MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Small Axe - On Amazon Prime Streaming
Directed by Steve McQueen
Starring Shaun Parkes, Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn, John Boyega, Sheyi Cole, Kenyah Sandy
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:46-48, 51-53)
“So if you are the big tree, we are the small axe. Ready to cut you down, to cut you down.” – Bob Marley
If you pay attention to Bible stories closely, you soon discover the sacred stories about how God’s love reaches out to all persons, especially those who live in the margins – those people who the powerful and the mighty belittle, exploit, and cast aside.
Pay attention and you will soon discover that whenever persons in scripture gain great power and authority, they are capable of great sins, fueled by the arrogance that accompanies their high position. The story of Israel is the story of a people of God who recall tales of great victories but live in the reality of dreams deferred.
Writer-Director Steve McQueen (known for such films as 12 Years a Slave, Hunger and Widows) knows first-hand what it was like to grow up in a culture of oppression. His parents came to London from Trinidad and Granada, part of a large group of immigrants hired to work in London’s factories. McQueen had more than a few stories to tell about his formative years and the West Indian community.
Small Axe is an anthology of five of them. Released in weekly installments on BBC and then on Amazon Prime Video, they are probably best thought of as a limited anthology series. Film critics are starting to hand out awards to these episodes as individual movies (McQueen himself calls them films).
Since I think that these five stories work best when viewed in order in their totality, I am reviewing them in that fashion.
1. Mangrove. The first film is set in 1970 and tells the true story of Frank Crichlow (Parkes), a Trinidad restauranteur who simply wants to set up a place in London’s Notting Hll neighborhood where people can gather and enjoy tasty Caribbean food. He is harassed by the local police who never waste an opportunity to hold his past against him and raid his place on regular occasions. The conflict eventually becomes the center for street protests, including some members of the Black Panthers, leading to a high-profile courtroom trial in which some of the accused speak in their own defense. This film is told in two chapters (similar to Law & Order), revealing how the growing sense of community was instrumental in speaking truth to power. It’s a stirring story.
2. Lovers Rock. Set a decade later in 1980, Lovers Rock is a hangout film that is based on stories that McQueen’s aunt told him about sneaking out of the house as a teenager to attend a neighborhood house party. These events were essential to a Black community that was excluded from all of the neighborhood clubs. Kids would set up a sound system, bouncers would stand by the door, drinks would be sold, the music would be turned up loud and the celebration would begin. There isn’t much of a plot, but there is much to observe, including some risky relationships, some budding romance, and a couple of great dance scenes, all set to reggae, dub and other popular music of the time. Lovers Rock is winning much acclaim on its own, including the Film of the Year in Sight & Sound’s 2020 Critic’s Poll.
3. Red, White and Blue. This short biopic tells the story of Lenny Logan (Boyega), a young man who sees his father beaten by the police and decides that what his neighborhood could use was one of their own who would defend his countryman and change the racist policies from within. Logan attends the police academy and scores high marks. Things go downhill from there. Although this film ends on a note of melancholy (and things got even worse for Logan after the events in this film took place), Lenny is still on the force today. There are no simple solutions to systemic evil, so perseverance must always be considered essential.
4. Alex Wheatle. Another biopic set in the 80s and 90s (and based on the life story of one of the writers) tells a story of Dickensian detail about Alex Wheatle (Cole), an orphan who suffers abuse as a child, and through a friend discovers music in the Brixton neighborhood south of London. His innocence eventually gets him involved with local drug dealers, he is arrested following an altercation with the police, and mentored in prison by Simeon (Robbie Gee), his Rastafarian cellmate. This film takes some interesting turns until it reaches an inspirational conclusion.
5. Education. This film is actually a fictional story that is informed by McQueen’s own life experience. Kingsley (Sandy) is a bright 12-year-old who is fascinated with the stars and dreams about begin an astronaut. As a child of color who struggles with reading out loud, Kingsley is shuttled off to a school for special needs students. You might call it a place for virtual education – where virtually no education takes place. The real transformation comes when Kingsley’s mother (Sharlene Whyte) and sister (Naomi Ackle) are invited to take a stand for Kingsley, aided by some local activists. (Fun fact: I was enrolled in a freshman English class in high school for slow learners due to an 8th grade English teacher who didn’t care for me; I enjoyed the easy lessons for a while until that 9th grade teacher called my bluff and moved me to a normal class.)
Small Axe is a phenomenal accomplishment and tells five moving stories in a way that invites each viewer to engage in these personal stories. There is much pain and heartbreak, but also laughter and joy. All five films find strength through the Caribbean music of Trinidad and Jamaica. The dialects of the principal local characters not only reproduce the sounds of the neighborhood, but also the evolving nature of dialects; later films are easier to understand. Do yourself a big favor and turn on the subtitles for all five films.
There may be too much pain for some viewers. This is one of the rare five halo and five pitchfork films. However, as the world and the church struggle with the twin issues of systemic racism and incidents of police violence, it is hard to think of a film with lessons for the present, informed by the past, more necessary than Small Axe.
Halo and Pitchfork Rating:
Five halos: A stirring and unforgettable anthology about finding purpose and community in the midst of a culture of oppression, racism and devaluation.
Five pitchforks: For the aforementioned oppression, racism and devaluation; profanity and casual swearing; racist epithets; violence; sexual threats; overt sexual dancing; recreational marijuana and alcohol use.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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