“These are the untold stories that make up our nation”: Steve McQueen on Small Axe

Small Axe, Steve McQueen’s astonishing five-film anthology about the joys and pains of Black British life between the 1960s and 80s, is a landmark moment for British film and television. David Olusoga, the pre-eminent historian of Black Britain, talks to the director about the project, and why the films have as much to say about the country in 2020 as they do about the past.

Steve McQueenMisan Harriman

▶︎ The five Small Axe films premiere on BBC One and iPlayer on Sundays from 15 November to 13 December and on Amazon Prime in the US.

Sight & Sound December 2020 issueCover photograph © Misan Harriman

Small Axe – five luminous and astonishingly powerful films from Steve McQueen – would have been well received no matter when they had arrived. But the fact is that their moment of arrival is now: the dying months of 2020, with the embers of the political fires lit by Black Lives Matter still glowing. What that means is that these films themselves will, inevitably, become part of the historical moment we are all living through and trying to make sense of. That John Boyega was centre-stage at one of the most significant of the Black Lives Matter protests of the summer, in London’s Hyde Park, and also plays the central role in Red, White and Blue, one of the Small Axe pentalogy, ties the two phenomena together even more firmly.

The five films – Mangrove; Lovers Rock; Red, White and Blue; Alex Wheatle; and Education – are all based on real events, ranging from the infamous Mangrove Nine trial of 1970 to McQueen’s own memories of the tales of one of his relatives, a youth spent sneaking out to blues parties. Between them they span the years 1968 to 1984, and lovingly recreate lost epochs in the history of Black Britain.

Yet Small Axe is, in a way, just as much about 2020 – the year Britain suddenly and unexpectedly became able to properly hear the voices and the protests of its Black population. Through Small Axe, audiences will encounter not just Black voices but Black stories, and aspects of the Black British experience that many will be unfamiliar with. Small Axe is so clearly destined to be remembered as a product and emblem of 2020 that the fact that McQueen and his writers had begun work on the project long before the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis may well be conveniently forgotten. Even knowing that fact, it is difficult not to experience these five very different films through the prism of recent events.

Alex Wheatle (2020)

Small Axe is an epic – Black Britain’s Heimat. It’s at times a celebration and at others an act of remembrance. But just as thrilling as the histories it breathes life into is the abundance of Black talent and creativity it puts on display. There is McQueen himself, unseen but pulling the artistic and emotional levers, and there is the astonishing array of Black British acting talent he deploys; putting young Black actors into roles in which they are able to be their authentic selves.

Above all, these films are personal – personal to the director whose experiences of racialised low expectations and failed schools flowed into Education; personal to Alex Wheatle, a member of the Small Axe writers’ room whose early life became the subject of one of the more hard-hitting of the five films. They will also be highly personal, particularly in the heightened atmosphere of 2020, to many Black Britons, for whom these stories and characters will touch raw nerves and stir repressed memories – as they did for me.

But Small Axe raises difficult questions not just about the history of British racism. It also stands as an indictment of the UK film and television industry and its failure to value Black stories and harness Black talent. Watching Shaun Parkes play Frank Crichlow, the persecuted owner of the Mangrove restaurant, raises the question: why has Parkes not previously been given a lead role? Watching Malachi Kirby playing the young Darcus Howe, also in Mangrove, makes me wonder why it was that Kirby’s big break came on an American production, the 2016 remake of Roots, in which he played the lead role of Kunta Kinte.

2020 has seen a shift in consciousness. The events of this summer might be remembered as the moment of transition between two phases in the history of Black Britain. McQueen’s Small Axe can and should perform a similar function in the story of British film and television. After this there are no viable excuses for marginalising Black stories and Black voices.

Malachi Kirby as Darcus Howe in Mangrove

Can I start by saying, I watched these films thinking I’ve got to take notes and ask you some sensible questions. And then they did that thing that good art does, they snapped me into a different place. I’ve been really emotional about them. I’ve thought about parts of my life I haven’t thought about for years.

I’ve thought about my experiences, which are nowhere near as extreme as Alex Wheatle’s or as Kingsley’s in Education, but I have some crossover and some parallel. I’ve thought about people I haven’t thought about for years, and what became of them. And I’ve thought about both the joys and the crushing pressure of living in a racialised society, so I want to say thank you.

I spend a lot of time hearing people say, “Thank you for telling us our history stories, you don’t know what it means” and it’s really good to be able to say that to somebody else. There’s something unexpectedly profound in seeing your stories told back in a way that you can’t intellectualise, in a way that’s deeply emotional.

Thank you very much. I’ve had similar responses from others too. My sister, when she saw Mangrove, said she wanted to shout out at the screen, out of emotion, out of joy. And then my aunt – who I based the film on – saw Lovers Rock, and she also used the word emotional.

Because, as you said, it’s brought things back, things which never got looked at before on that scale, to reflect back on you that I am, I exist. This did happen. I am real.

It’s much more powerful than I think the people making it realise. My experience of making TV about Black British history, is: I thought I knew how important it was and what it meant to people, and actually I totally underestimated it.

For me, these films should have been made 35 years ago, 25 years ago, but they weren’t and I suppose in my mad head, I wanted to make as many films as I could to fix that. There’s no way anyone would have given me – or anybody else – any money at that time to make a film about the Mangrove Nine. You were not welcome. Fifty years later, everyone is celebrating those particular people.

And 50 years later also puts it on the edge of human memory. Was there a sort of a recovery process? Of, “We’re going to lose these people and their stories unless we act”?

Definitely. When I started doing Small Axe, people were dying, and I thought, “I have to do it now.”

A lot of people said to me: “Why did you not do this at the beginning of your film career?” But I couldn’t have because I didn’t have the maturity then, I didn’t have the distance, I didn’t have the strength. I needed to do other things before I could come back to me.

Micheal Ward as Franklyn and Amarah-Jae St-Aubyn as Martha in Lovers Rock

They’re all true stories. Mangrove is a true story in terms of it’s a public event, but even Lovers Rock is based on…

…my aunt, yeah. My uncle used to leave the back door open for her to go to [blues parties in] Ladbroke Grove because my grandmother would definitely not allow her to go! And next morning, knocking on the door: “Get ready for church.” [Laughs]

Education [the film] is a mixture of things, it’s about the ESN schools – educationally subnormal schools – and my own unfortunate journey through education in London when I was growing up. All the films, in some ways, I’ve based on reality.

If I can speak personally again. I left watching Education till last, and it’s the one that’s impacted me the most. You mentioned your education; I was diagnosed special educational needs. I was in a remedial class. There was myself and the kids who’d just come from Vietnam who couldn’t speak English.

I remember being aware that this was the road to disaster – that I wasn’t being educated; I was being warehoused. My mother was terrified for me, she was agitating and pushing, and I was being educated at home, because we knew that schools weren’t happening. And only latterly realising that that was a common phenomenon. There are a lot of people out there for whom Education is going to be a punch in the guts. You had similar experiences?

Very much. My school was sectioned to houses. And at 14 you’re put into either 3C1, which is, say, the normal kids’ education, or 3C2, which is the people who are going to be the labourers or bricklayers, you know, the manual workers. And above and below were 3X, which were the brightest kids; and 3Y, which were all the kids who weren’t particularly bright. So I was cast aside really, and the journey of my life was drawn in the sand when I was 14 years old.

I went back to my school in 2000, handing out achievement awards, and the headmaster [told me that] when I was there, the school was institutionally racist. But I knew that. Some of my friends had recently bumped into my old deputy head, and he said that he realised the school was failing Black children and said to the headmaster: “We need to do something.” And the headmaster said: “You do know what this will mean? More Black children will go to the school because it will be successful.” So, basically, the school was investing in Black failure.

Kenyah Sandy as Kingsley Smith in Education

There’s a lot of Black people for whom these films – like they have done for me – are going to remind them of their past in a way that’s going to be challenging and uncomfortable. But for a lot of people watching, none of this stuff is known, all of this is new. But these stories were always there. What people often say to me is: “How do you discover all of these history stories?” And I say, “I haven’t discovered anything, I read different books and I know different people from you, because I’m from a different community.” But these stories wouldn’t have been told if you hadn’t made these films.

Well, this is a bit upsetting, David. Sometimes… I want the burden. I hope that by doing it, one can inspire other people to do other things. It’s like when you make a programme. To push on the next generation. But when you say that, it scares me.

You used the word that I was going to, which is ‘burden’, the ‘burden of representation’.

Give it to me. I want that burden. You get a lot of white people saying, “Oh Steve, the burden of this.” It’s like, “The burden of what?” We have to talk about this. What would I do otherwise? Write love songs? These stories are so rich. I feel the opposite, I feel blessed.

I often think that. I feel lucky in a way that those people have neglected this history. I don’t think they should have – there should have been programmes and books about them years ago – but in some ways it’s a treasure trove. The neglect of others and the disempowerment of previous generations of Black storytellers means you walk into this treasury of ideas, and nothing’s been done. So, in some ways it’s an opportunity.

But what’s frightening is – and I use the phrase ‘we’, which is that possessive thing the Black community does – we’re one Steve McQueen away from not having these stories. Is that not an absolute weakness? I always think we’re four or five heartbeats away from being made mute again.

Well, unfortunately, that’s the fact. I recently lost a very dear friend of mine, Okwui Enwezor, an amazing academic, a great curator. What’s happening now with Black art around the world, that was because of Okwui. And it’s like, “Goodness gracious, if he hadn’t existed, what would the landscape look like?”

So, I’m hoping that we can inspire other people to do it, because there’s been two generations of [Black British] filmmakers that we’ve lost. They’re gone, because they weren’t welcome.

Steve McQueen filming Mangrove

Can we talk about the process of making Small Axe? These are all films, in different ways, based on real events and real people – or amalgamations of people. Sometimes they’re a very faithful telling of history. What was the kind of documentary process of bringing these stories into your writers’ room and on to the screen?

At first I wanted to make it about one family through the decades, but then I thought, after doing the research, “No, these have to be individual stories.” So, I got this writers’ room together because I thought, “OK, it will be like an episodic TV series, but with different individual stories that are connected.”

In some ways, the writers’ room became an audition situation for the writers I wanted to work with, who were Courttia Newland [with whom McQueen co-wrote Lovers Rock and Red, White and Blue] and Alastair Siddons [with whom McQueen co-wrote Mangrove, Education and Alex Wheatle]. It was within that process that I decided on the stories I wanted to tell.

The first one was always Mangrove. The second was Lovers Rock, my aunt’s story. Red, White and Blue was a very difficult story because I couldn’t understand why a Black man [Leroy Logan, played by John Boyega] wanted to be a policeman in the 80s.

The fourth was Alex Wheatle. Alex was one of the writers in the writers’ room. One day, I said, “Well, Alex, why don’t we do your story?” He was, “What!” Alex was a consultant on all the stories, and was a great asset, because he lived it.

And the last one [Education] happened outside the writers’ room because it was about my journey. That took a while, just because I was reluctant to go there, but thank goodness I did.

Education was the most personal to you?

Absolutely. It’s a bit of my childhood.

Sheyi Cole as Alex Wheatle in Alex Wheatle (2020)

The music, but also the loving, painstaking recreation of 70s/80s Brixton in Alex Wheatle… We’re about the same age, and it’s a world that we saw as children. I remember record shops like that. I remember some of the posters on the wall – the poster of the Rasta kid with his arms crossed. I kept recognising things that were part of my childhood, records that I didn’t have but longed to have.

I’ll never forget going to Brixton for the first time. My mum took me to this church on a Sunday. The service ran for about three hours, so me and my friend Johnny Nicholls were at the back of the church and Johnny said, “Let’s go.” So, we left, and we went to Brixton! I must have been about 14.

Thank God for long services!

Yeah! We went to Brixton and it was amazing, it was the West Indies, it was Africa, it was people being people. My mum [had] moved to the suburbs and it was wonderful to see things that I never got to see. And then we went back to church – they didn’t notice that we’d gone!

I remember the first time I read Malcolm X’s biography and he talks about being Detroit Red, going to Harlem for the first time. I was brought up in the North-East. My first time in Brixton, I got off the coach from Newcastle, where there were about five Black families, and walked around Brixton with my mouth open.

And I remembered reading Malcolm Little’s encounter, and him being the hick, basically – the country boy arriving in Harlem – and that’s exactly what I was. All I knew about Brixton was the riots, and suddenly I was in this place. I think part of me must have been scared, part of me must have bought the propaganda that this was the frontline.

Yeah, of course.

I knew some Eddy Grant songs as well. [Laughter]

Another aspect of Small Axe that really struck me was, many years later I got to live in Brixton. I spent a year living on Mayall Road, about nine doors down from Darcus Howe, and one of the first things I made as a TV producer was a discussion programme with Darcus. I had to argue for him to come on. I don’t think anybody I worked with knew who he was.


We knew him from the Channel 4 format Devil’s Advocate. I knew a very different Darcus at the tail end of his life – he was this ferocious figure. And this film [Mangrove] can reframe him. Some people think they understand who Darcus Howe was: he was this Channel 4 guy who had a twinkle in his eye and was a bit of a loose cannon – but Mangrove shows him as this remarkable, transnational, highly political, highly articulate legal figure.

That’s what art can do: rewrite history in the way it should be written. That’s what you do with your TV programmes.

Letitia Wright as Altheia Jones and Malachi Kirby as Darcus Howe in Mangrove

I mean, I didn’t know about the Mangrove Nine until maybe ten years ago. One of my father’s best friends was Rhodan Gordon [one of the Mangrove Nine]. Rhodan used to come to our house all the time, and my father used to go to the Mangrove. But I think what happened was a lot of PTSD after the trial.

Rhodan Gordon, the day after the trial, his leg was broken, his arm was broken and he was put into prison for possessing a dangerous weapon and assault. Thirty-six months he got. Those people were hounded by the police. And their children had to deal with that and are still dealing with that.

So, the fact that I had no idea who this person was, up until recently, is no real surprise, because it was drama. Now we can celebrate them, now none of the Mangrove Nine men are alive.

I’m trying to work out why I’ve been so upset by these films. I think it’s because you’re not messing about with the idea that this stuff is damaging. Sometimes, we like to imagine the blows aren’t causing wounds, but particularly in Mangrove, but also in Red, White and Blue, people are being damaged and you can see them being damaged. And a lot of it is unsaid, which is exactly what we’ve just been talking about.

That’s true. It’s unsaid because it hurts so much.

When the George Floyd thing happened, a friend of mine called me and said, “George Floyd, you know George Floyd?” “Oh, yeah, heard about that,” – and obviously, I blocked it. And it was only recently when a friend of mine said to me, “Man, I was really hurting,” that I realised how much I block these things. Because, how many beatings, how many tortures, how many deaths and not having any kind of justice? I think instinctively something happens in you, your brain rewires and you move forward, but that can’t be healthy, can it?

John Boyega as Leroy Logan in Red, White and Blue

The ending of Red, White and Blue shows Leroy and his father just sitting there, acknowledging without words that they’ve both been through the mill.

Yeah, he’s tried to protect his son, but he couldn’t. When you can’t protect your own child… And when John Boyega – Leroy – sees his dad beaten up by the police, and joins the police in order to change it from within… that’s quite a heroic thing to do. But he can’t because there’s a glass ceiling. And that’s when we have that scene with the father and the son.

We shot this before and after John had that situation in Hyde Park [when he made a powerful speech in support of Black Lives Matters during a demonstration]. So I think the process had an influence on him.

So, John Boyega was acting in Red, White and Blue at the time of the demonstration in Hyde Park?

He had shot that scene before, and then we went back to reshoot some pick-ups after, but I think the two things are entwined. John is like a Jack Nicholson in a way. There’s something in him that can come out as an artist on screen, just like Nicholson in those movies in the early 70s.

It came out in real life for the TV cameras in Hyde Park, and – this shows how conditioned I am – I was frightened for him. This guy’s a Hollywood actor and I’m thinking, “My god, are they going to let you work again?” Black people expressing themselves passionately, that feels…

…I was like, “Man, put your armour on, put your sword up.” You saw this guy naked and raw. It was beautiful. It was so bright, it was blinding.

Boyega in Red, White and Blue

I think people will presume that these films were rushed into existence in response to the murder of George Floyd.

You could never make these films in that time. We were in the middle of it when this unfortunate thing happened with George Floyd. I’ll say it again, I wish George Floyd was here today, but all I can say is he didn’t die in vain.

No, but there’s a terrible risk we’ll forget that the catalyst for all of this was…

…the catalyst was Covid-19, this pandemic. George Floyd being killed, murdered in the most horrific way, plus millions of people on the street. All this has happened for people to say, “Oh, possibly there’s a problem with race.” Prime ministers coming out and saying, “Oh, this is terrible”; kids out on the street… People all over the world were sat at home because of the pandemic, looking at the TV, and it was undeniable. How many times has a Black person been murdered with a camera on them?

The only thing that’s different between this time or Freddie Gray or Breonna Taylor or Trayvon Martin, is the pandemic, so it has to come down to that. I was talking to one friend and his argument was that it took the volume being turned down on everything else for people to hear the voices of Black people, and I liked that. You heard these pleas and these screams from the corner for the first time.

It was the pandemic, no ifs or buts. We’d had video after video. People were looking at this at a time when everyone was asking themselves questions. Who am I? What am I going to do?

I think you’re right, the new active ingredient was the pandemic. But whatever the cause, it created a moment, and these films are going to be part of the playing out of that moment. They will be seen as part of this unexpected, unpredictable year.

It’s interesting to think back to those days immediately after the murder of George Floyd, because there was an awful lot of talk in newspapers and on television in this country and other countries to say: “Look, this is an American issue, this doesn’t happen here, we’re a different sort of country” – and that attempt to use the political borders to kettle this phenomenon in. But that didn’t work. It’s a bit like the virus: it didn’t obey national borders. The desperate attempts to say that Black people who saw parallels between their life, between the death of George Floyd and the rise of Black Lives Matter, were somehow deluded.

Well, the evidence was in the streets, the evidence was in the march. That was an amazing thing to see, those young people out marching. It gave me goose pimples, seeing my daughter going out there.

Saffron Coomber as Grace and Jermaine Freeman as Skinner in Lovers Rock

Yes. One of the things that struck me as I was watching, particularly in Lovers Rock, is that here are young Black Britons playing their parents and their grandparents. There’s something powerful about seeing this generation of young Black people who have all of these ideas, who are out demonstrating, to see them with the hairstyles and the manmade fabrics of their parents’ generation. Black British people playing their own history seems to have a special circularity to it. There’s a sense of belonging when you can play your own history.

Absolutely, and there’s so much talent. There are these amazing actors who just need to be given the opportunity and, like you say, play themselves. And they need more material to do it.

We’ve lost geniuses. We’ve lost our Katharine Hepburns, we’ve lost our Marlon Brandos, they’re all doing other jobs. We never got a chance to see what they were able to do; the films that they weren’t able to star in.

That’s why it’s so emotional, because it’s like there’s a catharsis about it – like my sister wanting to scream at the screen. I exist.

The making of the films and the content says: “Here is Black creativity, here’s what we can do, here’s what we can create.” I loved the amount of time you gave in Lovers Rock to the conversion of a normal London house into a blues party – the getting out of the furniture and the building of the sound system. Here are Black people making something for themselves, people who aren’t wanted somewhere else.

For me, it was about ritual. The process is just as important as what it ends up being. To take you on that journey where it gets to a point where it transcends, even beyond the people in the room. It becomes church. Some people say the Holy Spirit or whatever, but you know, it did happen. When I was shooting [the dance scenes in Lovers Rock], that was for real. I became invited into that situation. It was an honour to be there. As an artist, you wish to be invited, and that’s what happened. I’d never experienced that before.

It reminded me of a scene in BlacKkKlansman [2018] that has long lingering shots of dancing and a love of the fashions and the hairstyles. And Spike Lee running shots long to add a celebration.

I’m not sure about that, I think this is something else. It was a spiritual experience. It wasn’t performative. Something happened in that room, and we happened to have a camera there to record it. It was Black people seeing other Black people, feeling what they were feeling, and a Black director, a Black cinematographer, and the fact they could see each other and vibe off each other – and be each other, as you rightly said – that’s what happened.

Principal Costume Assistant Standby Jodie-Simone Howe with Micheal Ward as Franklyn behind the scenes of Lovers Rock

That takes me on to the next thing I wanted to ask. You’ve rightly been vocal about the fact that it was a challenge to crew the films that you’ve made with Black production staff. Can you tell me about that struggle?

Oh blimey, that was a job! The fact that Black people in this country feel that there’s no space for them in the British film industry is a problem. We had four Black heads of department, and then when we moved to Wolverhampton… there was no one. I said, “We’ve got to do something about this, this is not on. In Wolverhampton, there’s no Black people interested in film?” We got one spark, one technician.

It was because people don’t feel welcome and it’s just not good enough. I had to make a film so you do as best you can, but it’s one of those things where, how can I feel comfortable making something like this without a Black crew?

This has been a year where we’ve had bigger commitments and initiatives in the world of film and television on these issues than ever before. Are you hopeful or sceptical?

I mean, like you said in your speech [the MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival, which Olusoga delivered in August this year], there’s no going back. It’s on the powers that be, and people like myself and yourself to make sure the people are doing their job.

Do you think it takes, and I use this word advisedly, ‘policing’, to ensure that there is progress?

Unfortunately, yeah, because if people don’t have to do it, they won’t. Look what British talent we have, look how wonderful it could be. Look how much revenue could be made. Look how much joy could be brought to so many people. It makes economic and artistic sense.

But my impression is that the liberal arts, the creative arts, all of those sectors have given themselves a free pass. They presumed because they were nice liberal people that this stuff would just happen and that they didn’t need to put systems in place. And it hasn’t happened, and it didn’t happen 15 years ago. And the reason that you can’t have the crew you want, is because people made decisions 15, 20 years ago to not give them breaks.

Precisely. I can’t remember if it was at the BFI or where. I was a kid, I was like 19 years old. I said I was interested in the cinematographer Robby Müller and the person laughed at me. I’ll never forget that. They had an impression of what Black people could do or couldn’t do.

But I don’t care about that, what I care about is the fact that artistic progression for Black people is a progression for everyone, not just for Black people.

But to use the ‘B’ word again – burden, that is. We tell Black kids you’ve got to work twice as hard to get half as far. You do that for 20, 30 years and you’re burnt out. We’ve internalised this idea that we have to be excellent all the time, but not everyone can be, and those expectations are crushing.

There’s no two ways about that, but all I can say is that there is a sense of opportunity here, because the doors are open right now – or closing more slowly – so we’ve got to get what we can as quickly as possible.

Kenyah Sandy as Kingsley Smith in Education

These films are going to be a part of that moment; they’re going to have, I think, an incredible impact. These are five brilliant stories plucked from a million Black British stories. What do you hope is the catalytic effect of Small Axe?

An awakening. I remember for so long, people would say we’ve got the best police force in the world. It was only the Black community who knew that it wasn’t, and now 50 years later, everyone’s catching up.

I hope that people are more inquisitive about the things around them, because these are London stories, these are the untold British stories. People must understand that there are other histories that make up the history of our nation. You’ve done your bit with your television documentaries. The making of this country has had a profound effect on how British people have lived their lives, if that makes sense.

It does and what’s fascinating is, these films span 1968 to 1984, and in them you can see how Black culture and Black music through that time span is becoming more central, more universal. There’s that thing that [jazz singer] Lucky Gordon says: “We bought some damn colour to this country.”

I think young Londoners of all races now, brought up in the most diverse city in the world, are not going to see these as Black stories. These are London stories to them.

Absolutely. It’s interesting, I did this project called Year 3 at the Tate, we took photographs of [London schoolchildren in Year 3], and there are people who walk into the exhibition, who don’t know London, and they see how many Black and Brown people are there, and they’re freaked out – but that’s London.

When I’m appealing to people that we need a history that functions for the country we actually are, I always say, “Go to a London comprehensive.” You can’t function as a country that has a history that doesn’t tell the backstories and the family stories of four out of every ten Londoners. And if you want to see what the future looks like, go to an infant school in London and there’s Britain for you. And by transposing it into the Tate, more people saw it than ever, which is exactly what these films are going to do.

We’re coming towards the end of a remarkable and unpredictable year. Are you optimistic or fearful for what’s going to follow?

I’m optimistic. People have got their head out of the sand. We’ve been screaming and shouting and all of a sudden, people recognise a reality they were too busy before to see. It is progress and there’s no going back.

And the role of the storyteller, in keeping this momentum up?

Tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Ugly, hurtful, joyous, painful… Rain or shine, that’s how it’s got to be.

Further reading