2020 is proving to be the year of courtroom drama gold.
We had the excellent The Trial of the Chicago 7
by Aaron Sorkin, now Steve McQueen and BBC (BBC Brit for DStv subscribers and Amazon Prime Video for everyone else) have added Small Axe to that line-up and the first film delivers.
Let's dig in...
Steve McQueen is one of those versatile artists who moves from painting to film to writing to spoken word to anything.
He's carved a name for himself in film with movies such as Hunger, Shame, 12 Years a Slave and Widows, with 12 Years a Slave winning Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress in 2014 at the Oscars. Cementing Steve McQueen as an auteur* and a name brand director.
Steve McQueen has taken the clout he has built over the years to ensure the anthology series Small Axe happens.
It's a collection of 5 different films centred round the British Caribbean experience during the 1960s and 70s.
It takes its title from the Bob Marley and the Wailers song Small Axe: "So if you are the big tree, we are the small axe, ready to cut you down, to cut you down.''
The first episode dropped last week on BBC Brit
and it's titled Mangrove.
It deals with a story which black South Africans and the BLM movement will know very well. Although it's set in 1968 in Notting Hill England, it's easy to identify with the story because it touches on issues that continue to plague society even today: race, police brutality and the unfairness of the justice system when it comes to the working class.
Frank Crichlow was a man of Caribbean descent who decided to open a restaurant in his community that would serve "spicy food" from back home in a time where black owned businesses dealing in black products was not yet en vogue, which results in the police be like, "How dare he sell Caribbean foods in good old merry England!"
The police envy and bigotry is backed by the power of the state and institutional racism.
The cops raid Frank's restaurant making it nearly impossible for him to run his business. This is the gem in the film because Frank Crichlow is not a comrade. He's not a Tsietsi or a Murphy Morobe... he's a man who just wants to have a restaurant.
For him the restaurant is not even a political act, it's a piece of home, and Steve McQueen gives us a taste of the Caribbean in the Mangrove. From the accents, to the music, to the conversations, you get a sense of the people's lives and who they are.
Yet Frank Crichlow, throughout the first episode, is slowly waking up to the fact that being black is a political act.
Throughout the episode he battles with the challenge of just wanting to be, with the idea that he has to fight the system for himself, then his community and later for future generations for them to be. This arc is done superbly.
The film goes into second gear as we meet Letitia Wright, who portrays the real life leader of the Black Panther Party Altheia Jones-LeCointe and Malachi Kirby's activist Darcus Howe.
Letitia shot to fame as Shuri in the Black Panther movie and Malachi as the new version of Kunta Kinte on Roots. These two are responsible for conscientising Frank.
Letitia and Malachi bring dignity and passion to their roles but the heart of the film is Shaun Parkes' performance as Frank.
Parkes gives it a temperament and humanity that's close to Jharrel Jerome's performance of Korey Wise in When They See Us. There's a lot of heart put in.
The story takes another level during the court case, just like in The Trial of the Chicago 7. We see protesters being falsely accused by the state for standing up for what they believe in.
The judge is not an arbitrator of justice but, like the system he represents, the judge is a custodian of power and will do his best to make sure that power is not questioned or undermined. Even when it’s shown that the power the state has is corrupt and racist.
It’s during the court drama section of the drama that the series touches on the great Ava du Vernay series When They See Us when it speaks of the mental anguish of being victimised by the system and false incarceration
It’s in these moments where I think of guys like Samuel L. Jackson who claim British actors should not play American roles because they don't have an understanding of being black and American.
Hopefully people like him get to see Small Axe because it shows the history and experience of blackness is the same whether in the US, Australia, South Africa, Nigeria or the UK.
Steve McQueen and his co-writer do not hold back on the fault lines within the nine accused or within the characters themselves.
The characters are flawed and have fears, they are not men of steel without doubt. They also need to unlearn patriarchy, be willing to take up the call that history has put in front of them.
The actors are brilliant, they embody these contradictions and passions with such tenacity and passion, from Letitia to Parkes to Rochenda Sandal … there are no iffy roles here. There's heart and you see and feel it coming for the actors. Steve McQueen gives his actors space to be and act.
Steve McQueen either holds onto a short for a long time without cuts or awkwardly frames a shot, forcing you to focus on the performer in the frame. He also gives his actors moments of silence that give us, the audience, time to observe and take in the performance and the beautiful colourful photography on screen.
Mangrove is a powerful story about agency. The power that comes from owning that agency as individuals and as a collective when it comes to black people.
It's a reminder that the fight for black lives matter did not start last year, it’s a reminder that racism and police brutality were not the creation of the apartheid state alone.
It’s a reminder that every generation needs to do it’s bit so that the next generation that comes after it has to deal with less of the systemic racism that is so prevalent in our modern world… it is a reminder that we are not yet Uhuru but there’s power in a community United.
It is a reminder in the power of memory and keeping our histories alive.
It felt like: The Trial of the Chicago 7 meets When They See Us, set in Notting Hill.
*Auteur: a film director who influences their films so much that they rank as their author. The episode was written by Steve McQueen and Alastair Siddons.
Index * trash ** you are on your own ***it tries ****almost perfect *****instant classic