by Shae Davies.
This Sunday saw the release of Mangrove – the first of a series of 5 films by award-winning director Steve Mcqueen, which celebrate West Indians In Britain. Mcqueen’s five-part anthology series – Small Axe – takes its title from a West Indian proverb about collective struggle (“If you are the big tree, we are the small axe”) and encompasses true stories from the late 60s to mid-80s. The films each tell a story involving London’s West Indian community, a celebration of Black joy, beauty, friendship, love, music and food, despite subjection to rampant racism and discrimination.
Mangrove follows the story of Frank Circhlow’s restaurant. 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 publicised trial ensues, leading to a hard-fought win for those fighting against discrimination.
It is no surprise that our own Courttia Newland is a part of this iconic moment for Black British TV, having written the screenplay to the second part of the anthology series – LOVERS ROCK (airing this Sunday, BBC One) and having co-written RED, WHITE AND BLUE, which airs the following Sunday.
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, 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. A vital exploration of cultural identity.
RED, WHITE AND BLUE tell’s 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.
Small Axe provides long overdue representation for viewers of Caribbean descent, opening up a space on television for the celebration of British-Caribbean Culture. These luminous stories are powerful recreations of the history of Black Britain. A landmark moment for British film and television.
Small Axe not only brings to attention questions about the history of British Racism, it is a shining luminous beacon aimed at the UK film and television industry, who so far have failed to value and represent Black stories.
Following the Black Lives Matter Movement, McQueen’s Small Axe aids the transition into a new age of British film and television, where Black stories and Black voices are no longer marginalised.
These films will remind some viewers of moments from their past that might be challenging and uncomfortable. But for many of those, these stories are unknown, and are a trove for discovering history from a different community, stories that would not have been told if McQueen had not made these films.
“Although all five films take place between the late 1960s and mid-80s, they are just as much a comment on the present moment as they were then. They are about the past, yet they are very much concerned with the present.” – Steve McQueen
The last of the two films include:
ALEX WHEATLE, following 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 opportunity to grow his passion for music and DJing. When he is thrown in prison during the Brixton Uprising of 1981, he confronts his past and sees a path to healing.
and EDUCATION, the coming of age story of 12-year-old Kingsley (Kenyah Sandy) with a fascination for astronauts and rockets. When Kingsley is pulled to the Headmaster’s office for being disruptive in class, he discovers he’s being sent to school for those with ‘special needs’.
Distracted by working two jobs, his parents (Sharlene Whyte, Daniel Francis) are unaware of what was the unofficial segregation policy at play that is preventing many Black children from having the education they deserve – until a group of West Indian women take matters into their own hands.
Watch the first film of Small Axe – Mangrove – on BBCiPlayer here.