McQueen takes a ‘Small Axe’ to some big trees
The second instalment in the director’s five-part series puts ecstatic black life in front of an audience that has for too long looked away
There’s a scene towards the end of Lovers Rock, the second film in director Steve McQueen’s groundbreaking five-film anthology Small Axe, in which the stylishly dressed, mostly male, black, young men at a 1970s London “blues party” get rowdily and spiritedly immersed in the pounding, bass-thudding rhythms of The Revolutionaries’s Kunta Kinte.
It’s a scene in which all the sexual and political tensions of the film’s preceding 50 minutes come to a mass testosterone-fuelled, ecstatic release that’s thick with the air of danger and aggression, averted through complete immersion in the power of the song. It’s all shot in vibrant hand-held here-in-the-moment complicity with its subjects by cinematographer Shabier Kirchner who manages to pierce through the marijuana-filled haze.
He distinctively focus on both the specific movements and expressions of its characters, while never losing sight of the bigger general moment of almost religious ecstasy in this cramped living room converted into a dance floor for one night of much-needed escape from the harsh and bitter realities of the London beyond its rattling windows and floors. It’s also a scene that is acutely aware of how the mere recreation and expression of the reality of its moment is a deeply political act, as in all of the five films of Small Axe.
McQueen is the living embodiment of the struggle by black Britons to overcome the seemingly insurmountable obstacles of structural racism.
McQueen is the British-born son of Caribbean immigrant parents and one of the most successful artists of his generation — a Turner prize-winning video artist and the first black director to win a Best Picture in 2014 for his harrowing slave-era drama 12 Years a Slave. As such he is the living embodiment of the hard-fought struggle by black Britons to overcome the seemingly insurmountable obstacles of structural racism to create powerful, unique work that’s informed by the realities of their experience.
Small Axe is purposefully and audaciously conceived as a dramatic project that pushes its audience into a hard-to-look-away confrontation with the uncomfortable realities of its all too recent past. It is deliberately being screened on the BBC, which has for too long chosen to ignore the indelible contribution that black immigrants have made to British postwar culture and society. McQueen has used this opportunity to full effect in a brilliant demonstration of how history can be made into gripping, immediate and timeous drama that engages, educates and enlightens.
The blues party that is the simple, languidly observed setting of Lovers Rock is not just a Saturday night house party but also a space for the safe and free expression of black love and expression created by an environment in which black people were ostracised and unwelcomed by traditional London nightclubs in the ’70s. Knowing this, that simple but electric moment of enthused immersion in the stomach-punching bass of The Revolutionaries’ dub becomes a potent demonstration of defiance, freedom of expression and the sheer bliss that comes from exercising what should be the very ordinary right to be yourself.
You don’t have to have watched Mangrove — the first film in the series telling the true but criminally little known story of continuous harassment by police and the British legal system of a group of black Notting Hill political activists and conscious ordinary citizens in the late ’60s Enoch Powell era — to watch or appreciate Lovers Rock.
But if you have, the political connotations and realities of the world beyond the walls will be all too blatantly evident. That’s not just because of the intelligence of the series’ script and direction but also because they buck the trend and use a predominantly black production team and cast. As a result Small Axe is always — whether telling a story based on true events (Mangrove, Red, White and Blue, Alex Wheatle), recreating the memories of McQueen’s aunts (Lovers Rock) or a character-driven critique of a deeper structural problem (Education) — confidently imbued with a sense that the people telling the stories have lived them. Their lived experience seeps into every historically faithful frame lovingly realised.
Like the sweat-drenched men packed onto Lovers Rock’s makeshift dance floor and fighting to express themselves, Small Axe is a show that is fighting with heart, style and deeply realised humanity to put black bodies and black life firmly and ecstatically at the centre of the consciousness of a too-long ignorant and willing-to-look-away audience.
• Small Axe screens on BBC Brit (DSTV channel 120) on Mondays at 8pm until December 14
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