Monday, December 21, 2020

How It Hurts Me Inside: SMALL AXE

Filmmaker Steve McQueen’s Small Axe, a collection of five feature-length films, might be his most impressive work to date. And he’s no slouch, responsible as he is for the brutal historical drama 12 Years a Slave and the exciting Chicago crime and corruption thriller Widows. This latest project is both wide-ranging and narrowly specific, encompassing a variety of moods and situations in an exploration into the lives of West Indian immigrants in London across a number of decades. It’s of a piece with his filmmaking interests in bodies in spaces — with everything from Cynthia Erivo’s tense running in Widows to Michael Fassbender’s wasting away in Hunger or swinging full frontal Shame, McQueen is a director who wants to put on screen bodies and what they can do in relation to what they reveal about character, and what it says about the spaces they’re allowed. His work is about bodies commodified, objectified, enjoyed, adrift, expressed — but above all else: alive. Here, across five separate stories with related thematic interests, we see immigrants taking up space in a land of white hegemony used to relating to these othered bodies as colonizers, and therefore still leery about seeing them as equal neighbors.

What elevates this project above McQueen’s other accomplished works is the way this interest is allowed its loosest expression, with an observational warmth and interpersonal beauty as actors’ behaviors guide a loving camera, which turns a well-worn eye on injustice without lingering in the pain. Its emphasis is on catharsis, on righteousness, on the frustrations and setbacks and wrestling with the mess of life. It’s that mess that makes of race relations the stuff of drama here, but modulated effectively, sometimes as foreground, sometimes as background, sometimes as implication. Roughly speaking, the five movies break down into: two films of a community built by rising up in opposition to or apart from a White culture (Mangrove and Lovers Rock), one about a Black man who hopes to change a racist system from the inside (Red, White and Blue), and two about Black men forged in the cauldron of racist systems (Alex Wheatle and Education). That they work together — as one expansive mural portrait of a time and a place and a people — and separately — as stand-alone works with varied topics and approaches — is part of the pleasures herein.

In Mangrove, culture creates connections, and walls off those who’d view those creating this culture with suspicion. Hence the tension. The film is about a restaurant which, due to its all-black patrons, draws the ire of Notting Hill police. It’s the 70s. A protest against law enforcement’s prejudicial treatment of this establishment ends up turning chaotic as the police apply their brutal bludgeoning tactics. Accused of provoking a riot, the owner (Shaun Parkes) and a handful of Black Panthers (including Letitia Wright—appropriate casting, that) are put on trial where they must face the unblinking and unthinking prejudice from the system that started the whole problem in the first place. An early scene of a raid at the restaurant lingers on a ladle clattering on the floor; a scene during the trial hangs behind a jail cell door as an unfairly accused man screams as he’s locked away for contempt after trying to point out the flaws in the judge’s approach. How galling what's considered equally expendable. The film’s a blood-boiling work of docudrama, so clearly arranged and carefully paced, and so attuned to the theatrical flourishes and grand opportunities for speeches and rhetoric in a captivating hot-button trial. (One wonders how anyone involved in the flat and broad and dull Trial of the Chicago 7 wouldn’t feel embarrassed by the comparison.) In these scenes, the protestors and the law are divided by the architecture and furniture of the courtroom. Their neighborhood oasis is invaded by suspicion. They’re simply fighting for the right to be left alone.

It’s this subtext that carries over into Lovers Rock, which contains a swooning immediacy and intimacy in group dynamics. Taking place entirely at an underground dance club in 1980, a tight, sweaty, and close quarters house party, the film finds its cast hiding away from the racist established party halls that wouldn’t have them. Set to a booming playlist and a jocular DJ, the movie finds a perfect encapsulation of how a shared set of cultural consumption — music, food, and slang, lovingly captured in process and effect— can knit a group closer together. When Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting” starts, the crowd erupts with pleasure and delight, immediately slow-mo chopping along with goofy grins. Later, the electrifyingly falsetto “Silly Games” makes for a great slow-dance groove so intoxicating the group just keeps singing it even after the record stops spinning. The lilting attempts at the high notes and steady shuffle of feet is beautifully amateur, with a wondrously spontaneous outpouring of connection. Here’s a group safe and away from the cares of their days — although, of course, there are tremors of disjunction and disagreement spilling into the margins. But for these fleeting moments, they’re lost in the music, and in each other. McQueen, true to his interests, films bodies in close proximity to each other, capturing unspoken connections, slow grinds of seduction, and soft sweet flirtations. All the while the music thumps away until the early morning denouement. In a year that kept us apart, what a thrill to watch a movie capture this feeling of togetherness.

But if those two features are about community inside out, Red, White, and Blue takes an outsider in. Here John Boyega plays a scientist in 1983 who decides to change careers after he witnesses police attack his innocent father. Rather than fight that system from the outside — we saw how difficult that can be in the first film — he goes right into it. He signs up for the police academy with all good intentions, and we watch as he makes some progress before his hope erodes. Boyega plays a finely tuned arc that never tips its hand. He gives his character room to make believable well-intentioned decisions and strategic errors alike, never falling into overly proscribed preconceived ideas. It plays with the iconography of the policier with its matter-of-fact distance and just-the-facts crispness to the staging. But it’s enlivened by a sense of determination, and a sly humor to the outrageous absurdities of departmental racism. (It also doesn’t pass up the meta wink inherent in the scene where Boyega tells a buddy he wants to join “the Force.”) There’s a driving urgent collision between his desire to change the system while those closest to him worry the system will change him first. Set against the context of the other films in this grouping, McQueen makes it clear the degree of difficulty in approaching institutionalized bigotry of this, or any, kind, from any angle.

It’s an idea that reaches a culmination in the final two features in the project, which are the shortest, smallest, and most intently focused on the experience of one individual. In Alex Wheatle, the title character is a young man sentenced to prison for his role in a 1981 protest. There we watch the casual cruelty of incarceration as it shapes this man’s perspective. It’s among the most interior of these pictures, and McQueen brings his usual psychological immediacy to watching the situation’s toll. It’s a perspective that carries over into Education, a tightly drawn drama exploring 1970s trends in education that caused a disproportionate number of Black students to be siphoned off from mainstream schools into institutions of special education. Both these shorter features are as naturalistic as the others, but take on a shorter lens, a grainier closeness to the subjects, and watch as the sledgehammer subtlety of bureaucratic prejudice weighs heavily on those under its control. It’s responsive without being reductive. Taken together with the other works, McQueen has built up a portrait of a people and a place, a study of contrasts, collisions, consequences and contexts for which people cry out for justice. Its empathetic specificity is its individual strength, and its wide lens builds complexity into its cumulative power as a story of prejudice and perseverance.

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