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Steve McQueen sweater rubbing hands
Steve McQueen sweater rubbing hands
Photo Credit: Elisabetta Villa/Getty Images for RFF

Steve McQueen: "It's My Duty to Tell The Truth About the Black Experience"

We caught up with Steve McQueen, director of the five-part anthology series Small Axe, who discussed the importance of Black storytelling throughout the Diaspora.

While the global pandemic has severely changed the film industry, Steve McQueen has managed to curate a plethora of stories about the diversity of the Black Diaspora. The Academy Award-winning director of 12 Years A Slave and Widows will be releasing an ambitious five-part anthology series titled Small Axe. The miniseries, which is really like five feature-length films, will premiere on Amazon Prime Video starting on Friday, November 20th, with an additional film being released every Friday for four consecutive weeks. The title of the series references a proverb that reverberates throughout the Caribbean  — "If you are the big tree, we are the small axe." The saying was popularized by Bob Marley and The Wailers in their song "Small Axe" which was featured on the 1973 classic Burnin'.

With intentionality, Steve McQueen, who is the creator, writer, and director of the anthology, is giving voice and representation to Black stories that span the length and breadth of the Black experience.

Mangrove is the series opener and stars Letitia Wright. The movie spotlights the trial of a group of Black activists in 1971. The group were accused of inciting a riot during a protest against the targeted police harassment of patrons at The Mangrove, a Caribbean restaurant in London’s Notting Hill district. Notting Hill was well-known as a hub for Black intellectuals and artists. The film tells the stories of key members of the British Black Panther Party, who would eventually beat the rioting charge and forced the first-ever judicial acknowledgment of racism from British police.

The second installment, Lovers Rock, (available November 27th) is set in the 1980s in Ladbroke Grove, West London, over a single evening at a house party. The movie — which features themes like police brutality, social unrest, and the ever-present reality of systemic racism — is an ode to the reggae genre of the same name Lovers Rock.

While Red, White, and Blue (available December 4) gives a compelling account of race, identity, belonging, and the power of redemption. Starring John Boyega, the film tells the true story of Leroy Logan, a Black British man who in the 1980s left a career as a scientist to become a police officer, with the tragic memory of his father being beaten and murdered by police officers still fresh in his head. The last two episodes are Alex Wheatle (available December 11) and Education ( available December 18) and neither have been made available to the public yet.

We caught up with Steve McQueen and the legendary multi-instrumentalist Dennis Bovell (who has a small but memorable part in Lovers Rock) and discussed the obstacles for Black film directors, the importance of Black storytelling throughout the Diaspora, how Black music from the West Indies has influenced the world.

Your latest film project has been 11 years in the making and is being released in the throes of a global pandemic and at a moment in time when social unrest against systemic racism has been seen across the world. Do you feel that is one of your roles as a Black director to present films that reflect the times?

Steve McQueen: I think it’s my duty to tell the truth about the Black experience as I see and have lived it. These particular kinds of narratives, unfortunately, hadn't been given enough space in the canon of British film. The idea of making five films is a bit, you know, of a stretch, but what it was, was, in some ways was me wanting to fill that gap, that hole which was there. The goal was definitely to show a certain kind of narrative that hadn't often been seen on the big screen or on television. I mean, I was following in the footsteps of films like Pressure, Babylon, but those films were few and far between. So Small Axe is my attempt to sort of show an aspect of Black British life but hasn't been given a lot of attention.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic made the release of Small Axe even more of a challenge?

 I was already working with the BBC and with Amazon. For me, it's one of those things where there's an unfortunate situation, an unfolding situation. People are not going to movie theaters as they were before COVID. So this is an opportunity to use this medium and television, as well, to show these films. I'm kind of grateful in a way for the situation. Yes, it's an unfortunate one, but I'm just grateful for the fact that I can put something out there and people will see it on this medium.

When most people think of the Black Panther Party it centers on the American aspect of the narrative. But you highlight how Black Power movements were taking place in Britain as well and how the Black Panther Party was active all over in Mansgrove. Why do you think this history is not widely known?

There's been Black Power movements all over the world, not just in North America, you know — the Black Power movements in the West Indies in the UK, and other places in Europe. A lot of  Black people have been resisting against the powers that be all over. From all kinds of places in the world other than North America. It may be surprising for some American audiences to see that. I'm happy that I was able to sort of present it to the world.

Small ax Starring Letitia Wright, Mangrove spotlights the trial of a group of Black activists in 1971. Photo Credit: Des Willie  for Amazon Prime Video

 You recently talked about how race is an obstacle in filmmaking in Great Britain. Could you speak to the similarities between the Black American filmmaking experience and the Black British filmmaking experience?

Yeah, I’ve experienced both and they’re both bad. I mean, just getting a film crew together is a task. 

I think there has to be a situation of crews, and how they are allocated, how people are trained, and so forth. It's a real issue. A while back, I visited a friend on set. They were shooting somewhere — I think it was North London — in a very mixed neighborhood in London. The city of London is a very multicultural city anyway and the crew was virtually exclusively white. That doesn't make sense. How's it possible that this could be a virtually all-white crew and an environment which is totally not? You can see the disparity. The injustice is right there in front of you. So people have to be given an opportunity for the possibility of them being in film in whatever capacity they would like to be. It could be the makeup department,  set design, producing, or whatever they want to do. They have to feel that there's a possibility for them within the industry. And for a long time in the UK, that door was not open to them. It was not inviting and I imagine the same as in the state because I've experienced it myself. 

Small axe three Starring John Boyega, Red, White and Blue tells the true story of Leroy Logan, a Black British man who in the 1980s left a career as a scientist to become a police officer. Photo Credit: Will Robson-Scott for Amazon Prime Video

 What do you think of the future of Black British films and Black diasporic filmmakers and actors going forward after Small Axe?

Well, I think it's been bubbling under the surface for a long time and I'm not the only one. It's one of those situations where I'm hoping there's gonna be a lot more support because the films are out there. But all they need is the support of distribution to support or and financing. That's all. Because as I said before, when we have more support behind films, you can see the metal.

Dennis, you are one the pioneers of reggae, dub, lovers rock, and bringing the motif of West Indian music to the masses. Being a part of the film, what memories sprung up for you about the music of that era?

Dennis Bovell:Well, I was kind of glad that somebody noticed what was going on then and I’m glad Steve let me have a cameo in the film. The film made me remember when Black Brits were making our own records and forming our own record companies as a means of getting our music out to the people who wanted it the most. Having been from there, to actually making a tune that actually sat on top of the charts for some time, is some journey. Also playing the part of the bus conductor was great because there was only one word to remember, which was “tickets.” I was like, you know, it's been a while since I was in drama school and having to learn my lines, and to remember the cues.

I must say that no one person can say they created “lovers rock.”The name “lovers rock” was used to describe the music that the Black Brits who were playing reggae. Al Campbell, Pat Kelly, Dennis Brown — they all did lovers rock but it wasn’t called lovers rock at that time, so for any of them to say they invented it, that’s not true either. The term lovers rock only came together with the music that was made in England by British contributors. 

For my part, I wanted to create a genre of reggae where young ladies were featured singers, you know? I often thought of Diana Ross and the Supremes and that the kind of role that young girls of my generation deserved to see. The film took me back to those times.

Dennis Bovell holding guitar Photo Credit: Lorne Thomson/Redferns

Afrobeats is becoming one of the most popular genres that is an offshoot from your work, especially with Fela Kuti.  As one of the pioneers of dancehall, reggae, and lovers rock, how do you feel about Afrobeats becoming so popular today?

In 1983,  I worked with Fela when he came to London. I recorded no fewer than 10 of his tracks in my own studio. In fact, when we came to the door of the studio Fela said, “Is this your studio?” I said, “Yes.” He was so happy to be there. He was in my studio for no less than three months. I recorded the original recording on “Teach Don't Teach Me Nonsense,” Once I met Fela, I was deep into the Afro thing. When I was working with Fela Kuti, and then I was working with Marvin Gaye, my dad was [like] maybe you're gonna make a life of this. To see the music that I had a hand in creating become known all over the world is amazing to see.


Rashad Grove is a writer from NJ whose work has appeared on BET, Billboard, MTV News, Okayplayer, High Snobiety, Medium, Revolt TV, The Source Magazine, and others. You can follow him at @thegroveness for all of his greatness.