Small Axe (Miniseries) – An Anthology of Systematic Inequality


Small Axe (Miniseries) is a British compendium of 5 films that have been directed by Steve Macqueen. The quintet includes Mangrove (film), Lover’s Rock (film), Red White and Blue(film), Alex Wheatle(film) and Education(film). These films in Small Axe (miniseries) talk about the experiences of the Black community living in Great Britain. The atrocities ushered upon them, their love life, their struggles, their sense of community, their fight against the injustice (which at that time was the law) and also amidst all this hullabaloo finding reasons to celebrate and enjoy life.

Most importantly it is about those eyes who have seen it all and that spirit which has endured it all.

Mangrove (Film)

Mangrove (film) is the first film in Small Axe (miniseries) to be released on BBC One.

“The thing about a black man is, he has got his place. He’s just gotta know his place.”

The rebellion and aggression start simmering as soon as PC Frank Pulley says these words at the beginning itself. You can see in his eyes the disdain for these creatures, as he barely considers them to be a part of the civilised human race. The police officers play a game of cards in which when the ace of spades come they go out to nick the first black man they see on the road. Such is the culture of an institution that is meant to protect the people.

Around the same time, a guy named Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) opens a restaurant named Mangrove, with the idea of serving Caribbean cuisine to the displaced black people living in London. It was merely a business strategy as Frank Crichlow thought that there is a customer base that he can cater to and earn some money by serving what he called “spicy cuisine.”

Little did he know that Mangrove will become the epicentre of political debates and the base of formalizing strategies. More than that it became a symbol of rebellion, of revolution, of justice, of oppression and most importantly a place from where a collective voice against the stagnated and discriminatory British common law system arose.

Letitia Wright plays the character of Altheia Jones rightly says

” If colonialism is good for anything, it got us together on this table.”

The prejudiced police force obviously couldn’t resist the temptation and started conducting frequent raids in the Mangrove until they almost demolished the place. It was evident that there was no prima facie case but to expect any sort of redressal from the hands of a corrupt and discriminatory system is like expecting a mirage to quench your thirst. The community together take peaceful protest against the police authorities and the crown when they are booked for rioting and affray. The case commenced against the nine people who were identified as leaders, and who later came to be known as the Mangrove Nine.

The judicial system might have flaws but irrespective how corrupt it is, it will have to allow both the parties to put forward their arguments, even if it refutes the arguments of the defendant in an arbitrary manner. This aspect has been often used by the oppressed to put their side of the story in front of the world. The Mangrove Nine did the same. Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) and Altheia Jones argued their own case and very intelligently and eloquently put forth their story in front of the jury.

There have been a lot of courtroom dramas made around the world and Mangrove succeeds to be in that creamy lot where the quality of arguments collide with a brute reality to create a powerful and realistic narrative.

The Mangrove nine decide that they shall not be the victims but the protagonist of their story. But as it is always seen the path, which tries to break the flow of some predefined values and traditions and creates hindrance in a corrupt system formed by zealots, is the hardest to tread on.

On paths like these, your present is never on your side. It serves barbaric blows on your spirit. It’s a lonely path where you often run out of motivation to move forward. The system tries to break you, you yourself lose your patience and get lured towards an easy escape route. The word “Justice” just becomes a perspective of the powerful. But History: History is always kind to those who irrespective of any storm continue to move forward. Darcus Howe knows this and clearly states in the court of law

“History will take its course, so frequently a brutal one, and we will continue to resist intelligently and reasonably”

But Frank Crichlow loses his resilience time and again. He understands that not everybody can stand against the wrath of a system. What is a minuscule individual against a leviathan and monstrous system? He often questions the essence of such a revolution which he feels is futile in nature. He has a heated argument with Altheia where he says

“It’s never enough.
The best we can hope for is a draw. A draw.
The system rigged. It’s rotten.
And what are we fighting for?”

To this Altheia replies “For my unborn child.”

This is indeed the essence of any true revolution. It’s not the present that we are fighting for but for becoming the shepherds of our own destiny, and carving a just future for the generations to come.

Mangrove (film) not only talks about the racist culture of the ’60s and ’70s but acts as a metaphor to many contemporary issues of the present world. We see political regimes trying to create a world of hatred, of violence and of malcontent. We see these political powers working for their agendas by creating a divide among the citizens. Religion, caste and creed serve as an important tool to strengthen the vote banks and cater to extremists and fascist approach. It doesn’t matter whether it is a democratic or socialist or communist government as everything falls down to serving personal vendettas. But then there is the spirit that endures and moves forward to usher an era of change. These are grave men near death who see with blinding sight. Blind eyes could gaze like meteors and be gay.

Mangrove (film) is a concoction of hard-hitting dialogues, screenplay and nerve-racking acting performances. It is one of those films that you wouldn’t want to miss as you would be able to resonate with the socio-political environment created very delicately yet realistically in the film.

Lover’s Rock (Film)

After Mangrove, Steve Mcqueen takes us to a blues evening somewhere in South London, around the late 1970s, I presume. The film is called Lover’s Rock. It serves as an ode to the romantic reggae genre of the same name, that gained a lot of popularity between the late 1960s and 70s. The film creates a peephole for the audience to explore the culture of the British Black community. A community which was till the 80s trying to find an identity of their own. Most of them had come from the vibrant Caribbean Islands and were in search of a safe haven that they could call home.

The screenplay is written and developed by Steve Mcqueen and Courtttia Newland. This hour-long sensual drama speaks volumes but only if you have an eye for the details. On the outset, it looks like any romantic diegesis but it’s in the minuscule details that a masterpiece lies. Patches of information about the time period, culture,  lifestyle and transitions have been carefully and artfully intertwined with a Rastafarian spirit.

A Tactile Evening

Martha and Patty take a bus with an exhilarated body language. You know they have been looking forward to it. They are titillated and maybe a little bit frisky with the idea of attending a party. They have paid attention to every detail. The hair, the makeup and the dress are perfect. They giggle as they are wooed by the male populous on the bus. They reach their destination. A secluded and crude manner, large enough to accommodate a gathering. It seems like a blues party but is never overpowered by a feeling of lamentation. A few white lads hovering in the by lanes are being constantly kept in check by the brooding eyes of a tall and muscular man, worthy of being called a bouncer.

The male gaze in the party is particularly salacious. It shouldn’t at all be confused with being lecherous. It is appealing, yes, but never imposing or coercive. It might look like that though, but those touch and gestures were very much part of the culture. That’s how overt this esthetic culture is. Things are never obnoxious or there is no hidden agenda behind a gesture. Everything is just out there.

Martha just groves through the evening, rejecting some on the face proposals by preposterous males trying to obtrude their presence, dancing with Patty on Carl Douglas’s kung fu fighting and finally meeting Franklyn (Michael Ward) and developing what seemed like a strong connection.

The evening was a concoction of saturated colours oozing out sensuousness, a Rastafarian vibe, some cheesy advances and a wholehearted celebration of a life where women command an equal status and respect.

Lover’s Rock – A Significant Advancement

There was a lot of controversies related to the identity of the genre known as Lover’s Rock. People didn’t see it as a different genre in itself but merely an extension of the Reggae form, maybe a romantic version would be an apt description.

But what started as an extension of the much talked about and politicised Reggae form spread like wildfire in the European nations, and did make its identity over a period of time. “Silly Games”, written by Dennis Bovell and sung by Janet Kay became a chartbuster in the 1970s.  In the film too we see the “female” chefs and helpers singing the song, with an infectious rhythm that coerces you to go along with it. It is important to know the significance of lover’s rock in the life of a female, believed to be living in a pseudo-progressive European nation. It brought the subdued women to the forefront. The lover’s rock music album generally had a woman on the forefront backed by a production label owned by a male. Lovers rock changed the course of a patriarchal society. The genre talked about gender oppression and how some facets of life were only reserved for the males, and nobody questioned it’s legitimacy ever. It put the limelight on the females. It leads to acceptance and changed the outlook of many social customs and default

A Language of Camera and Lights

Cinematography and the lighting add a much-needed flavour in the Lover’s Rock (film). It’s one of those few films where spoken words are not used as a means of communication. To speak one doesn’t have to always bank upon words. The camera movements make you groove with the people present at the party. The subtle hand gestures are enough to enlighten you about the mood and the vibe of the couple gripping each other with a flair of lusciousness. It is as if you are present there to witness the sometimes swift and sometimes wild movements. You feel privy to each and every nuzzle, to every intimate whisper and to a sensual rhythmic experience.

The hues and shades of the room add on to the voluptuousness of every physical movement.

The lighting and the cinematography together build a visual character of the late 1970s. The intrinsic detailing by Steve Mcqueen takes it to a realm almost intertwined with reality.

Lover’s Rock (film) could be listed among the best films to have been produced this year. It is the only film in the quintet which is not based on a real story. Streaming on Amazon Prime, one shouldn’t dare to miss this visual treat.

Small Axe (TV miniseries) Season 1 is streaming on Prime Video.

The other four films of the Small Axe (miniseries), Mangrove, Lover’s Rock, Red White and Blue, Alex Wheatle and Education will be updated as they be released on streaming services. Stay Tuned.

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Sushrut Gopesh
Sushrut Gopesh
I came to Mumbai to bring characters to life. I like to dwell in the cinematic world and ponder over philosophical thoughts. I believe in the kind of cinema that not necessarily makes you laugh or cry but moves something inside you.

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