British director Steve McQueen has Axe to grind with racism
Director McQueen's five-film anthology arrives in timely fashion after 11 years in the making
Oscar-winning film-maker Steve McQueen had been trying to make Small Axe for 11 years.
The complex nature of the TV project - an ambitious five-film anthology spanning the 1960s to 1980s with stories that collectively depict historic moments of black and West Indian history in Britain - explains the long, arduous journey it has taken towards completion.
As catastrophic and debilitating as it has been on society, McQueen said the first lockdown in Britain over the Covid-19 pandemic actually helped him for post-production.
Referring to the fifth film in the anthology, Red, White And Blue, headlined by Star Wars actor John Boyega, the 51-year-old director of 12 Years A Slave fame told The New Paper: "After the shoot, I went straight back to London and edited it remotely. And I loved it. I would roll out of bed and go straight to editing.
"It was like a lifeline for me. Because at that moment, everything was so claustrophobic and intense; the work gave me a focus. So that was the advantage, in a way."
Another unexpected advantage?
Small Axe premieres on Nov 16 at 8am on BBC First (StarHub TV Ch 502) and BBC Player, with the release coinciding with Britain's second lockdown.
In a Zoom interview with international media from London last week, McQueen said: "With the lockdown, everyone's home with more time for film and TV. I also think people will be watching (these films) more intently now that George Floyd has happened."
The impetus he needed for making Small Axe was eventually found in the widespread unrest prompted by racial prejudice and punctuated by the infamous police killing of Floyd in Minneapolis in the US last May.
He said: "This is a curious time, and it definitely propelled myself to delve deeper into where I wanted to go as an artist."
He spent a good part of the last decade simply "thinking about" Small Axe before he could actually pen the script and shoot the films.
"Back when I first had the idea, I didn't have the right emotion or perspective to tell the stories right. I needed a journey of maturity and experience first."
In that span, McQueen established himself as one of Britain's top directors, even being knighted last December for his services to film.
Mangrove, the first film of the anthology, stars Black Panther actress Letitia Wright and centres on the real-life case of the Mangrove Nine, nine West Indian activists who first clashed with London police during a protest march in 1970 and then fought a highly publicised trial - archived as the first judicial acknowledgement of behaviour motivated by racial hatred within the Metropolitan police.
It is candid with the flagrant police harassment and brutal street violence that ensues between cops and protesters - a product of visceral commitment from McQueen, who was raised by a Grenadian father and Trinidadian mother.
"For a long time, people didn't believe the police were that violent and vicious, that it was how the British establishment treated certain groups.
"Now, 50 years after the Mangrove trial and after George Floyd, people do believe it.
"It has taken 50 years and a man to die for people to say, 'You know what, there might be a problem.'"
Meanwhile, Red, White And Blue tells the story of Leroy Logan (Boyega), a black Londoner who, after seeing his father assaulted by two policemen, is set on breaking the colour barrier from within the police force in the early 1980s.
When Mangrove and another Small Axe film, Lovers Rock, made the selection for this year's Cannes Film Festival, McQueen dedicated the project as a whole to Floyd's memory.
He said: "What's great is we're at least having a conversation about (racial prejudice). My son's 11 and even he's talking about it. People are not going to take it any more.
"Of course I wish George Floyd was still alive, but I'd like to think he didn't die in vain."