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The 'Small Axe' Film Series Is Worth Your While

Last week, Amazon Prime began airing a series of five films from the British director Steve McQueen, who’s best known for winning Best Picture at the Oscars with 12 Years a Slave. The anthology looks at the black experience in the U.K., primarily of West Indian immigrants in the 1970s and ‘80s. It’s called Small Axe, a reference to an African proverb that says, “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe,” and that you may remember from the Bob Marley song. I’ve seen the first two movies, and so far, it’s astounding.

The first one, which came out last Friday, is Mangrove, and it tells the true story of the “Mangrove Nine,” a group of black Londoners who were tried in 1970 for inciting a riot, and whose acquittal resulted in the first official acknowledgement of “racial hatred” by the police. The Mangrove was a Trinidadian restaurant that became a touchpoint for the immigrant community, and was constantly harassed and raided by the police, leading to protests. The film is an exceptional historical document, but, depressingly, its depictions of injustice are also so familiar it could easily have been set today. On top of that, Mangrove is an absolutely cracking courtroom drama—one of the best I’ve seen in years.

The second movie, out this week, is called Lovers Rock, and of all the movies I’ve seen this year, it’s the one I most wish I could have seen in a real movie theater. It’s one of the simplest things you’ll ever see—it’s a trim 70 minutes, and nearly the entire movie is a house party. Not one of those zany movie house parties, no—here we see the deejays set up their sound system in a room, fill the house with deep soul-healing dub and reggae music, and watch as people come and go, dancing, talking, living. On its own, this still would have been an invigorating experience, but placed, as it is, directly after Mangrove, it takes on so much more meaning. We know about the struggles these people face outside of that house, but inside those walls, they’re free.

Each film in the Small Axe series will be released on Fridays through December 18.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.