Kieron McCarron / Amazon Prime Video
Steve McQueen has made extremely powerful films about historical injustice, from slavery in the southern United States to a 1981 hunger strike in a prison in Northern Ireland. But only now has he dramatized the experiences of black women and men in the UK, especially in the West Indian neighborhoods of London where he grew up. He clearly has a lot to say: his anthology Small ax, which he directed and co-wrote, consists of five dramatic films, each telling a different story set between the 1960s and 1980s.
I haven’t seen the last two films in the series, Alex Wheatle and Education, which will air later in December. But the first three are formidable: captivating, vibrantly shot and superbly performed, they draw us into the heart of a community defined by its strong bonds, often expressed in joyful scenes of characters singing, dancing and sharing meals. But they also show how hard earned this joy is.
The first movie, Mangrove, is an electrifying account of a landmark 1971 trial that exposed anti-Black racism within the London Metropolitan Police. Shaun Parkes plays Frank Crichlow, a Trinidadian immigrant who owns a restaurant called the Mangrove that is becoming a favorite hangout for black Londoners. Before long, he was attacked by white police officers, chasing customers and destroying Frank’s property. Darcus Howe, an activist played by sensational Malachi Kirby, urges Frank to respond to this bullying campaign by staging a protest.
The community organizes a march to a local police station, where Frank, Darcus and seven other protesters, known as the “Mangrove Nine”, are arrested and charged with inciting a riot. This configuration could recall the recent movie The Chicago 7 trial, but the legal drama here has nothing of Aaron Sorkin’s glib self-satisfaction.
It’s more cinematic, too: McQueen’s camera boldly captures the lopsided power dynamics of the courtroom, where dishonest cops and a biased judge appear determined to maintain the status quo. But some kind of justice prevails, and Mangrove becomes a moving tribute to the power of passionate local activists like Frank, Darcus and Altheia Jones-LeCointe. She is played by a formidable Letitia Wright, so memorable in the Marvel superhero film Black Panther.
Mangrove has a clear thematic link with the third Small ax movie, Red, white and blue. It’s another factual story of police injustice, but darker and more intimate. John Boyega, known for the most recent Star wars trilogy, gives a true star performance here as a cop named Leroy Logan. He joined the force in 1983, hoping to tackle the institutional racism that has already devastated his community, including his own father, Kenneth, who was severely beaten by two cops for a parking violation.
Leroy believes that the only way to transform an unfair system is from within. Easier said than done: He is a witness and no shortage of mistreatment from his white colleagues, especially when they ignore his call for backup as he pursues a suspect. The real Leroy Logan spent three decades with the police and became one of its most important reformers. But his brilliant career is only mentioned in Red, white and blue: This is Leroy’s origin story, a reminder that even the smallest steps can make the necessary changes.
Parisa Taghizadeh / Amazon Prime Video
The sublime second film of the anthology, Rock lovers, is one of his most unique: it’s the only story here that isn’t based on real characters. Arrive between the toughest Mangrove and Red, white and blue, it’s like a respite, an explosion of pure happiness without filter.
The film is set on a glorious night at a house party in 1980 in Notting Hill. McQueen revel in the little details: We watch a few men clean the furniture and plug in speakers, while a group of women work and sing in the kitchen, cooking goat curry and other Jamaican dishes. The title refers to fans of rock, a genre of reggae music that will feature heavily on the evening’s playlist. But it also establishes the film as a romance between two beautiful strangers, played by Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn and Micheal Ward, who seal their mutual attraction on the dance floor.
Current 68 minutes, Rock lovers is an exciting and immersive film: the gently swaying camera puts us right there in the room as everyone sings and dances the night away, pulling us into a kind of trance in which time itself comes to a standstill. Given McQueen’s tendency to focus on human suffering, it’s wonderful to see it cut here: Rock lovers is by far the most exhilarating film he has ever made. This shows that joy itself can be an act of defiance, an expression of a community’s life force and its will to survive.
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