Judging by the enthusiastic reviews that have attended the previews and film festival screenings of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series, it looks set to be the television event of the year. The five-film anthology, a hugely ambitious, unprecedented project for the BBC, reflects Black British experience from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. Moving between the political and the personal, the dramatic and the ordinary, they are undercut by a desire to illuminate a part of recent British history and experience that remains relatively untold and thus undervalued.
“I just felt that, in terms of television drama, we are still missing,” McQueen tells me when we meet (remotely) to go through questions from some of his admirers in the world of culture, music and politics for this special issue of the New Review. “We are missing from the conversation. We are missing from the narrative. And to me that is weird. Not to see yourself or any aspects of ordinary life that reflect your experiences of growing up in Britain, that is just plain weird.”
Earlier this year, McQueen voiced his frustration and anger at the “shameful” lack of diversity in the British film and television industry, most recently in an opinion piece for the Observer in June, while in January he lambasted the Baftas for not supporting homegrown talent.
Small Axe marks another radical departure for McQueen, who has already moved with ease from the conceptual art world to Hollywood narrative film-making. Having won the Turner prize in 1999 and then travelling to Iraq as Britain’s official war artist in 2003, McQueen directed his first feature film, Hunger, in 2008, to great critical acclaim. In 2011, he was appointed an OBE for his services to the visual arts and, in 2013, he made 12 Years a Slave, an adaptation of a slave memoir, which went on to win the Oscar for best film as well as a best film Bafta and a Golden Globe for best drama. McQueen was the first Black film-maker to win an Oscar in that category.
Even without Small Axe, 2020 has been an extraordinary year for McQueen. He received a knighthood in the New Year honours list. In February, Tate Modern hosted a major retrospective of his work, while Tate Britain simultaneously exhibited his project, Year 3, in which he invited every Year 3 class in London to have a photo taken. Filling the walls of the Duveen Galleries, the class portraits reflected the extraordinary diversity of multicultural London.
Despite being made for the BBC, Small Axe is unapologetically cinematic. The films have achieved huge success on this year’s festival circuit: two were selected for Cannes (McQueen is only the second director in the festival’s history to have achieved this) and an unprecedented three for New York, while the first film in the series, Mangrove, opened the London Film Festival in October.
The series ranges freely across styles and subject matter, from Mangrove, about activists in 1970s Notting Hill, to the fictional Lovers Rock, which vividly recounts a teenage girl’s first experience of a blues party – an all-night West Indian house party in London – in 1980. “As a human being, I’m interested in all forms of experience,” McQueen says. “Everything you can imagine, so I never want to be limited by just who I am.”
Given the ambition of the series, I asked him why he had opted to make the films for television. “From the start, I knew the stories I was telling about the British-West Indian experience had to be accessible to a wider audience, a mainstream audience. It’s being broadcast on the BBC specifically so that everyone can have that access to it and see it for free. That was very important to me.”
The films feature a cast of up-and-coming young Black British actors, including Amarah-Jae St Aubyn and Micheal Ward, alongside stars such as John Boyega, whose CV includes Kathryn Bigelow’s acclaimed political drama, Detroit, and the Star Wars sequels trilogy. Small Axe’s opening film, Mangrove, stars Black Panther’s Letitia Wright, as the real-life activist and member of the revolutionary British Black Panther party, Altheia Jones-LeCointe.
The film is about the events leading to the infamous trial in 1971 of the so-called Mangrove 9, a group of Black activists who gathered in the west London cafe of the same name. “I think they found themselves in a situation where it was all or nothing and they took a lot of inspiration from what was happening in America at the time with the Black Panthers,” says McQueen. “Some of them even chose to defend themselves from the dock of the Old Bailey, a bastion of the white establishment, and they won. What was really surprising to me is that this trial, which is a milestone in terms of Black people having their own voices and being heard, is not really known about in this country. It has never been given the attention it deserved.”
For all that, McQueen insists he is not a political film-maker. “No, but then again, even falling in love is political. Nothing is isolated from the world we live in. It’s all political to some degree even, especially, being non-political.”
He sees the artist’s role as a form of speaking truth to power and telling stories that will otherwise go untold in the official histories. “Artists are the gatekeepers of truth,” he tells me. “We are civilisation’s radical voice.”
The Small Axe series starts on BBC One and BBC iPlayer on Sunday 15 November, 9pm, with Mangrove. The series launches in the US on 20 November, Amazon Prime
Viola Davis, actor
What made you want to become a film-maker?
I didn’t become a film-maker as such, it just happened. I was a 19-year-old at art school and I remember that I looked though the lens of a Super 8 cine camera one day and I was transfixed by what I saw. It became a fascination in a way. I didn’t know where it would take me, so it was a journey, not a plan. There was never any plan. I really had no idea where it would lead me.
Maria Balshaw, director of Tate
You have talked about your Year 3 project, with London’s seven- and eight-year-olds, as being about making sure they all know they can become whoever they want to be. Who or what first made you realise that you could become an artist and film-maker?
I’m trying to think of a pivotal moment. I think when I applied for and got into Chelsea School of Art, maybe. The thing was, I didn’t have the grades, but the tutor really liked my portfolio. He said: “You can draw.” So really he saw something in me and decided to let me in. He saw the possibilities and opened up a space to let them evolve. That was definitely a pivotal moment for me. And about 15 years later, he got in touch to ask me for a reference so he could get a job in America. I reminded him what he had done for me and, of course, I gave him a glowing reference.
Bernardine Evaristo, Booker prize-winning author
What advice can you give young Black creatives who need to negotiate predominantly white spaces in order to further their careers?
Be patient and be focused. A lot of the time, you have to deal with what you have. So you do what you want in the space you have. You have to get on with it sometimes, otherwise too much of your energy will be spent on not doing your actual work. And that’s not the road to go on. But if negotiating means compromising your vision, don’t do that. Don’t compromise fundamentally.
Idris Elba, actor
You are well known for letting the camera run and doing long scenes without cutting into them. What influenced you to work that way and how do you choose when it’s appropriate for the story?
It’s about the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It’s about whatever serves the truth of the story. The long scenes are there sometimes but they are not a strategy or a style. It’s really all about what is happening in the moment and what the scene is asking me to do. Sometimes, a cut can defuse a moment, so it’s just not appropriate. You have to allow the situation to evolve and the meaning to arrive out of that.
Neneh Cherry, musician
What is your earliest memory?
When I was a child, we lived on Cobbold Road in Shepherds Bush, a working-class neighbourhood in west London. I remember reaching up over the garden fence of our house to loan our roller skates to the white kids who lived next door. And, I remember that they were those old-school roller skates that you had to strap to your ankles.
Chiwetel Ejiofor, actor
So much of your work is rooted in deep human and historical truths and there is always something expertly undeniable about your projects. Should great art always seek to transcend polemics?
I’m not a messenger. I’m not holding up a magnifying glass to examine anyone or anything. It’s more about trying to understand the reality we are in and, in doing that, letting the chips fall where they will. I’m not a spokesperson. In fact, it’s the opposite – it’s like throwing a dart and hoping it will hit the target, if that makes sense?
David Harewood, actor
Many British Black actors and actresses continue to have to look to America in order to further their careers; having spent time in England working on Small Axe, why do you think it has taken the British industry so long to embrace its Black talent?
Because they didn’t care enough. That’s it, really. The people in positions of real power and influence higher up in the industry didn’t care enough. Full stop. They don’t care, so we have to do it ourselves.
Jazzie B, musician from Soul II Soul
Nina Simone said: “You can’t help it. An artist’s duty as far as I’m concerned is to reflect the times.” In Britain, more than 50 years later, is it a Black artist’s duty to make a blatant statement or is any art created by a Black artist a statement in itself?
I think the latter. Absolutely. The fact that we have got to this point through the long journey of our ancestors – from Africa to the west and to London or wherever – that means that for someone like me to make art is in a way a statement of freedom. It is also a statement of future possibility. It’s not just about the past or even the present, it’s always about projecting into the future.
David Lammy, MP for Tottenham
Lots of your work puts the idea of Black pain at centre stage. Do you think there is a conflict between the need to expose fresh injustices and the need to challenge naive assumptions that our suffering is somehow anything new? If so, how do you navigate this conflict?
I don’t know how to answer that except to say that I am not interested in representing Black pain and suffering. The idea of suffering and pain as a way to come to any kind of resolve is not my interest, but sometimes, of course, pain and suffering are unavoidable when you deal with a subject.
Kara Walker, artist
Years ago, at the Studio Museum Gala, you dismissively asked me if I was “another one of those New Yorkers who goes to a psychoanalyst”. Today in America there is a lot of talk about the mental health of people suffering from generations of systemic racism, so I was wondering (and clearly have been wondering for some time now), what is your problem with psychotherapy or psychoanalysis?
My problem was suspicion and not having a real understanding of the process. And I’m thankful to say that I now have a wonderful therapist who has done a lot for me in recent times. And, yes, for sure, systematic racism has led to mental health suffering on a scale that is still not acknowledged. Right now, the psychological fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic is stark evidence that those who need help the most often don’t have access to it and many of them are from the BAME community. By the way, can we find another word for BAME?
Sarah Lucas, artist
If you were casting for the [role of] prime minister of this country or the president of America, how would you describe the character you were looking for?
That’s an impossible question, because it’s an un-castable role. It would be like searching for the perfect person. I’ve yet to see that human being.
Alan Johnson, author and former Labour politician
As a west London boy keen on football you must surely be a fellow QPR supporter?
The first game I ever went to was QPR v Liverpool at Loftus Road. I used to live on the White City estate and the ground was right next to it. I was seven years old so it must have been 1977. I went with my uncle Bertie. Stan Bowles was playing and that was a big deal. I can’t actually remember the result, but I do remember that I had a packet of Wrigley’s spearmint gum and I chewed the whole lot. It was that intense! After all that, I have to tell you I’m actually a Tottenham supporter. Don’t ask me how that happened, but it did.
Shane Meadows, director
Hi Steve, I am in Whitby and have just discovered the best chip shop curry sauce I’ve ever tasted. My questions: do you like chip shop curry sauce? And what’s your all-time favourite takeaway?
It really depends on the day, to be honest. If I had to chose right now, I’d have to say, Chinese food. I love Chinese food. I have to confess that I’ve never actually done the curry sauce on chips thing, but now I’m looking forward to you introducing me to that experience some day soon!