Matthew at the Movies: Small Axe (2020)

If you are the big tree, we are the small axe. Ready to cut you down, cut you down.

Bob Marley, “Small Axe”

Steven McQueen is a British filmmaker, best known for his award-winning film, 12 Years a Slave, his newest endeavor, Small Axe, is a series of five films on Amazon Prime to be released every Friday, starting November 19th and ending on December 18th. The series, fueled by reggae music and the boiling tensions of race-relations in London society, is about how sustained, swift actions can take down the largest of obstacles and a celebration of Black culture. Two films have come out already, Mangrove and Lovers Rock. Red, White, and Blue is to be released tomorrow on the 4th. I will be reviewing the first two I mentioned.

Mangrove is based upon the true story of the Trial of the Mangrove Nine. For context, the Mangrove was a Trinidadian restaurant in Notting Hill in the late-60s’. It would become a hub for Black people in the area, where they could safely talk and converse, the spot later caught police attention. Soon, the police began to repeatedly raid upon the restaurant under the pretense of drug searching.

Frank Crichlow, the owner of the Mangrove, organized a peaceful protest, along with other people, many of which were members of the British Black Panther Party. The protesters met with the police, and you can guess how that turned out. Crichlow and eight other protestors, such as Darcus Howe, a known local activist, and Altheia Jones-LeCointe, the leader of the British Black Panther Party, were put on trial for inciting a riot.

After 55 days, the protestors were cleared of all the serious charges. It’s a landmark trial as it’s the first time in British judicial history where they acknowledged the racial prejudice in the police force. The trial paved the way for other activists to stand up to the system that puts them down.

In terms of portraying the real-life events, Mangrove does a stellar jobs and is one of the years best films.

The film closely follows the events that I just described, with a main focus on Crichlow and dividing the film into two halves: the build-up/protest and the trial. McQueens’ direction is stellar. The situation already gets any sensible persons blood boiling, and McQueen finds a way to encapsulate that emotion for an entire film.

The film carries three of the best performances of the year. Letitia Wright, known for playing Shuri in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, plays Altheia, and she’s just magnificent. She’s really given time to shine during the protests and the trial.

Malachi Kirby, who played Kunta Kinte in a 2016 reboot of Roots, plays Howe, and like Wright, really shines during the protests and trial, especially during the trials. Both Altheia and Howe chose to represent themselves in the trial, and the scenes where they each cross-examine the bumbling police witnesses is extremely rich and cathartic.

However, the best performance is from Shaun Parkes, who plays Frank Crichlow to near-perfection. Originally, Crichlow is hesitant to protest the discrimination of the police. All he wants to do is run his restaurant, but he soon realizes that he needs to join in and fight. Parkes beautifully portrays that inner struggle in Crichlow, and the moment he decides to do something is glorious.

During the trials, Crichlow looks really tired. He’s tired of the constant and repetitious nature of the trial. He’s tired of the constant pleading for someone to listen. He’s sick and tired of the system trying to push him down. There are moments of great, emotional outbursts during the trial, and Crichlow happens to be the loudest one of them one, shouting at the lies and injustice. Parkes plays Crichlow so effectively, he’s truly the shinning star of the film.

Mangrove is a beautiful piece of filmmaking. It’s an incredible true story of strength through challenge and adversity. Wonderfully acting and constructed. (4.5/5)

Lovers Rock is a fictional story of love, intimacy, and music during a party in the 1980s’.

After the intense and angry Mangrove, Lovers Rock feels like a breath of fresh air. The film is still intense, but just in a different way. It’s very easy-going and laidback. It doesn’t have a strict focus, which hurts the film. We do follow characters, mainly a couple that meet at the party, Martha and Franklyn, and Martha’s friend, Patti, but that’s really it.

The film is just over an hour, clocking at about 70-minutes, and I wish it was longer. I would’ve loved more time for the relationship between Martha and Franklyn to develop more, and for more scenes between Martha and Patti. When the film ends, I don’t really have a real sense as to who the characters are. There are little hints and moments that give glimpses, but I wanted those glimpses to become more than just moments.

Amarah-Jae St Aubyn plays Martha, a dance-loving gal that mets Franklyn, played by Micheal Ward, who followed Martha to the party to meet with her. They hit it off almost instantly and I liked seeing them play off each other. The cinematography, by Shabier Kirchner, who also did Mangrove, is drop-dead gorgeous. I can’t say this for certain, but I’m pretty sure 80% of the film is spent focusing on the intimate dancing of the couples at the party.

If there was one word to describe Lovers Rock, it’s intimate. The slow groove of the music, the couples dancings, the closeness of their movements. It’s all intoxicating. The film just needed more time for me to fall in love with the characters too. (3.5/5)

So far, Small Axe is looking to be a great project. The films, especially Mangrove, are extremely relevant today. McQueen said, in an interview with the BBC, that “although all five films take place between the late 1960s and mid-80s, they are just as much a comment on the present moment as they were then. They are about the past, yet they are very much concerned with the present. A commentary on where we were, where we are and where we want to go.”

Be on the look-out for Red, White, and Blue, releasing tomorrow, Alex Wheatle releasing December 11th and Education releasing December 18th.

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