Steve McQueen. Not the bad-boy race car driver from The Great Escape, idolized by all guys over sixty for nabbing Ali MacGraw. The other Steve McQueen (officially Sir Steven Rodney McQueen CBE). The twenty-first century British filmmaker of Grenadian and Trinidadian descent who’s the polar opposite of last millennium Steve. Where American Steve McQueen is all frenzied pursuit, British Steve McQueen delivers deep stillness. His camera sits patient, documenting a passive black face so long, the inner rage rises through the skin and pierces our soul.
It was a no-brainer for me to hit ‘Play’ on Small Axe, Steve McQueen’s quintet of films about Caribbean immigrants in London during the 60’s and 70’s. The series got great reviews and aligns with my current anything-but-white-guy media jag. In the evening, my eyes are too tired for serious reading. I just want to watch.
Episode One, Mangrove, based on the real events of London police harassing a Trinidadian man uppity enough to open a restaurant in Notting Hill in the late 1960’s, is a full feature film. The riveting drama culminates in court room tension that feels both more genuine and more unsettling than Netflix’s recent The Trial of the Chicago 7. Devoid of Aaron Sorkin’s polished Hollywood, Mangrove is more authentic. Yet the scene that resonated in my head the following morning was a lingering image of restaurant debris, strewn across a floor beneath the soundtrack of a police raid. Mr. McQueen does not always show the violence. He makes us feel it.
Fearing more angina, I waited a few days before I attempted the second film, Lover’s Rock. No need for such worry. This delightful, affective film follows several loose stories about preparations and enactment of a house dance party in the 1970’s. The sound track is amazing, the camera work perfectly jittery. We are at the dance; from awkward first steps to joyous frenzy to tedious exhaustion. The young lovers who meet within the soundtrack are poignant and potentially tragic as any Romeo and Juliet. And though the reality of threats from within and without—sexual predators and thugs down the block—are never far away, the film has a rosy luster that speaks to every individual’s search for respite, for joy.
Red, White, and Blue. Back to a plot based on a true story: a Black police officer’s desire to reform the London Metropolitan Police from within, even as he suffers a father’s wrath and his community’s rejection for signing up with the enemy. Four hours into Small Axe I’m guilt-stricken by the sick consolation that the United States is not the only homeland of racial hatred, discrimination, and violence. Brutal systems of racial injustice exist everywhere. But Steve McQueen makes them real, personal, in his constant close-ups. Officer Leroy Logan’s matte, dark chocolate skin absorbs light, sucks us into his isolation. While his father’s lacquered black complexion refracts his anger at the endless oppression like a light saber brandished at warp speed.
Alex Wheatle picks up where Officer Logan left off: a young Black man entering prison. But the story of a total orphan abused by the supposed benevolent social system takes a welcome, positive spin. Perhaps because Mr. McQueen believes in the transformative power of Rastafarian, perhaps because hope wins out in the end, perhaps because this too, is based on a true story, which has a happy ending.
By now I realize that the films after Mangrove, are quite different than the initial offering. Shorter, more particular slices of life in Black London. The final film, Education, is similar in length and scope to two, three, and four. It’s also based on real events: an unofficial policy within London schools to transfer disproportionate numbers to Black students to ‘sub-normal’ schools. However, the plot and characters were created in service to the message, and the result is a bit preachy, almost documentary in style. Although I hear the message, Education does not rouse the empathic anger the other films evoke. Yet once again, Mr. McQueen’s most profound messaging comes from his camera’s stillness. The slow pan of a classroom of ‘sub-normal’ students: some jittery; some passive; our hero Kingsley bored to fatigue; while a pathetically useless teacher strums and drones a tortured version of ‘House of the Rising Sun.’ It’s an excruciating scene, minutes long. As the teacher warbles verse after verse of a song we all know, I found myself counting toward the end, wanting it to be over, yet unable to stop watching the tedious visualization of human potential lost. When the song finally comes to the end, and I breath a first sigh of relief, the teacher starts all over again. I gasp at the prospect of enduring it all again. While the children, unperturbed by this peculiar torture, submit in order to survive.
Watch Small Axe. All of the films. In order. Watch how human potential can be crushed. See it thrive anew.