Sight & Sound: the December 2020 issue

Steve McQueen talks Small Axe and the Britain it was born from with historian David Olusoga; and five writers’ personal takes on the five Small Axe films. Plus Louise Brooks on Lilian Gish and Greta Garbo, Herman J. Mankiewicz via David Fincher, Ennio Morricone, Roy Andersson, Pedro Almodóvar, David Byrne, County Lines, notes from the Nigerian new wave, Total Recall, Sarah Maldoror, Asta Nielsen, Invasion of the Body Snatchers…

Sight & Sound December 2020 issueCover photograph © Misan Harriman

 “These films should have been made 35 years ago,” Steve McQueen tells historian David Olusoga in our December issue cover story, a powerful conversation about McQueen’s new Small Axe collection of films about Black British history, broadcasting this month on the BBC.

To dig down even further on the this landmark of British filmmaking, we’ve recruited an ensemble of notable writers, all qualified by experience, to react personally to each of the films in Small Axe. Candice Carty-Williams writes beautifully about Lovers Rock, Kehinde Andrews gets to the heart of Mangrove, Gary Younge considers the conflicts in the John Boyega-led Red, White and Blue, Kit de Waal connects deeply with Education and Jay Bernard journeys into the soul of Alex Wheatle.

Elsewhere in this issue, Roy Andersson signs out with his magnificently droll About Endlessness; David Fincher revisits Herman J. Mankiewicz’s Hollywood in Mank; Christopher Frayling remembers his encounters with Ennio Morricone; youth worker turned director Henry Blake goes behind Britain’s cross-country drug-running gangs in County Lines; and from our archives, Louise Brooks appraises Lilian Gish and Greta Garbo.


“These are the untold stories that make up our nation”

Steve McQueen interviewed in Sight & Sound December 2020

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.

+ Kit de Waal on Education

Ennio Morricone: Cinema for the ears

Ennio Morricone interviewed in Sight & Sound December 2020

The great composer, who died in July at the age of 91, might be best remembered in the UK for his partnership with Sergio Leone on the director’s cycle of Italian westerns in the 1960s, but over a fantastically prolific career his scores provided the emotional heart for films in almost every genre by a dizzying array of the world’s finest directors. Here Christopher Frayling presents extracts from some of the interviews the maestro gave him over the years, to explore his much-loved musical genius.

+ The sound of music

Morricone, John Cage and Once upon a Time in the West.

+ Morricone on his music for The Mission

The gilded cage: Herman J. Mankewicz in Hollywood

Herman J. Manciewicz in Hollywood

David Fincher’s portrait of Herman J. Mankiewicz, the hard-drinking, hard-gambling screenwriter of Citizen Kane, enshrines the myth of a studio-era Hollywood populated by idiots. Farran Smith Nehme explores the truth behind the legend.

+ From the archive: A conversation on Citizen Kane

Lives on the line

Henry Blake on County Lines in Sight & Sound December 2020

Henry Blake’s long years as a youth worker helped him inject a rare psychological depth and authenticity into County Lines, a devastating portrait of the damage inflicted on young people lured into running drugs for criminal gangs in the UK. Isabel Stevens talks to him about the highs and lows of his debut feature.

“In my pictures you can’t hide”

Roy Andersson interviewed in Sight & Sound December 2020

Roy Andersson’s About Endlessness, a series of melancholy vignettes that grapple with mortality, is as drolly comic and unique a work as anything the Swedish director has made over his singular career. He talks to James Mottram about why mankind must learn from its failures, why humour is essential for survival and how he was inspired by Bob Dylan.

From the archive: Gish and Garbo: The executive war on stars

Louise Brooks on Lilian Gish and Greta Garbo in Sight & Sound December 2020

After years spent in obscurity, the actress Louise Brooks reinvented herself as a writer in the late 1950s, penning a number of sharp articles about Hollywood – many of them for Sight & Sound. In this brilliantly astringent piece, she takes aim at the studio bosses for their calculated sidelining of two of the silent era’s greatest stars.



An axe that cuts deep


Our Rushes section

Hope springs

As cinemas reel from the impact of Covid-19, UK industry insiders assess where we’ve got to – and what the future holds.

+ The view from Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast

Report: Notes from the Nigerian New Wave

Nigerian films at the BFI London Film Festival and Film Africa highlight a thriving independent scene outside Nollywood. By Chrystel Oloukoï.

Dream palaces: Cinema Kiev, Krakow

Director Malgorzata Szumowska recalls the magic of the big screen during Covid, via her memories of cinema-going under communism.

Interview: Welcome to the dollhouse

Pedro Almodóvar discusses his Jean Cocteau adaptation The Human Voice, working with Tilda Swinton and shooting in a Covid world. By Mar Diestro-Dópido.

Obituary: Rhonda Fleming, 1923-2020

The ‘Queen of Technicolor’ enjoyed a more varied career in the Hollywood studio system than her moniker suggests. By Pamela Hutchinson.

Designer thinking: Mars in Total Recall

As Paul Verhoeven’s raucous sci-fi turns 30, Isabel Stevens explores the awesome production feat behind the film’s dystopian vision of Mars.

Documentary: Courage under fire

Thrilling Romanian exposé Collective uncovers a vast trail of corruption. The doc’s director reveals its universal relevance. By Nick Bradshaw.

Soundings: Byrne and the USA

With coronavirus halting live music, it’s the perfect time for a concert film from one of the giants of the genre: David Byrne. By Leonie Cooper.

+ David Byrne’s favourite film scores

Festival: Rising stars of the LFF

As every year, the 2020 BFI London Film Festival showcased some exciting new filmmakers. We list some of the names to watch.

Our Wide Angle section

Wide angle

In memoriam: Sarah Maldoror

Though her name remains unfamiliar to most, the French-born filmmaker’s work is central to postcolonial African cinema. By Sukhdev Sandhu.

Primal screen: Rating Nielsen

Garbo may have been divine, but the Danish actor Asta Nielsen rivalled her fame by being stunningly, captivatingly human. By Pamela Hutchinson.

London on film: Shooting the elephant

Patrick Keiller’s sly, melancholy anatomy of London is now a book. How have print and time changed the film, and the city? By Matthew Harle.



Films of the month

Our Reviews section

Kirsten Johnson’s superbly inventive movie confronts the trauma of her father’s imminent death with multiple advance stagings of it, finds Hannah McGill.

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones are on sparkling form as a father and daughter navigating the still-gendered parenthood trap, writes Nikki Baughan.

plus reviews of

Television of the month

Adapting its hero’s memoir, Billy Ray’s two-part factual drama follows Jeff Daniels’s earnest FBI spy from the rapids of the 2016 US election to a democracy-imperilling dinner with Brendan Gleeson’s President Trump.

plus reviews of

  • The Beach
  • Mystery Road: Series 2
  • Battlestar Galactica
  • The Undoing
  • Us

Home cinema features

Our Home Cinema section

Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits

Though Bruce Lee died young, with only a handful of starring roles under his belt, he remains the martial arts hero: a new box-set shows why. Reviewed by Tony Rayns.

Archive Television: Monkey

plus reviews of

  • Dementia
  • John Ford at Columbia 1935-1958
  • Girlfriends
  • The Lady Eve
  • I, Monster
  • Sweet Charity
  • This Gun for Hire
  • The Times of Harvey Milk
  • The Wolf House


Our Books section

The Beginning or the End: How Hollywood – and America – Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Greg Mitchell (The New Press) reviewed by J. Hoberman

A Light in the Dark: A History of Movie Directors by David Thomson (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) reviewed by Nick James


  • Psycho’s ending: subtle or accidental?
  • Trevor Griffiths’s Comedians is a divine comedy
  • Thinking about the ending of I’m Thinking of Ending Things
  • Christopher Nolan’s mechanical coldness
  • The puzzling pleasures of Tenet


Our Endings section

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

The devastating twist that closes the Michael Chapman-shot 1978 sci-fi/horror remake still feels scarily resonant after all these years. By Joshua Rothkopf.