Contrary to what Hollywood may have made you believe, royalty and the white 20s falling in love aren’t the only ones living in England. But despite the diversity of the English population, especially in the capital city of London, there are hardly any films about the experience of black Britons and in particular the experience of black British immigrants.
Steve McQueen is on a mission to correct this, and he’s made significant progress with Small ax, a new anthology movie series that premiered on Amazon Prime today. A total of five standalone feature films directed by McQueen will air each week starting today with Mangrove, with Shaun Parkes and Letitia Wright and all feature London’s West Indian immigrant community between the 1960s and 1980s. This is the very time that McQueen was growing up in London, and the stories, he says in the notes of press of the film, come “My parents, my aunt and I suffered racial discrimination growing up in the 70s and 80s.”
Many films also serve as history lessons. Mangrove recounts a high-profile lawsuit which found nine black activists on trial for conspiracy to incite a riot after staging a peaceful protest against the raids on The Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill, London. Known as the “Mangrove Nine,” activists included leader of the British Black Panther movement Altheia Jones-LeCointe (played by Wright in the film); restaurant owner Frank Crichlow (Parkes); and activist Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby).
Rock lovers, which arrives on Prime on November 27, tells a story that has less to do with archiving names and dates, and more with archiving a cultural tradition. Set on a dreamy night out, McQueen captures the excitement, drama, but above all the romance found at a fictional reggae house party in 1980, a true phenomenon born out of necessity, when young black Londoners weren’t welcome in white nightclubs. Red, white and blue, coming December 4, is a biopic of Leroy Logan (played by Star wars Jedi John Boyega), a highly respected superintendent of the Metropolitan Police in the 1980s and 1990s. Alex Wheatle, on December 11, tell the story of the award-winning black novelist (played by Sheyi Cole) who was jailed during the Brixton uprising in 1981. And Education, coming December 18, is a coming-of-age story about a boy who is dubbed “special needs” and sent down a path of education below that of his white peers.
Taken together, McQueen’s Small ax film series is a heroic attempt to fill the many gaps in British history on cinema. While only the first three have been made available to the press, the series so far has been a moving and beautiful recreation of stories that are undoubtedly new to some and deeply personal to others. Each is their own unique immersive experience, transporting you to another time and place. Although only five films, Small ax feels like this will go a long way to correcting the biased version of late 20th century England that Hollywood has been feeding us for far too long.
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