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Steve McQueen, the west London-raised son of a Trinidadian mother and a Grenadian father, has already secured his place in cinema history. In 2014, he became the first black director of an Academy Award-winning best picture with 12 Years a Slave, a film set in the 19th-century United States. An equivalent epic about black people’s history in Britain had never been made, until now.
McQueen’s five-part anthology series tells four true stories and one imagined, set between the late 60s and mid 80s. The fact that it is airing on television, on the national broadcaster’s flagshipchannel, is significant. Watching Small Axe provides viewers of Caribbean descent with the rare thrill of representation, but these histories are national histories – they are for everyone.
Small Axe begins with the story of the Mangrove Nine’s landmark Old Bailey trial, which, given British telly’s fondness for a Sunday evening period drama, has remarkably never before been dramatised. Here we have a true story, featuring courtroom drama, inspiring heroism with a thrilling twist, and yet it’s been overlooked? Apparently every last Jane Austen scribble had to be adapted five times over, and every serial killer needed his own three-part character study, before we got around to it.
The basic story, if you aren’t familiar (and most aren’t), is this: in 1968, the same year that Enoch Powell delivered his “rivers of blood” speech, Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) opened a Caribbean restaurant in Notting Hill and called it The Mangrove. Crichlow’s place soon became a hub for the immigrant community that had grown up in west London since the Windrush era, and Bob Marley was known to drop by when he was in town. It was also where the young Darcus Howe (played here by Malachi Kirby) and the British Black Panther leader Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright) went to write pamphlets and hold meetings.
This was more than enough to make The Mangrove a target for police harassment, and between January 1969 and July 1970, the premises were raided 12 times on spurious grounds. In response, on 9 August 1970 150 people marched to the local police station, resulting in arrests for “inciting a riot” and the subsequent history-making trial of nine people.
Kirby and Wright are luminous as two of the nine. To see Black Panther’s Shuri embodying a real-life Black Panther hero is one part of this glow; to see them coming together with other leading lights of Black Hollywood such as McQueen and John Boyega (he stars as the senior Met officer Leroy Logan in a later episode), to tell a British story, is another. Mangrove also succeeds where 2017’s Guerrilla, a more heavily fictionalised account of the British Black Panther movement, failed, by truthfully representing the shared struggle of London’s black and south Asian communities at the time, without erasing the central role of black women. Our neatly intersectional introduction to Jones-LeCointe, for instance, is on the factory floor where she is attempting to unionise a group of south Asian men.
When people of colour are the story and not the set-dressing, there is suddenly room to explore. One of the most compelling of these struggles-within-The-Struggle is played out in Parkes’ performance as Crichlow. Not a natural-born activist like Howe and Jones-LeCointe, he is just an ordinary bloke who wants to lead an ordinary life. But as Mangrove’s slow, tense buildup illustrates, even this simple ambition is denied by a racist police force.
Why hasn’t the charismatic Parkes already had a string of lead roles? Why isn’t The Real McCoy alumna Llewella Gideon (who plays Aunt Betty) hosting her own BBC Two panel show? These are questions for British television industry to ask itself. In the meantime, McQueen ably shoulders the burden of representation, tells the untold stories and offers framed portraits of Caribbean heroes on The Mangrove’s walls, as a reminder of how much more there is where this came from. (I look forward to a biopic of Paul Bogle, Jamaican hero and namesake of the 90s dance craze.)
But that’s not all. With its meticulous recreation of the texture of life, Small Axe opens up a Mangrove-like space on television for the celebration and sheer enjoyment of British-Caribbean culture. The party really gets going in episode two, Lovers Rock, but there is also music and merriment here, including an extended steel pan street party. In this difficult year, the first without a Notting Hill carnival since its 60s inception, it’s a scene that hits particularly hard.
Source: The Guardian
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