'Small Axe': compelling drama for the Black Lives Matter age
John Boyega as Leroy Logan in 'Red, White and Blue' | Photo © BBC
Reflecting a sentiment recaptured by this year’s BLM protests, Steve McQueen’s five-part mini-series is a refreshing portrayal of mainstream Black experience and the fight for a better future
"I don’t know if I’m going to have a career after this.” A week after the murder of George Floyd, John Boyega addressed a crowd in Hyde Park in support of the Black Lives Matter protests. “Every Black person understands and realises the first time you are reminded that you were Black,” Boyega began. Mid-way through his speech, Boyega expressed concern that his words might harm his acting career.
It’s ironic, then, that he would give one of his best performances yet, just four months later. Red, White and Blue is the third film in Steve McQueen’s five-part mini-series, Small Axe, each depicting a different story from the post-Windrush era. Boyega plays a Black British man, Leroy Logan, who joined the Metropolitan Police in the 1980s. Whether this was in spite of – or because of – the memory of racist police officers assaulting his Jamaican father depends on whether you ask Leroy, seeking to change the force from within, or his father, who ostracised him for even trying.
The subsequently tense family meal juxtaposed a symbol of Caribbean joy (I could practically smell the goat curry and plantains from my sofa) against the kind of division that so often turns us against one another. That’s what’s so unique about McQueen’s work: in one scene, he manages to carve out the oppressive plains we are forced to wander, whilst reminding us to celebrate the emancipatory space we’ve carved out for ourselves. The colours, sounds, music and sensuality of Lovers’ Rock offered a refreshingly rare representation of mainstream Black experiences on British television.
Above all, McQueen’s anthology is a theory of change. Small Axe compels its viewers to reflect on the impossible bind in which Black men find themselves: risk betraying your brothers by working with the very system that has subjugated us, or risk jeopardising your brothers’ freedoms by resorting to alternative measures. With The Mangrove, McQueen begins the series by unpicking the painful struggle these measures entail.
Small Axe compels its viewers to reflect on the impossible bind in which Black men find themselves
Following targeted police harassment of The Mangrove restaurant in the late 60s, its owner Frank Crichlow grows increasingly weary of complaining to the police, the Home Office and his local MP to no avail. Running parallel to the conversation between Logan and his father, Frank is chastised by Darcus Howe, a young Trinidadian activist, for wasting his time with diplomatic endeavours. Darcus insists they take to the streets. In reply to Frank’s scepticism that “This isn’t Trinidad, this is Notting Hill,” Darcus insisted that The Mangrove restaurant was Notting Hill. It was their reality. It was their future. And it was a future worth fighting for, a sentiment that has been recaptured by Black Lives Matter protests all across the country this year.
One hundred and fifty people marched to the local police station, leading to the wrongful arrest of ‘The Mangrove Nine’ for the charge of ‘riot and affray’. Taking an 11-week trial to acquit them, I could not help but shed a tear when the jury declared the verdict. In one sense, it was out of cathartic relief. McQueen’s unique ability to draw out human empathy gives me confidence that nearly all viewers – Black or White – felt the same way. In another sense, however, it was a realisation that lasting, meaningful catharsis still evades us. As Boyega admits at the very end of Red White and Blue, “Big change: that is a slow-turning wheel.”
David Lammy is Labour MP for Tottenham
Small Axe was directed and created by Steve McQueen and is available on BBC iPlayer