Set in the West Indian neighborhoods of London, from the late 1960s to mid-1980s, the five films that comprise writer/director Steve McQueen’s Small Axe are cultural celebrations. Of food, music, and art. Of people just trying to make a buck, and of people trying to move the needle. Of class and systemic racism, of an uprising and increased social mobility, and of hope. Small Axe might be the most optimistic thing I’ve seen all year.
Taken separately, the films of Mangrove; Lovers Rock; Red, White and Blue; Alex Wheatle; and Education—each one directed and co-written by McQueen—are impressive. Together (a reference to the African proverb, “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe.”), they become greater than the sum of its parts.
As McQueen recounts in the press notes, “The seed of Small Axe was sown 11 years ago,” initially as a TV series, then as five stand-alone films. The distinction is significant: A series denotes continuation, whereas stand-alone films typically give the impression of closure. And each Small Axe installment closes with that feeling of completion. Be it of a triumph small (a child learning to read) or great (a not guilty verdict), a beginning (a relationship, a career), or the end of one and a ceremonial drink with dad. Each installment feels like a world onto itself. Together they’re a universe.
Though it would be easy to rank them in order of preference, I feel that would sap some of their power. All five are streaming now on Amazon Prime. Watch them all in one 406-minute blast, or savor them over five sittings.