing classes, I was taught that your first story better punch, because it’s the story that makes your readers stick around for more. So Mangrove swings, in more ways than one. It’s the true story of a small café in Notting Hill, the Mangrove, and the targeted violence of the London police against the restaurant’s existence. We are no longer strangers to this story, but repetition is the mother of learning, and the resulting trial of the Mangrove Nine is brilliant courtroom drama. The characters are wonderfully varied and the acting is superb. I was particularly moved by Shaun Parkes, who plays the owner of the Mangrove; you can practically feel the fingers of his character’s emotions, his joy as well as his pain, gripping at the very pulse of your own heart.

Lovers Rock: This is the most experimental film in the series, and it may well be my favorite. It takes place at a party, and I’ve never seen anything like it. I will say that the swimming uncertainly you feel throughout does come together, tying the whole glorious thread into a neat bow. In that instant, the whole film becomes a sweet, sweet gift. 

Red, White, and Blue: This film takes aim at the deepest gray area of the series, right at the series’ center: a highly-educated black man forgoes his science degree to become a cop, believing this the best way for him to affect real change. The film is heavy, and offers no clear answers, which could be construed as weak narrative, but that would miss the point. Sometimes the right questions matter as much, if not more, than the answer. This film makes room for better questions.  

Alex Wheatle: So here I mucked up, accidentally watching the last episode before I watched this one. If I had it to do over again, I’d stick with the designated order, because while I loved this one (it’s about a writer), I see why it was second to last and not last. Again, this is a true-story account; a chronicle of the early life of Alex Wheatle, the events that shaped him into the writer he became. Like Lovers Rock, this is another homage to music, but with a much more conventional storyline. Convention isn’t bad, here; it’s cool to witness McQueen’s range in storytelling’s possibilities, within the world of Small Axe. 

Education: To again reference my creative writing classes: you lead solid, and you end superb. And this is tricky, because endings and beginnings are different animals, and cannot follow the same rules. This film is quieter and more subtle than Mangrove, the story (seemingly) simpler, and yet it resonates and reverbs stronger and wider: the ripple of a pebble tossed over a smooth lake. The film tells the story of a young, bright boy who is struggling to learn to read, so he’s sent to a “special school.” McQueen manages to take the entire world that Small Axe has thus far led the viewer through, and pack it neatly into the world of this one young boy. The result is just about perfect. Like this series.    

Rachel MacFarland is Co-Publisher/Writer/Curator at Ope! Publishing in La Crosse.

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