"So if you are the big tree, /
We are the small axe /
Ready to cut you down, (well sharp) /
To cut you down."
"Small Axe" by Bob Marley and the Wailers
As the director of 12 Years a Slave, Widows and Shame, the anthology Small Axe, proved to be a challenge to Steve McQueen; a juggernaut that's 11 years in the making. The idea popped into his head after filming Hunger—telling stories about the West Indian community in London. It sounded simple. After all, McQueen had heard these stories growing up but he needed the maturity to understand what he was making.
As days rolled into months, then into years, the seed of this idea germinated into something else entirely. What was meant as a TV series morphed into standalone films. From the real-life account of a black policeman trying to change the system from within ("Red, White and Blue") to the shame of the Haringey education segregation policy ("Education") to the vibrancy of Black house parties ("Lovers Rock"), Small Axe presents five lesser-known narratives of the Black experience; especially in these trying times of #BLM protests and inveighing against a deck stacked against Black people.
We talked to McQueen about the five-film miniseries and other topics of note. This is what he has to say.
On the stories in Small Axe
Well, I’ll be honest with you. My father was very good friends with a guy called Rhodan Gordon who was part of the Mangrove Nine. [Gordon] came over to my house very often when I was a child and I didn’t know anything about the Mangrove Nine till about 15 years ago. The people dealing with the trauma; they were made to be the victims after the trial. One of them in the Mangrove Nine, his arm was broken and his leg was broken, and he’s put in a total of 36 months on a trumped-up charge because the police were still mad that these people got off.
So, it’s kind of funny how stories came to me. For many years, people aren't willing to talk because they are traumatised. They thought these stories were not important and it was my job, after all, in making these stories important. These stories changed the fabric and the culture, politically, culturally of the British landscape. Totally changed it, from popular culture to politics. And they needed to be put on some sort of a canvas for people to see, and that’s what I attempted to do with Small Axe.
Working with Alastair Siddons and Courttia Newland
Well, with Alastair, he is a documentary filmmaker. So his research was pretty amazing and he worked with researcher Heather Hart who is the main researcher. Alastair's a passionate guy, who’s very much about the detail so it was very much needed., For example, at that time in 1971, there wasn’t recorded documentation of the court cases. So, what he had to do, was he found in the newspaper, I think it was the Kensington Gazette which had all of the reporting of the court cases. He went back into the archives to find out what was said and how it was said in the courtroom. For me, it was all about those minute details that can add an authenticity of the courtroom.
And as far as Courttia is concerned, of course, we have a similar background. His father is from Jamaica and his mother is from Barbados; this is the essence of two black British men and [Courttia] understood the ritual and the nuances within that culture.
Art being a cause for social change
I think what art can do, is do things in a way where if you read a history book and you get the dates, times and facts, whatever. But it’s all about what happens in between those words: was it raining on that day? What mood was this person in? All those intricate understandings of a narrative. I think it has to do with human emotion, which is what a film can do. It’s a medium that can transport you to time and place that history books can never do.
Being an artist during the US elections
As an artist—if you’re a writer or a visual artist or a playwright—your purpose in filmmaking as to intensify. Because I don’t think we’ve ever, in living memory, have a situation like the state of the US elections. As an artist, we have to step up because that is what we do. It reflects the times; you see it through that time of history. It has propelled myself to delve deeper into who we are, what we are and where we want to go.
Being affected by the pandemic
We went straight into a lockdown. My editor and I edited remotely, me at home in Amsterdam, and my editor in London. I loved the lockdown, having to roll out of bed and not be late in going to the studio to edit.
That was interesting, I would say it’s a bit of a lifeline for me because at this moment when you’re at home and it’s kind of claustrophobic and tense. I wish I had somewhere else to go and focus. The days went very well and of course, I got to work as a co-editor on a project that I've always wanted to do but I was worried I wouldn’t be very active when I was at home editing, so that was fantastic. It was an advantage for me, as a lifeline, to work but as far as the situation goes, everyone’s home.
We’re talking about the fact that what happened with George Floyd is some kind of advantage. It troubles me to think that, but I can’t deny that people will be watching more intently because of the subject matter and what happened this year. This is a situation that has been going on for forever, this is nothing new. This existed before these unfortunate events.
There are a lot of people who'd go straight to streaming services so, I just hope that once this is over, the people go back to the cinemas because there’s nothing better. I saw "Red, White and Blue" at the Rome Film Festival last month and the audience responded; the sound, the ‘oohs’ and the ‘ahh’. The whole idea of watching a movie with a group of people; it goes back to us sitting around a campfire telling stories; there’s nothing better.
Small Axe's films running order at the New York Film Festival
That was amazing. The original running order of the movies that were supposed to be shown at Cannes was "Mangrove", "Lovers Rock" and then "Red, White and Blue". But it was Dennis Lim, the program director who said, “Look, I think we need to celebrate”. [So, I screened "Lovers Rock" first, then "Mangrove" and then "Red, White and Blue".] With "Lovers Rock" there is a sense of celebration of all the senses, smell, taste, hearing, sensuality, sexuality and people have been so restrained to let it happen in cinema and he thought it would be a great idea and he was so right.
I don’t think I've ever gotten a reaction to a film like "Lovers Rock" before especially in New York, where everybody has been under a very long lockdown. The fact when you see people kissing, eating, smoking, hearing the music—it was all senses that were celebrated in "Lovers Rock". I think it was one of those things where people were so happy [to see]. They were getting out and dancing in the car and beeping their horns. That’s the power of a collective viewing experience.
And this is who we are, for we are nothing without each other.