George Clark’s review published on Letterboxd:
Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology has been incredible over the last 5 weeks, with each one telling a unique, fascinating and interesting story that gripped the world. So, if you are the one person that’s ever interested in my ranking for this film series, here’s my ranking and reviews for the each film.
Mangrove was the first part of the Small Axe anthology film series, directed by Steve McQueen and stars Shaun Parkes, Letitia Wright, Rochenda Sandall, Jack Lowden, Alex Jennings, Sam Spruell and Malachi Kirby in the first of the five films. When nine men and women are wrongly arrested and charged with incitement to riot, a highly publicised trial ensued.
There's a word for films like this...powerful. The raw power, raw emotion and rage educing storyline that's portrayed throughout is fantastic to watch and quickly draws you into the daunting time period where equality wasn't guaranteed. In the following weeks you'll see a lot of comparisons to "The Trial of the Chicago 7" and that's more than merited. Both involve trials and both involve the disgusting, undeserved racism of the time in both the US and UK. Yet Mangrove is a testament to how relevant matters of racial prejudice, systemic disenfranchisement and institutional bullying and brutality really are, even today. The film's anger is understandable as it deals with a still-unfinished social equality Britain...one we are still yet to reach to this day even if it has improved slightly.
Each one of the nine people depicted in Steve McQueen's Mangrove was a real person and for me, that adds to the utter disgrace of the story. It's easy to feel bad for a movie character but the fact this happened in real life, and is still happening is a disgrace as we as the audience feel bad for what occurred during that trial. The members of that fateful 9 were Frank Crichlow, Barbara Beese, Altheia Jones-LeCointe, Darcus Howe, Rupert Boyce, Rhodan Gordon, Anthony Innis, Rothwell Kentish and Godfrey Millett and their story deserved to be heard. Now, this is where courtroom dramas make it or break it for me, not the astonishingly disgraceful stories, that are always interesting, but the performances the stars give and Mangrove boasts some of the best performances of the year.
However, as always, no film is perfect (with the exception of We Bought a Zoo of course!) and Mangrove is no different. Similarly to every Courtroom drama, it can occasionally be predictable. The second half, which focuses mainly on a trial, did feel slightly unoriginal because this sequence of events has been done in countless films, countless times to varying effect over the years. Sadly, for me, this took away some of the "shock" value as within the first 30 minutes you have a vague idea of everything that's going to happen as Mangrove doesn't stray away from the "typical" wow factor other courtroom dramas do. Yet, despite that, it can sometimes work in the films favour as you know what's going to happen but the glaring racial tension, lies and subtle actions from those in the court will catch you completely off guard. However, the transitions from scene to scene were also quite repetitive with most transitions being a hard cut to the next shot, whilst sometimes this did work, others it felt jarring and throws you out of it's narrative for a moment or two as you piece together what happening in the scene.
Yet despite that, as you watch on you begin to ask yourself, what does "Black Power" mean to me? It's a word that's been used a lot recently, in America, England and every other country in the world with what's going on and that's the question several of the Mangrove nine put to each of the jurors in what would prove to be a landmark civil rights trial for England. Throughout Mangrove, McQueen often makes it clear, Black Power can and does signify many things. It means challenging institutions of white supremacy that's been historically where the balance has swayed towards. It means strength in numbers, and perhaps most importantly, it means Black people taking control of their narrative and living their life to the fullest and thankfully Mangrove does showcase this well. It poses the question for you to think about and hopefully it's one many people will think about once this film reaches its over due conclusion.
Mangrove certainly stands out as being one of the best films released thus far this year. It's absolutely outstanding and marks an impressive opening to McQueen's Small Axe anthology and ultimately, was my favourite from this anthology.
The third part of Steven McQueen's Small Axe anthology, Red, White and Blue was utterly mesmerising. Directed by Steve McQueen and starring John Boyega, Steve Toussaint, Antonia Thomas, Neil Maskell and Tyrone Huntley, it follows the true story of Leroy Logan (played by John Boyega), a young forensic scientist who quits his job to become a police officer after seeing the aftermath of what they did to his father.
While this entry in the series isn't as sensual and evocative as "Lovers Rock" or as impactful as "Mangrove", for me it comes incredibly close to becoming the best. The film depicts the tricky dynamics Leroy experiences among his superiors, both subtle and unsubtle, truly shocking its audience with the racism that's shows throughout. Of course, the police have always been a divisive unit. The disrespect they face is unmerited and the disrespect they show others is also unmerited. But what Steve McQueen does so well is when he shows the good, the bad and the ugly side of the force and the power it has. There's always room for change and Red, White and Blue proves that.
Despite it's rather simple premise, John Boyega gives arguably the best performance of his career... and even finds time to reference Star Wars at least once. This strong performance, mixed with a story that I found rather incredible and meaningful allows for Red, White and Blue to be arguably one of the greatest films this year and whilst sitting in at just 80 minutes long, uses its short runtime to remarkable effect.
Steve McQueen masterfully brings to life another monumental moment in British Black History and portrays it with such elegance and class that it'll shock it's audience with the outright disrespect both sides are shown.
3) Lovers Rock
The second film in Steve McQueen's Small Axe anthology Lovers Rock, sadly doesn't live up to the highs of his first, "Mangrove", yet is still a success. Starring Micheal Ward, Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn, Kedar Williams-Stirling, Shaniqua Okwok, Daniel Francis-Swaby and Ellis George, the story follows two young lovers whilst at a blues party in the early 1980s.
Like I said earlier, Mangrove will more than likely be the stand out film from this anthology but Lovers Rock gives it a decent shot. Steve McQueen captures every moment really well with his characterisation, colourisation and direction encapsulating you for the whole runtime and as this is a "Jamaican based story in the heart of London", the Reggie style music allows for a rather authentic feel as the dancing, music and dialogue all work fantastically well for the "vibe" of the film. However, sitting at just 70 minutes long, Lovers Rock is a fun, easy to watch film but sadly lacks a decent narrative for it's last half and therefore becomes rather confusing once the party is in full swing. Unfortunately, whilst the sequences were brilliant, it drifted from the main romance at times and this undoubtedly pulled me out of the movie as I was unsure what was happening at points. Yet, there are some superb performances which enhance the film with both of the lovers Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn and Micheal Ward dominate the film alongside Daniel Francis-Swaby who's screen presence is incredibly intimidating.
Now, Lovers Rock does spend the majority of it's runtime setting the atmosphere and I couldn't understand the majority of the dialogue (luckily I had subtitles on), but it is a rather great film to watch and ultimately feels like a personal love note from Steve McQueen to an era and culture he loves.
The final installment of Steve McQueen's Small Axe anthology was Education. Once again directed by Steve McQueen and starring Kenyah Sandy, Tamara Lawrance, Sharlene Whyte, Daniel Francis and Josette Simon, the film follows the coming of age story of 12-year-old Kingsley, who is sent to a school with "special needs" due to an unofficial segregation policy at play during the time, preventing many Black children from receiving the education they deserve. Until a group of West Indian women take matters into their own hands.
McQueen mostly plays it straight within Education, and for the story at large, that more than works. It's impossible not to feel sympathy for Kingsley and all the other kids who have been railroaded onto the educational sidings. It's horrible what happened in the world as, we all know by now, segregation was and still is a truly awful act. Everyone deserves the right to be treated equally, regardless of ethnicity, gender orientation or sex, and that's what Education, and Small Axe as a whole, strives for with every passing minute and more than succeeded at.
In his final and possibly most personal Small Axe chapter, Steve McQueen superbly rounds off a brilliant portrayal of the resilience of Black British people that ends with the youth and those around them fighting for their rights. In Education, McQueen captures the essence of childhood inspiration and how our wildest hopes and dreams are often immediately tempered with by the false realities and limited expectations of those around us perfectly. He uses the short runtime to his advantages telling a rather simple concise story throughout, but it's this short, crisp and sweet runtime that is also the films ultimate downfall as there's undeniably too much rich material for him to be able to fully do it justice.
Education is still, front and foremost, one of the best character pieces Small Axe has provided us. However, it just doesn't live up to the others in the anthology with its short runtime proving too compact for the source material it's based on and thus feels like there’s so much more to be told within Kingsley’s story.
5) Alex Wheatle
The fourth installment of Steve McQueen's Small Axe anthology, Alex Wheatle, is once again directed by Steve McQueen and stars Sheyi Cole, Elliot Edusah, Jonathan Jules, William Hanson, Robbie Gee and Johann Myers. It follows the true story of award-winning writer, Alex Wheatle, from a young boy through his early adult years.
The film depicts the compelling true story of Alex Wheatle really well with Sheyi Cole giving a great performance. Where Mangrove focused on the group, Lovers Rock on the music/relationship and Red, White and Blue on the corruption of the police force, Alex Wheatle focuses on the character of Alex, an MBE British novelist who was sentenced to a term of imprisonment after the 1981 Brixton uprising. The film's more sprawling than the other entries in the anthology as Alex Wheatle is possibly Small Axe's strongest character piece. This focus on Alex's character allows the audience to connect with him, more so than any of the other anthology films, as his background is explored and present is changed throughout the action of the others around him and the lessons he learns.
Over the short 65-minute runtime, we watch Alex’s rite of passage in Brixton and his unexpected awakening in prison arise into who we now know Alex to be today. However, despite this being possibly the best character piece, there's so much more of this story to be told. Steve McQueen's filmmaking abilities are still mesmerising, but sadly, the story leaves a lot to be desired as it cuts in and out of various different time sequences way too often, not allowing them to fully develop the point they were trying to make.
This, of course, is where the short 65-minute runtime is both a blessing and a curse. It's nice watching a shorter movie that does quite well compared to some longer counterparts, but this short runtime doesn't allow for much development in the story department and sadly, only feels like a half complete, slightly wooden plot for the most part that unfortunately doesn't feel as complete as the other instalments in the anthology.
Now, Alex Wheatle is a good film, its short, snappy and has all the moments you've come to expect from this anthology. However, there's ultimately something missing from the final product and this sadly means Alex Wheatle can't fully develop beyond its underlying storyline and thus feels like the weakest part of this anthology series. It’s good, but could have been so much better.
Well, I think that’s it. All 5. Thank you for reading, or just scrolling this far. Small Axe being Steve McQueen’s passion project means it’s undoubtedly full of memorable storylines and impactful performances and that for me, sets it out as not only being one of the best series this year, but also having 5 different films that work brilliantly on their own. Whilst certainly having its highs and lows, it’s one that’s well worth the watch despite its time commitment.
2020 Releases Ranked
What does your ranking look like for Small Axe and would you like to see more series like this in the future?