Steve McQueen is one of the best filmmakers working today, and now we have our first real look at his new project Small Axe, an anthology of five original films that will begin rolling out on Amazon Prime Video this November.
McQueen is the Oscar-winning filmmaker behind 12 Years a Slave, as well as Hunger, Shame and Widows. He is a true artist in every sense of the word, and I’m excited to see what he’s been working on for the past couple years, especially since Small Axe was clearly a passion project for the British writer-director. Commissioned by the BBC, the five films are set between the late ’60s and the mid ’80s, and tell personal stories from London’s West Indian community. The anthology’s title is derived from the African proverb, “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe.”
The first film, Mangrove, will premiere on Friday, Nov. 20. The story follows Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), the owner of Notting Hill’s Caribbean restaurant, Mangrove, a lively community base for locals, intellectuals and activists. In a reign of racist terror, 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, the 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 publicized trial ensues, leading to a hard-fought win for those fighting against discrimination. McQueen co-wrote Mangrove with Alastair Siddons, and the supporting cast includes Rochenda Sandall, Sam Spruell, Gershwyn Eustache, Nathaniel Martello-White, Richie Campbell, Jumayn Hunter, Gary Beadle and Dunkirk star Jack Lowden.
The second film, 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 called “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. Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn makes her screen debut opposite Blue Story star Micheal Ward. McQueen co-wrote Lovers Rock with Courttia Newland, and the supporting cast includes Shaniqua Okwok, Kedar Williams-Stirling, Ellis George, Alexander James-Blake and Kadeem Ramsay, while Francis Lovehall and Daniel Francis-Swaby make their screen debuts. The film will debut on Friday, Nov. 27.
The third film, Education, is a coming-of-age story about 12-year-old Kingsley (Kenyah Sandy), who is fascinated with astronauts and rockets. When Kingsley is pulled to the headmaster’s office for being disruptive in class, he discovers he’s being sent to a school for those with “special needs.” Distracted by working two jobs, his parents (Sharlene Smith and Daniel Francis) are unaware of the unofficial segregation policy at play, preventing many Black children from receiving the education they deserve, until a group of West Indian women take matters into their own hands. McQueen and Siddons co-wrote Education, which co-stars Tamara Lawrance and Naomi Ackie, and will premiere on Friday, Dec. 4.
The fourth film, Alex Wheatle, tells the true story of award-winning writer Alex Wheatle (Sheyi Cole), following him from childhood to his early adult years. Having grown up 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 ability to grow his passion for music and DJ’ing. When Alex is thrown in prison during the Brixton Uprising of 1981, he’s forced to confront his past and follow a path to healing. McQueen and Siddons co-wrote Alex Wheatle, which co-stars Jonathan Jules, Robbie Gee, Elliott Edusah, Cecilia Noble and Johann Myers, and will premiere on Friday, Dec. 11.
The fifth and final film, Red, White and Blue, tells 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 revisit a childhood ambition to become a police officer; an ambition borne from the naïve hope of wanting to change racist attitudes from within. Leroy must face the consequences of his father’s disapproval, and the blatant racism he finds in his new role as a despised yet exemplary constable in the Metropolitan Police Force. Steve Toussaint co-stars alongside newcomers Tyrone Huntley, Nathan Vidal and Jaden Oshenye. McQueen and Newland co-wrote this entry, which will close out the anthology on Friday, Dec. 18.
Mangrove and Lovers Rock were included in the Cannes 2020 Official Selection, while Lovers Rock made its world premiere as the opening night film at the 58th New York Film Festival, where Mangrove and Red, White, and Blue are also featured in the main slate. Small Axe was executive produced by Tracey Scoffield and David Tanner for Turbine Studios, and by McQueen for Lammas Park. Watch the trailer below, and let me know in the comments section which film you’re looking forward to most.
Click here to read about Boyega’s recent comments regarding the way his Star Wars character was treated in The Last Jedi and Rise of the Skywalker, and click here to find out what the actor will be working on soon with director Gavin Hood.