Sunday, February 7, 2021

Small Axe

If you have not heard about or yet watched Small Axe, director Steve McQueen's five-part mini-series of films, I can recommend part one. (I suppose I should go and watch the second part right now while that big football game is on.) I was a bit confused, based on what I had read — I thought it was five short films within a feature length, but I had it backwards.

The stories all take place in London's West Indian community at various times between the 1960s and 1980s. The first one, Mangrove, was excellent, and told a story I knew nothing about: police repression and unprovoked violence toward Black immigrants (and native British people), leading to a march and more violence, leading to arrests and a trial. The Mangrove Nine are real people.

I know that the U.K. is not my country, and if it were I might have already known something about this, but I confess I am startled that the story is complete news to me. I've been aware of "Paki-bashing" in Britain, and I learned of the Windrush Generation at some time in the past 10 years or so, I think. The people in this situation would probably have been part of that. But I had no idea how bad it was for them.

One specific thing I learned from the film is that the Black Panthers were active in Britain, or at least London.

Another thing I learned about from Mangrove, though it was only an aside, was Enoch Powell's "Rivers of Blood" speech, which he gave in 1968. It's referred to in the movie only briefly (I think it was in some graffiti, maybe in one line of dialog at the beginning). 

Reading about that speech — which excused white Britons for being racist and said all the immigrants should go away because change was causing all the problems — is like reading about our present moment. It made Powell more popular and escalated the rightward movement of the Conservative Party.

Which I imagine is part of why McQueen wanted to include those references and tell this story now

He is not wrong.


The name Small Axe comes from a Bob Marley lyric: 

So if you are the big tree
We are the small axe
Ready to cut you down (well sharp)
To cut you down

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