Amazon Prime Video premieres Small Axe, five original films by Steve McQueen Friday, Nov. 20

Oscar-winning director portrays vibrant Black West Indian life and London's racism

Dwight Casimere | 11/11/2020, 9:30 a.m.
Small Axe anthology a different film every Friday thru Dec.18
Letitia Wright of Black Panther action film fame is British Black Panther Party leader Altheia Jones-Lecointe in Small Axe's Mangrove

56th Chicago Film Festival premiered three episodes; Lover's Rock, Mangrove and Red,White and Blue

Set several reminders on your Smartphone and sync your Google calendar. Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series of five distinct films depicting Black West Indian life and the rampant racism and discrimination in London of the 1960s through 1980s debuts on Amazon Prime Video Friday, Nov. 20.

McQueen, who is the only Black director to win the coveted Best Director Oscar at the 2014 Academy Awards for Twelve Years A Slave, created the series as an homage to his West Indian community in London. Gleaned from the personal stories of the life he witnessed growing up in this stark reality, it is brilliantly preserved in this anthology.

The opening film is Mangrove, Friday Nov. 20. Named after the West Indian restaurant started in 1967 by Trinidadian Frank Critchlow (Shaun Parkes, who seems to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders) in the now-gentrified Notting Hill section of London. Mangrove is a place where locals can eat, drink and celebrate their common culture. “We serve the spicy food for people who have a certain palate!” Crichtlow defiantly proclaims. “We’re just like any other restaurant, Greek, French, Italian. We pay our taxes.”

Proudly displaying its “Black Ownership” sign in the window, it is a beacon of pride and a safe haven for those who are unwelcome in London’s tony restaurants and cafes. It is also a lightning rod for persistent and violent police harassment.

Co-written by McQueen and Alastair Siddons, Mangrove is a visceral portrait of a life and an era that now only exists in memory.

The impromptu songs in the restaurant, with its ever-ready steel drum, the lively dancing in the streets with colorful dress and pulsating music, and the harsh brutality of day-to-day life are all represented in vivid detail.

The dramatic centerpiece of the film is the Mangrove March, Black London’s Selma, and the resulting year long 1970 trial that riveted Britain’s attention much as the OJ trial did in this country in the mid ‘90s. Shabier Kirchner’s camera dives directly into the vortex of the violent confrontation between police and protestors in the Mangrove March.

The ‘Mangrove Nine’ defendants are charged with “causing a fray,” a quaint British

term for rioting. In a daring move, they all decide to mount their own defense. In one clever bit of courtroom chicanery, Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby), the ringleader of the march, proffers a clever defense that makes Johnny Cochran’s ‘if the glove don’t fit’ defense in the OJ trial look like child’s play.

Mangrove is filled with revelatory performances throughout, led by the Black Panther action film star Letitia Wright as the fiery Black Panther Party leader Altheia Jones-Lecointe (I’ll leave the Shuri puns to others). Their antagonist, Pc Frank Pulley is played with sneering condescension by Sam Spruell. Alex Jennings is the height of hauteur as the bewigged Judge Edward Clarke. Among the memorable characters in the restaurant, Llewella Gideon is the joyful big, beauteous cook who alternately scolds and consoles Frank through the ever-present toothpick in her mouth.

Lovers Rock is the second installment of McQueen’s Small Axe anthology, premiering Friday Nov. 27 followed by Red, White and Blue, Dec. 4, Alex Wheatle Dec. 11 and Education Dec. 19. Visit amazon.com/small-Axe for more details.