During the latest Oscar season, there was a rather trivial controversy on Steve McQueen’s ambitious film anthology series “Small Axe”. While its first three films were respectively shown at a number of movie festivals including the New York Film Festival in last year, all of its five films were shown on BBC One in UK and then on Amazon Prime in US around the end of last year, so that led to lots of discussions on whether the whole series should be regarded as cinema or TV miniseries. The situation became more confusing later because it received several nominations and awards from a number of major film critics associations including the LA Film Critics Association, which boldly gave it the Best Picture award, and now it is regarded as a potential front runner in the upcoming Emmy season of this year.
I must confess that I have hesitated to review “Small Axe” because I usually do not review TV series or miniseries here as mostly focusing on feature films, but I come to decide that it should be regarded as cinema just like Krzysztof Kieślowski’s great film anthology “Dekalog” (1988), which was initially made as a TV drama series but has been regarded as a film anthology series nonetheless since it came out. After all, “Small Axe” was produced under the full artistic control of McQueen from the beginning to the end, and, though I only watched its first two films at present, I was already quite impressed by what he and his cast and crew members achieve here.
The common thread among the five films of “Small Axe” is the life and culture of Black British people during the late 20th century, and the first film of “Small Axe”, “Mangrove”, is an infuriating drama of systemic prejudice injustice which is actually based on a real-life story back in the late 1960s. During the opening part, we are introduced to a plain black dude named Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), and the movie observes how much he tries to run a modest curry restaurant in his neighborhood of Notting Hill, London. While this place will surely remind many of you of that 1999 romantic comedy film starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts, Notting Hill during the 1960s looked quite different as filled with the people of black community, and the movie vividly presents the authentic local period atmosphere on the screen while Crichlow’s restaurant becomes a precious place for him and many black neighbors and friends of his.
Although it is implied that he has some problematic past, Crichlow simply wants to run a respectable restaurant while providing some comfort and joy to his black community people, and he makes sure that the restaurant is free of any possible problem including drug, but, sadly, he has a big problem from the very beginning. There is a mean and vicious police constable who has been watching Crichlow for a while, and this white racist prick is already quite determined to make Crichlow “know his place”.
What follows next will not probably surprise you much if you are familiar with those stories about police brutality and racism, but it is still exasperating to watch a series of abuses and mistreatments which Crichlow and others around him have to endure. Thanks to that deplorable police constable, his restaurant is disrupted by sudden police raid more than once, and that certainly damages the restaurant and its reputation a lot.
As cornered more and more, Crichlow naturally becomes more angered and frustrated day by day, and he begins to consider giving up his business, but then he gets helped and supported a lot by many people of his black community. While he receives an unexpected financial aid at one point, he is also persuaded by several activists in the neighborhood to hold a local demonstration against the police, and he is ready to fight more as many neighbors and friends gather around him in front of his restaurant.
Of course, the police are ready to suppress the demonstration by any means necessary, and their ruthless suppression on demonstrators eventually leads to the arrest of Crichlow and eight other people including a feisty female activist named Altheia Jones-LeConite (Letitia Wright). They all are subsequently charged with riot and affray, and it looks quite possible that many of them will receive considerable jail sentence in the end.
What follows next is a tense and visceral courtroom drama which makes Aaron Sorkin’s recent film “The Trial of the Chicago 7” (2020) look rather mild and artificial in comparison. Under McQueen’s skillfully austere direction, many following dramatic moments in the film are seemingly dry but undeniably captivating on the emotional level, and there is a particularly harrowing scene where the camera simply but powerfully captures Crichlow’s fear, anger, and frustration as he gets confined in a small stuffy space for a while.
Except Letitia Wright, who has been more prominent since her breakthrough supporting turn in Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” (2018), many of the main cast members in the film are quite unfamiliar to many of us, but they are all effective in their commendable ensemble performance. While Shaun Parkes is utterly magnificent in many key moments of his in the film, Malachi Kirby, Nathaniel Martello-White, and Rochenda Sandall are also give effective performances as Crichlow’s fellow defendants, and Jack Lowden brings some humor to the second half of the film as a young barrister who does care about justice and racial equality despite his seemingly casual attitude.
On the whole, “Mangrove” is the electrifying opening chapter which will gradually capture your attention along its compelling narrative. When I watched it during last evening, I was surprised as finding how much I was riveted by its story and characters without checking its running time at all, and that certainly made me more determined to write about it. As a single film, it is certainly one of the highlights of last year, and I assure you that you will be quite ready for experiencing the next four films of “Small Axe” once it is over.