“If you are the big tree, we are the small axe,” this is the Jamaican proverb that has inspired filmmaker Steve McQueen‘s, “Small Axe,” a collection of five films inspired by real-life events about ordinary people showing courage, belief, and resilience to overcome injustice and achieve something transformative in their West Indian community.
Three of the “Small Axe” film are playing at the now-started New York Film Festival, “Mangrove,” “Red White And Blue,” and just premiered before the weekend to much critical acclaim, “Lovers Rock.” Our review by Robert Daniels described the film as an atypical Steve McQueen affair. “Unbothered and formalistically loose, the director displays a rarely-seen softer touch in an episode that’s as much about the sensory elements as the story. Through its vibrant costumes and bopping music, McQueen’s “Lovers Rock” soulfully evokes a little-known era for his most personal work to date.”
Actors in the various films include Letitia Wright, John Boyega, Malachi Kirby, Shaun Parkes, Rochenda Sandall, Alex Jennings, Jack Lowden., Micheal Ward, and more. Here are all the synopses for the five “Small Axe” films.
Mangrove centers on Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), the owner of Notting Hill’s Caribbean restaurant, Mangrove, a lively community base for locals, intellectuals and activists. The local police raid Mangrove time after time, making Frank and the local community take to the streets in peaceful protest in 1970. When nine men and women, including Frank and leader of the British Black Panther Movement Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright), and activist Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby), are wrongly arrested and charged with incitement to riot, a highly publicized trial ensues, leading to hard-fought win for those fighting against discrimination. Letitia Wright (Black Panther), Shaun Parkes (Lost in Space), and Malachi Kirby (Curfew) star alongside Rochenda Sandall (Line of Duty), Jack Lowden (The Long Song), Sam Spruell (Snow White and the Huntsmen), Gershwyn Eustache (The Gentleman), Nathaniel Martello-White (Collateral), Richie Campbell (Liar), Jumayn Hunter (Les Miserables), and Gary Beadle (Summer of Rockets). Mangrove was co-written by Alastair Siddons and Steve McQueen.
Lovers Rock tells a fictional story of young love at a Blues party in 1980. The film is an ode to the romantic reggae genre called “Lovers Rock” and to the Black youth who found freedom and love in its sound in London house parties, when they were unwelcome in white nightclubs. Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn makes her screen debut opposite the BAFTAs 2020 Rising Star award recipient Micheal Ward (Top Boy). Shaniqua Okwok (Boys), Kedar Williams-Stirling (Sex Education), Ellis George (Dr Who), Alexander James-Blake (Top Boy), and Kadeem Ramsay (Blue Story) also star, as well as Francis Lovehall and Daniel Francis-Swaby who make their screen debuts. Lovers Rock was co-written by Courttia Newland and Steve McQueen.
Education is the coming of age story of 12-year-old Kingsley (Kenyah Sandy), who has a fascination with astronauts and rockets. When Kingsley is pulled to the headmaster’s office for being disruptive in class, he discovers he’s being sent to a school for those with “special needs.” Distracted by working two jobs, his parents (Sharlene Smith, Daniel Francis) are unaware of the unofficial segregation policy at play, preventing many Black children from receiving the education they deserve, until a group of West Indian women take matters into their own hands. Tamara Lawrance (The Long Song) also stars with Naomi Ackie (Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker). Education was co-written by Alastair Siddons and Steve McQueen.
Alex Wheatle follows the true story of award-winning writer, Alex Wheatle (Sheyi Cole), from a young boy through his early adult years. Having spent his childhood in a mostly white institutional care home with no love or family, he finally finds not only a sense of community for the first time in Brixton, but his identity and ability to grow his passion for music and DJ’ing. When he is thrown in prison during the Brixton Uprising of 1981, he confronts his past and sees a path to healing. Sheyi Cole stars opposite Jonathan Jules, with Robbie Gee (Snatch), Elliott Edusah (1917), Cecilia Noble (Black Mirror) and Johann Myers (The Lost City of Z). Alex Wheatle was co-written by Alastair Siddons and Steve McQueen.
Red, White and Blue tells the true story of Leroy Logan (John Boyega), a young forensic scientist with a yearning to do more than his solitary laboratory work. When he sees his father assaulted by two policemen, he finds himself driven to revisiting a childhood ambition to become a police officer; an ambition borne from the naïve hope of wanting to change racist attitudes from within. Leroy must face the consequences of his father’s disapproval, and the blatant racism he finds in his new role as a despised yet exemplary constable in the Metropolitan Police Force. John Boyega (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and Steve Toussaint (Prince of Persia) star with talented newcomers Tyrone Huntley, Nathan Vidal and Jaden Oshenye. Red, White and Blue was co-written by Courttia Newland and Steve McQueen.
“Small Axe” airs on Amazon Prime Video in the U.S., starting November 20 with “Mangrove.” The review of that one from NYFF will be with us soon so stay tuned.