It feels like U.S. critics have not adequately admired Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe,” one of the greatest artistic achievements of the decade so far. In the U.K., it played over five consecutive Sundays right there on the BBC and just before the popular evening news. As McQueen points out in one of the special features on the new Criterion box set for the series, it was important for the series to be available to everyone and seen by as many people as possible. I wish it had the same cultural force here, and the Criterion set should go a long way to bring these films to a wider audience than their Prime debut did in 2020. All five films have been remastered in 2K (why not 4K?) by Criterion, approved by McQueen, with 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks.
The special features are a slighter than might be expected from a Criterion set, but the real draw here is the assemblage of the films themselves, along with the stellar companion docuseries “Uprising,” directed by McQueen and James Rogan. Underpromoted on Prime—I didn’t realize it existed until this set—“Uprising” details the New Cross house fire events in January 1981 and how they led to protests that eventually culminated in the Brixton uprising in April of that year. McQueen and Rogan deftly assemble archival footage with interview clips from the people who were there, including writer Alex Wheatle, the subject of the “Small Axe” film of the same name. It’s an empathetically collected series of interviews, placing the trauma of what happened in 1981 in the greater context of racial tension in the country that still exists today. It’s a truly moving, excellent documentary, and it’s especially interesting to see it in the context of “Small Axe” because one can see how interviews like these influenced McQueen’s films from the anger of “Mangrove” to the vibe of “Lovers Rock” and through all five films.
I could go on and on about why “Small Axe” is so phenomenal—sampling the films again on this set reminded me of how McQueen uses sensory details to transport us to this time and place instead of blunt, melodramatic techniques—but our very own Odie Henderson already wrote so eloquently about all five of them that I’d like to encourage you to read his reviews, quoted and sampled below, followed by the special features. As for those, the highlights are “Uprising” and a fascinating conversation between McQueen and Professor Paul Gilroy, who has supported the filmmaker for years.
“Mangrove” takes place in the past, but it feels like yet another evocation of Faulkner’s oft-quoted line about that timeframe. That it feels so much a product of present-day events is a sad commentary on the state of affairs in the world today. The film appears to end on a hopeful note, only to follow that note with an angrier, more discordant one that reminds us that, even if there were a vaccine for the virus of hate, the virus would mutate into a stronger disease. The long arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but it far too often feels like the marginalized are pushing rocks along that arc like Sisyphus, falling backward before ever reaching that hallowed bend.
Despite its brief 68-minute runtime, “Lovers Rock” is loaded with tactile, sensuous storytelling. The cinematography by Shabier Kirchner and McQueen’s direction make the well-choreographed dance sequences into amazing mini-movies; you’ll find yourself asking, “Where the hell is the camera?” They are just as adept at conveying the connections made at the party. Though the film doesn’t always focus on them, Franklyn and Martha emerge as the lovers we care about and endorse, and Ward and St. Aubyn do wonders with minimal dialogue. They work so well that when Martha gives Franklyn the number of a phone booth where she can be reached at 5pm after church (a suspicious move even Franklyn worries about), all I could think about was, “Man, I hope he calls and she’s there.” I’ll be thinking about this one for a while.
“Big change, it is a slow turning wheel,” Kenneth tells his son in the closing scene before the two toast “to something good.” Technically, this is the last line in “Small Axe,” a choice that I couldn’t stop ruminating on after seeing 60% of the series. I am sure I’ll return to my thoughts after seeing the other two installments. For the characters in “Red, White and Blue,” those words have some hope, as they have no idea that the situations they wanted to impact haven’t really changed much today. The system may be more integrated, but it’s still just as corrupt and destructive as Leroy found it. The wheel of change is slow, but I guess there’s a small comfort in knowing it’s still turning.
We never get close enough to Alex Wheatle to feel as if we know him. Despite my mild dissatisfaction, I believe that distancing is on purpose, a part of the film’s design. Even after his big, emotional scene and his decision to start writing about his experiences, our protagonist is still growing, still learning who he is. He’s incomplete as the film ends, and the movie reflects that in its construction and its execution. Cole does a good job playing these intentions, but he’s overshadowed by the more intriguing supporting characters. Still, the questions raised here are interesting ones that we rarely see applied to Black people in movies, which is important. As far as satisfaction goes, however, your mileage may vary.
“Education” ends with what I think is the type of education the title indicates. I won’t spoil it, because it’s such an inspiring surprise. But there’s a hint that darker times still lay ahead: One of the avenues to earn reinstatement to regular schools is for the parents to write to the Secretary of State, who just so happens to be Margaret Thatcher. This leads me back to that parallel track I mentioned at the top of this review. Both “Red, White and Blue” and “Education” end without a definitive conclusion to the story, and both end with flashes of hope. Yet the former’s ambiguous last scene is more cynical about the troubles to come. This film brings a more optimistic end to the series, forcing me to reassess my own conclusions. “If you are the tall tree, then we are the small axe,” the saying goes. Perhaps that axe is symbolically small because it is being wielded by a tenacious youngster like Kingsley.
New 2K masters of all five films, approved by director Steve McQueen, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks
New conversation between McQueen and writer and professor Paul Gilroy
Behind-the-scenes featurettes including interviews with McQueen, executive producer Tracey Scoffield, writing consultant Alex Wheatle, and members of the Small Axe cast
Uprising (2021), a three-part documentary codirected by McQueen and James Rogan about the tragic 1981 New Cross house fire
Audio conversation among McQueen, music producer Dennis Bovell, and Beastie Boys member Mike D
English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
PLUS: An essay by film programmer and critic Ashley Clark