Small Axe has become a unique cultural event for Black Britain
Clive James Nwonka explains the significance of the landmark BBC series as it explores defining moments of black British identity.
by: Clive James Nwonka
13 Dec 2020
Amarah-Jae St Aubyn and Michael Ward star in Lover’s Rock, one of the films in the Small Axe series. Image credit: McQueen Limited – Photographer: Parisa Taghizadeh
The moment a black British film or TV drama is screened, it enters into an informal relationship between the production, those who critique it, and its black audience. Black British film is defined by this triangulation of ownership, and it’s an idea I talk about in the introductory chapter to the forthcoming book Black Film British Cinema II.
Steve McQueen’s landmark BBC anthology series Small Axe, which over five weeks and five films has explored the experiences of London’s Caribbean community across the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, throws this relationship into stark relief.
In viewing Mangrove, the first film in the series, I thought about the time I spent as an 11-year-old at the home of Frank Crichlow, the black community activist and owner of the Mangrove Restaurant. His brutal experiences at the hands of the Metropolitan Police and the subsequent Mangrove Nine trial at the Old Bailey take up the dramatic centre of the film.
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By virtue of the childhood school friendship between his son and my younger brother, I found myself spending a few Saturdays at Mr Crichlow’s home where, in-between unloading furniture from a van and two-against-one football games, there were brief conversations with Mr Crichlow about me, my interests and my future.
At that point I knew nothing of the Mangrove Restaurant, the Mangrove trial and Mr Crichlow’s importance to both the Caribbean community and Black British history. It was never discussed. So the film returned me to that formative period and left a feeling of distant connection. What if this was the conversation that took place between us in the Crichlow home? How would the 11-year-old me have responded to this history?
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In watching Mangrove, I also recalled a childhood spent in north-west London where, for my family, the cultural significance of watching the Peckham-set series Desmonds on Channel Four was a moment in which TV offered a powerful form of racial identification on screen. It seemed, for 30 minutes each week, to dismantle the specificities of ethnicity and nationality.
In a home headed by Nigerian parents and steeped in Nigerian cultural forms, there was a joy and satisfaction in the family assembling around the TV and watching a comedy about a West Indian existence in south London. This was a black event, a time-bounded visual experience of black narratives.
In many ways, Small Axe has felt like a return to these moments. The digital sphere has offered new points of spectatorship for black representation on screen, but in describing Small Axe as a black event I’m describing how the films have allowed black Britain to congregate over an extremely rare televisual representation of black identity, no matter the fragmented nature of ‘on-demand’ content and the mobile media platforms that make such time-bounded experiences less frequent.
Will Small Axe’s significance in the coming years be defined by its status as a five-week interlude in the dominant whiteness on our television screens?
I’ve observed with proud astonishment over the last two months how a series of any kind, particularly one that speaks directly to the marginalised position of black people in the context of living in Britain, has stimulated such sustained discussion and critical attention. There is something about the degree of public anticipation, visual and aural immersion, and cultural and critical response to Small Axe that evokes a novel sense of both celebration and lamentation within me.
Like so many others, I celebrate the presence and widespread appreciation of a film series so accurate in its cultural and historic detail yet so sensitive in its narration it transcends the limits of time and specificity. In Lover’s Rock, McQueen captures the subtleties and sensualities of black love with a close attention to a visual aesthetic so rarely seen on mainstream British screens, with black youths dancing to Janet Kay’s ‘Silly Games’. It’s a powerful televisual moment that provoked a cross-generational connection with a song from 1979.
I think of how Mangrove depicts the habitual police harassment and brutality that met the distinctive West Indian experiences and cultural practices of the 1970s. It speaks to the present-day a-priori criminalisation of grime, drill and other black music forms and subcultural practices subjected to racialised policing.
I think about Red, White and Blue as both a painful but triumphant account of Leroy Logan’s efforts to change the racist practices of the Metropolitan Police by forming the Black Police Association, and as a homage to those unknown and unrecognised black people who continue to display fortitude and courage in challenging racism through the idea of system reform within institutions.
And, as we will see in the final film, titled Education, the informally-segregated schooling system in Haringey in the 70s. The system consigned a generation of black boys to sub-standard ‘special school’ education, pointing to the ways in which British education can curtail human potential on the basis of race.
However, my lamentation comes from the recognition that some of these celebrations, this shared ownership, stems from representational lack. That it may be some time before these forms of narration are seen and felt again. Will the closeness to Small Axe that has been developed also produce a spiritual void?
As is often the emotion at the conclusion of black films, dramas or series, I’m left with a sense of impending loss, longing, and naturally, a number of utopian questions.
Is it possible that the black British film or television series can ever be understood as a non-event? Something that is so inscribed within our everyday viewing experiences as an essential but natural part of Britain’s cultural palate?
Is Small Axe an indication that mainstream broadcasters and film institutions have finally arrived at their much promised but rarely experienced landscape of cultural diversity and inclusion?
Really pleased be able to share the cover for Black Film British Cinema II, design by yours truly with a little homage to the 1988 edition and a couple of the key thinkers that that made the book so significant. Big thanks to everyone who has contributed to this book. pic.twitter.com/dSpS3ms9e4
Can the sense of identification and representation of black Britishness we see in Small Axe be sustained beyond this very public crisis of race, racism and inequality, to which the BBC, public service broadcasting, our film sector and UK’s cultural and creative industries more broadly remain all complicit?
Will Small Axe’s significance in the coming years be defined by its status as a five-week interlude in the dominant whiteness on our television screens? Or will the anthology be accompanied by a new and uninterrupted body of black texts that similarly speak to the multidimensional black British experiences?
And will these experiences venture beyond the very recognisable London-centricity of our film and television representations of blackness, capturing the rich but under-examined Black British identities in Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Cardiff, Nottingham, Bristol, Sheffield and beyond?
Small Axe reminds me that it is possible for the black British film to be accepted in all its variations; to be both delicate and didactic, thoughtful and inspiring, critically successful and culturally restorative, and still be autonomous.
This is not to suggest that the films do not represent a particular intervention into the continued debate on racial (under)representation within the film and television industries. Paradoxically, Small Axe is significant precisely because it does not allow the thin, post-racial politics of cultural diversity to dictate the tone and trajectory of its narratives.
In that sense, McQueen’sfilms resist catering to the idea of the black televisual event as a solution to the discriminatory cultures of our film and TV sector.The triumph of Small Axe, it seems to me, is in representing a British-Caribbean existence and perspective without appealing to institutionally-bound notions of representational equality, of ‘doing diversity’.
Rather it has a willingness to confront the historical conflicts at the heart of the formation of a political black British identity, an experience within a particular historical period, without bearing the burden of presenting a future plan for the industry.
McQueen was clear that in making Small Axe he entered into a process of exploring his own Caribbean heritage and experiences of British racism. In that respect, the films are exceptional in that, by marrying multiple narratives to critique the historical manifestations of racism, they offer a horizontality that has opened up new dialogue among and between black British identities.
Rather than seeking to provide the definitive answer to both racial inequality and the methods of redressing it in commissioning policies, Small Axe asks the nation to rethink the expectations of black British drama. It primarily speaks to Black Britain before it speaks to a white British media landscape and its perpetual complexities over how to manage racial difference.
Of course, unlike that moment I recalled in the early 90s, Small Axe will remain accessible beyond tonight’s final instalment, afforded by its presence on BBC iPlayer.
However, for five weeks on Sundays at 9pm, Steve McQueen’s films allowed black Britain to congregate around a weekly black event, one that created a period of unprecedented connection and dialogue over the very experience of black British film. Perhaps it is this form of shared ownership that will linger in the black British cultural memory.
Dr Clive James Nwonka is a lecturer in film and literature at the University of York and a visiting fellow in race, culture and inequality at LSE. He is co-editor of the book Black Film British Cinema II(February 2021, MIT/Goldsmiths Press) and the author of the forthcoming book Black Boys: The Social Aesthetics of British Urban Film (Bloomsbury).
The fee for this article will be donated to CALM – the campaign against living miserably, a charity dedicated to preventing male suicide, the biggest killer of men aged under 45 in the UK.
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