Review: Steve McQueen's 'Small Axe' anthology now available on Amazon Prime Video
Filmmaker Steve McQueen ("Widows," "12 Years a Slave") has put together a fascinating collection of five, separate, distinct films for Amazon Prime Video.
These five films - known as "Small Axe" - are technically being billed as a mini-series, despite none of the "episodes" featuring any of the same characters. To settle the matter, here is an excerpt from IndieWire as to whether "Small Axe" is technically a series of movies or a TV mini-series:
"When it comes to “Small Axe,” one thing is clear. Amazon Studios is submitting the series for Emmys, not Oscars. And until the Film Academy introduces an anthology series category, that‘s where “Small Axe” belongs."
They compare "Small Axe" to other anthology series like "Black Mirror" or "The Twilight Zone," shows with thematic commonalities but that do stand-alone. And it is true that "purpose" matters when it comes to the upcoming, delayed Oscars...in order for a film to be eligible, it doesn't necessarily have to have played in theaters, but it does have to have intended to play in theaters. That right there should end the debate on where "Small Axe" qualifies.
Whether they are technically movies in the traditional sense, or whether they are TV episodes, there is no debating that these are some of the most powerful stories you will witness in 2020. They are timely, often poetic and strongly linked thematically, and all take place in roughly the same place in England, featuring West Indian immigrants in the 1960s and 1970s and their struggles against police brutality, racism and injustice.
Read on for a quick overview of each "episode" in the "Small Axe" series:
Synopsis: “Mangrove” tells the “true story of the Mangrove 9, a group of Black activists who clashed with London police during a protest march in 1970, and the highly publicized trial that followed.
Starring: Shaun Parkes, Letitia Wright, Malachi Kirby, Rochenda Sandall.
Run Time: 2 hours 7 minutes.
Quick Take: Mangrove is the first, longest and best of the "Small Axe" films. If they qualified, both Parkes and Wright would be atop my personal lists of performances in 2020. The film also establishes an environment and a culture that carries through into the other films, and a powerful, uplifting message of unity and perseverance. Grade: A
Synopsis: A single evening at a house party in 1980s West London sets the scene, developing intertwined relationships against a background of violence, romance and music.
Starring: Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn, Micheal Ward, Shaniqua Okwok.
Run Time: 67 minutes.
Quick Take: A movie like non other in the series, it is an organically pure celebration of blackness and cultural pride. It's mesmerizing in its swaying cinematography, and uplifting as it shows a part of black history not through the common lens of struggle or sacrifice, but of power and love. By itself, it's potent enough, but placed in-between "Mangrove" and "Red, White and Blue," it's importance screams out even louder. Grade: A
"Red, White and Blue"
Synopsis: Spotlights the true story of Leroy Logan, who at a young age saw his father assaulted by two policemen, motivating him to join the Metropolitan Police and change their racist attitudes from within.
Starring: John Boyega, Steve Toussaint, Joy Richardson, Antonia Thomas.
Run Time: 1 hour 20 minutes.
Quick Take: After being mostly overlooked and under-used in the newest Star Wars trilogy, John Boyega is finally able to show the world that he's bona fide leading man material. Perhaps not as hard hitting as "Mangrove," it's a compelling look at similar problems but from a different, fresh perspective. Grade: A-
Synopsis: Based on a real-life British novelist who was sentenced to a term of imprisonment after the 1981 Brixton riot in London.
Starring: Sheyi Cole, Robbie Gee, Jonathan Jules.
Run Time: 1 hour 6 minutes.
Quick Take: Saying that its the weakest entry in the "Small Axe" series doesn't make it not good. It's just the only entry in the anthology that feels a bit rushed and under-cooked...you finally feel the restraints of the shorter "made-for-TV" run-time. Sheyi Cole is quite good though, and the story adds additional context to the overall themes McQueen is dealing with. Grade: B
Synopsis: A coming-of-age story of a young boy who is pulled from school and sent to a "special needs" class, which is really an unofficial way for British schools to segregate young black children, keeping them away from the education they deserve. Based on real-life events in the 1970s.
Starring: Kenyah Sandy, Sharlene Whyte, Tamara Lawrence.
Run Time: 60 minutes.
Quick Take: By this episode, we've seen layer upon layer of institutional racism and the injustices of the police...now we see that law enforcement isn't the only guilty institution. As the series does so effectively, we also get a new perspective - a youth - which in and of itself brings hope, even through the anger of what we're witnessing. Oh, and young Kenyah Sandy is one to watch! Grade: A-
The "Small Axe" anthology is available on Amazon Prime Video, with "Education" - the final episode - available on 12/18/20.
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