The Play for Tomorrow: Steve McQueen’s Small Axe

By Michael Sicinski

One of the best known of Steve McQueen’s early video works is Deadpan (1997), a four-minute, 35-second loop in which the artist simultaneously places himself in harm’s way and in film history. The piece is a recreation of the famous Buster Keaton stunt from Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) in which the façade of a two-story wooden house falls in on Buster. The performer isn’t crushed by the falling structure because he is standing in the exact position for the window to fall around him, engulfing Keaton in destruction but sparing him as he displays his trademark unflappability. 

In McQueen’s version, the event is shown from multiple perspectives—profile, 3/4 angle, bird’s-eye—as well as being fragmented into close-ups of the artist’s feet, face, and torso. The dangerous stunt is repeated as a loop, and even though we know that we’re watching multiple shots of a single action, this repetition heightens anxiety rather than tamping it down. But what is more significant about Deadpan is the placement of McQueen’s body at the centre of the image, at the heart of this “comic” event. 

Keaton is replaced by McQueen’s contemporary presence: white T-shirt, trainers, and jeans, staring impassively at the camera, just waiting for the inevitable slam of the façade around him. Where Keaton’s stoicism was the crux of his humour, McQueen’s is cast quite differently. As a Black body, McQueen’s safety is predicated on standing stock-still, as if police had shouted at him to “freeze” or “don’t move.” This man’s survival depends on keeping his cool, remaining in absolute control of himself, in the midst of structural collapse. A system has been devised to destroy him; one false move and he is killed or maimed. His only chance is to occupy the structure and behave as though he belongs there, in the hope that he finds the window and the window finds him.

But McQueen’s window has widened. The filmmaker’s career is no longer restricted to the museum world, and his newest project, the five-film Small Axe anthology, once again goes right to the centre of dominant histories, bringing Blackness to bear in places where it had previously been conspicuous in its absence. Small Axe, commissioned by the BBC, in many respects adopts the format and thematic approach of the network’s award-winning telefilm series Play for Today. This series, which ran from 1970 to 1984, consisted of high-end made-for-TV films, mostly adhering to a general kitchen-sink realist approach. While some episodes functioned as light entertainment, a great many focused on left-leaning political and cultural matters, such as the travails of the working poor, labour struggles, failures of the welfare state, and, eventually, the crushing rise of Thatcherism.

Many Play for Today episodes have languished in obscurity since their original broadcast, although several were recently added to the BBC’s streaming service Britbox. But a few moved beyond the confines of British television, screening at film festivals and sometimes even receiving theatrical releases. Those that, to all intents and purposes, became “films,” it should be noted, were mostly the editions co-written and directed by men who would go on to become major figures in British cinema. Six early films by Mike Leigh (which include Hard Labour [1973], Nuts in May [1976], and Abigail’s Party [1977]) are probably the best-known and consistently viewed Plays for Today, although contributions by Ken Loach, Stephen Frears, and especially Alan Clarke have been subjects of auteur-based research. And one contribution, Clarke’s Scum (1977), is now considered one of the most important British films of the era. It was rejected for broadcast at the time, not shown until 1991, and then on Channel 4. (Shortly after the 1977 rejection, Clarke refilmed Scum and released it to theatres.)

Despite the period of their production, the Play for Today films were mostly silent about the significant demographic shifts the UK was undergoing at that time. There was not a great deal of attention paid to the immigrant experience, an omission that Loach, for one, has certainly worked to correct on the back end of his career. But McQueen’s Small Axe films, which all take place between the late ’60s and early ’80s, are strikingly similar in tone to the Plays for Today. Most of them are relatively short, with Mangrove the only one of the five that clocks in at over 80 minutes. And, like so many of the earlier made-for-BBC productions, the Small Axe films depict ordinary Britons struggling with systemic social ills.

Of course, the multimedia landscape is quite different today than it was in the ’70s. Although the films are debuting one week at a time on BBC One and in North America on Amazon Prime, several of them had other stops along the way to television. Mangrove and Lovers Rock both appear to have been slated for Competition at the COVID-cancelled 2020 Cannes Film Festival. Instead, Mangrove, Lovers Rock, and Red, White and Blue went on to screen at this year’s New York Film Festival, which was presented both online and at drive-ins in the New York City area. A bit later, Mangrove was the opening film of the London Film Festival.

While certain of the Play for Today entries have aged into “cinema” over time, Small Axe arrives smack in the middle of the ongoing debate over the definition of cinema in the digital age. The Small Axe productions strongly resemble films, but they are being promoted as episodes in a five-part anthology. This may be more tactical than philosophical. Because of COVID, the 2020 Oscar race is in utter disarray, and by classifying Small Axe as television—specifically as a miniseries—Amazon is clearing the way for a muscular Emmy campaign.

In addition to Antiguan cinematographer Shabier Kirchner, who shot all five films, McQueen’s primary collaborators on the series are Alastair Siddons, who co-wrote three of the five films—Mangrove, Alex Wheatle, and Education—and Courttia Newland, who co-wrote the other two, Lovers Rock and Red, White and Blue. Kirchner, best known for his work on Matt Porterfield’s Sollers Point (2017) and Crystal Moselle’s Skate Kitchen (2018), shot Small Axe with a deeply textured, late-’70s scuff; the deep blues and browns throughout the series recall classic British television shows of the era, like The Sweeney and the original Inspector Morse. The ambiance is one of pushing film for sharp exposure in low-light situations, and generally trying to achieve as much style as possible on a budget.

Low-cost TV and high-end independent film tend to meet in the middle, and the Small Axe project is characterized by a focus on script. The films exhibit the formal consistency one associates with series television, with specific instants of directorial flair that remind you that you’re watching new work from McQueen. Despite the generalized approach, there is a marked difference between the Siddons and Newland films, and I will freely confess to preferring Newland’s work to Siddons’. Because all of the films, except perhaps for Lovers Rock, involve some didactic element, it will be easy for those who don’t respond to Small Axe to dismiss them as “afterschool specials,” that derogatory epithet for a certain kind of stilted, public-service melodrama that sacrifices complexity in the name of moral uplift. 

But I think dismissing Small Axe this way is to diminish even the weakest among the films—Education and Alex Wheatle—which are distinguished by notable directorial subtlety. In a different sense, it would not be entirely off-base to compare Small Axe to Black Mirror, another anthology program composed of self-contained filmlets. A convenient and similarly dismissive tagline might describe Small Axe as “Black Mirror, but with racism playing the role of technology.” But this, too, misses the mark, primarily because it fails to account for the total vision of McQueen’s project. There is a strong corrective impulse running through Small Axe. After all, we have seen dozens of British films depicting this period, and they tend to highlight very particular aspects of the culture. The rise of punk is a major touchstone, along with the impact of Thatcherite privatization and working-class immiseration, culminating in the 1984 miners’ strike. 

But as McQueen shows us, there was a great deal more happening in the UK at this time. Black and brown immigrants were working to establish their communities, and this led to the rise of reggae and, a bit later, bhangra—a cultural rupture at least as important as punk. (And McQueen makes sure to show a few white kids here and there, making the point that these subcultures were often intermixed and brought together by progressive, anti-racist politics.) With Small Axe, McQueen shifts the spotlight on British cultural history, focusing on four actual events, and one story from his own family. In representing historical scenarios—uprisings, abuses, instances of systemic discrimination—the films draw attention not only to the ongoing problem of racism and white supremacy in the UK, but also the way these events are marginalized in the national story that Britain tells about itself. In a sense, these are plays about yesterday, but they can finally be told today.

If we regard Small Axe as a TV series, or even as a suite of thematically connected films, there is perhaps a less obvious but more apposite point of comparison than Black Mirror or even Play for Today. Much like the five seasons of The Wire, each part of Small Axe focuses on Black Britain and its confrontation with a particular facet of institutional Britishness. Mangrove, which is possibly the most complete, stand-alone film of the group, hits all the beats of a classic Oscar-season courtroom drama. The film depicts the face-off in 1970 between local activists and the authorities over the issue of constant police harassment of London’s West Indian community in Notting Hill. At the centre of the protest is real-life businessman Frank Crichlow (played by Shaun Parkes), an immigrant from Trinidad and Tobago, who opened the Mangrove restaurant, an establishment serving spicy Caribbean cuisine. 

Featuring familiar flavours, West Indian music, and atmosphere, the Mangrove became a primary hub for the Notting Hill immigrant community, both as a de facto social club and a locus for activism and intellectual exchange. (Early in Mangrove, we encounter a leftist reading group led by C.L.R. James. Participants in that group become part of the movement to fight racial aggression by the Metropolitan Police.) After the Mangrove is raided one time too many, Crichlow and others take to the streets, resulting in the arrests of dozens of Notting Hill residents for “rioting.” 

Eventually, nine defendants are charged and tried as a group. Crichlow and his co-defendants take to the Crown’s court, testifying and cross-examining the cops whose virulent bigotry has terrorized an entire neighbourhood for years. For all intents and purposes, the 55-day proceedings become a public referendum on the presence of Blacks in Britain. Outside the framework of racism, after all, Crichlow is a “model immigrant.” A proud, hard-working restaurateur, he is defiant regarding his entrepreneurial rights: “My kitchen is clean. I pay me taxes. I pay me staff.” But Crichlow’s antagonist, PC Pulley (Sam Spruell), exemplifies the complete irrationality of racial hatred, and his complete collapse under cross-examination is a glory to behold. By film’s end, the Mangrove Nine are vindicated, but we learn that the restaurant was raided numerous times following the trial, up until Crichlow’s retirement. 

Police power is a frequent theme in Small Axe, and McQueen explores it from within as well as without.In Red, White and Blue, forensic scientist Leroy Logan (John Boyega) decides to become a London cop, in hopes of helping his community. We see Leroy buffeted about by various forms of racism and ostracism. While the top brass make him a poster boy for the “new” integrated police force, his fellow cops subject him to open abuse. On the home front, Logan’s community rejects him as a traitor. His own father (Steve Toussaint) is disgusted by his son’s choice to join the force, since he sees the cops as violent invaders dead-set on humiliating the Black population. (Early in Red, White and Blue, we see the elder Logan mercilessly beaten by officers over a phony parking violation.)

More concentrated in its dissection of institutional rot than Mangrove, Red, White and Blue is also subtler and less given to beat-the-system triumphalism. Logan’s identity remains split: he finds himself without a home in any sector, and that crisis is never resolved. The film also includes one of McQueen’s most striking directorial choices across the entirety of Small Axe, when he shows Logan in profile, staring at graffiti on his locker door. We know from his reaction what it says, and the other officers make jokes about it. The eventual reveal of the horrendous epithet when Logan opens his locker is a gut punch precisely because we’ve already seen it in our minds, and in Logan’s face.

Mangrove and Red, White and Blue consider the courts and the police force, respectively, in a more traditional, character-driven manner. Education and Alex Wheatle are far more direct, and although their didactic aims tend to render any artistic ambiguity beside the point, they both contain moments of naturalist poetry. These two films not only hark back to the Plays for Today, but also seem to suggest that co-writer Siddons has been influenced to some degree by the work of Paul Laverty, himself known for some of Ken Loach’s more direct and at times graceless screenplays. Still, even understood as fundamentally educational efforts, these films are much more adept than the work of Loach and Laverty when it comes to articulating the complexities of systemic oppression. This can be at least partly attributed to the advisory role played by Paul Gilroy, the second-generation “Birmingham School” cultural studies scholar and author of the post-colonialist classics There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, Black Atlantic,and, not coincidentally, Small Acts

But of course, McQueen’s own work has generally exhibited this same intellectual orientation. Early films like Deadpan or 2007’s Gravesend (an abstract documentary about coltan mining in the Congo), as well as his masterful feature debut Hunger (2008) and award-winning mainstream breakthrough 12 Years a Slave (2013), have all been chiefly concerned with the role of individual, embodied subjects forced to confront institutions that are utterly indifferent to their suffering. In this regard, an examination of structural racism in public education, perhaps the most fundamental of the Foucaultian disciplinary regimes, is certainly logical. Nevertheless, Education is perhaps the weakest part of Small Axe, in part because McQueen and Siddons are unable to fully explore the ramifications of the material. 

Kingsley (Kenyah Sandy) is a 12-year-old West Indian kid who has been tagged as disruptive, so he is shunted off into a “special school,” which is a holding pen for the so-called “subnormal.” His overworked mother (Sharlene Whyte) is unaware of what’s happening until a group of activist mothers and social workers organize to expose the racism inherent in this classification system. Education ends up broaching questions it doesn’t necessarily mean to, and that it cannot handle. Kingsley appears to have ADHD, and another kid in the subnormal school obviously suffers from Tourette’s. But because of the time period, even the most well-meaning experts wouldn’t know this, so Education ends up congratulating us for our historical hindsight. It’s the only film in the group that inadvertently casts racism as a relic of an unenlightened time, although the film does conclude with a bitterly ironic reference to the early career of “milk-snatcher” Thatcher.

Alex Wheatle, meanwhile, explores the racist pipeline from low-grade, abusive foster care right into the prison system. The title character (Sheyi Cole) was abandoned by his parents and sent into the system, where hateful, racist caretakers treated him like garbage. But more significantly, Alex’s circumstances have stripped him of any sense of self. Once he grows up and finds his way to Brixton, he insinuates himself into the local reggae scene and forges an identity as a Black man in Britain. But Wheatle finds himself at the juncture of history, getting arrested following the 1981 Brixton Uprising. After the murder of 13 Black kids at a house party in New Cross, the police showed no interest in investigating the deaths, despite evidence that the party was firebombed by white supremacists. The film stops in its tracks to consider the New Cross attack, and when we meet Wheatle he is already behind bars, defeated. McQueen and Siddons are startlingly direct in their message, as Alex learns from his cellmate that “education is the key.” A story of redemption, Alex Wheatle plays like a truncated biopic, but in the context of Small Axe, it clearly depicts someone who has gone through British racism as opposed to going against it (Crichlow) or diving into it (Logan).

Far and away the best of the five films, Lovers Rock is an anomaly in more ways than one. Almost devoid of narrative, it is an impressionistic portrait of friends preparing for a “blues party”: cooking Jamaican food, setting up the sound system, clearing the furniture, and joking around. Then we see the party unfold, as the DJ plays soul, funk, and reggae and the assembled crowd lose themselves in the pleasures of the music. There is a very slight character-based throughline: Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) is sick of being hit on by insincere fellas on the make; Franklyn (Micheal Ward) is a shy, thoughtful guy who tentatively asks Martha to dance. They leave the party together, and a second date is implied. 

But most of Lovers Rock is given over to the dreamy textures of coloured lights against beige panelling, the tight movements of expressive bodies on a crowded floor, and the transporting power of music to forge multiple individual souls into a wave of cascading affect. There are a number of sequences in which songs play in their entirety, and one number, Janet Kay’s “Silly Games,” culminates in a moment as stark and unexpected as the “Wise Up” sing-along in Magnolia (1999) or, dare I say, the “Rhythm of the Night” coda in Beau travail (1999).

While Mangrove is the most “complete” Small Axe film, in terms of the conventional grammar of prestige cinema, Lovers Rock is the most fully realized work of art. (Had Cannes actually happened, it surely would have snagged a top prize.) But what is most intriguing about Lovers Rock in the context of the five-film collection is the fact that it is so unapologetically avant-garde, especially compared with the Western Union clarity of films like Education and Alex Wheatle. I expect that a lot of casual viewers on Amazon Prime or BBC 1 are going to find Lovers Rock frustrating, or even pointless. But what the film actually depicts is what the other four cannot: a joyous community creating a space for pleasure, without the immediate intrusion of racism. 

McQueen based Lovers Rock on the house parties his aunt hosted in the ’70s. As we see, the revellers’ experience of freedom and romance is also tinged with political awareness. The climactic dance sequence to The Revolutionaries’ “Kunta Kinte Dub” begins as a roomful of guys rocking and skanking and quickly evolves into a forceful, full-throated demonstration of Black Power and defiant manhood. Within this precious space, men are free to let themselves go, abandoning the self-consciousness and micro-control that, on the streets of everyday life, can be the difference between life and death. 

In a sense, Lovers Rock is a film with no discernible plot, but this is in fact a liberation, a moment away from the grinding homogeneity of England’s dominant narratives. The other four parts of Small Axe centre on Black Britons working to write themselves into the story of a nation that has too often met them with cruelty and neglect. Within the space of the dance, McQueen shows the West Indian community in all its variety, speaking on its own terms.