Small Axe, Big Heart

Mangrove:

            Mangrove is the first entry in Steve McQueen’s film anthology ‘Small Axe’ and probably it’s most thought-provoking as well. More than just a dramatization of the real-life Mangrove Nine, Mangrove is an eerie reminder that we have not progressed much from our racially divided past. Covering the trials of nine black activists who took a stand at Notting Hill in 1970, the film is a testament to faulty legal systems, and how these systems are not quite as fair as they may lead on.

            Arguably the star of the film, Shaun Parkes powerfully portrays Frank Crichlow, a man who faced a decision anyone would be hard-pressed to make. Facing a prison sentence, Crichlow battles with himself. Does he take the plea and continue his life in peace, or does he take a stand and fight for his people? Ultimately, the decision is already made for him all along. No matter what happens, his people, the black people of London, and Carribeans specifically, would always be subjects of police brutality.

Nothing explains this better than a moment late in the film, in which Altheia Jones (played by Letitia Wright) lays it on the line. With acting that levels the famous courtroom drama, ‘A Few Good Men’, Jones conjures a storm of passion, begging Chrichlow to see the world as she sees it. Here, she shouts, “We have to stick together. As a collective. The Mangrove Nine! As a people.” In this one line, we are allowed to understand what the Mangrove Nine faced. This trial was bigger than any of their individual lives, and McQueen does not shy away from this fact.

Rather than confining the film to the courtroom, McQueen crafts each courtroom scene as an exclamation mark. Every time we enter the courtroom with the Mangrove Nine, something is going to go down. Take, for instance, a scene that debates a key piece of evidence in the case. I won’t go into detail here to avoid spoilers, but every single piece of dialogue at this moment is a heater. It feels as if you have front row tickets to the most anticipated game of the year, keeping you on the edge of your seat every time someone opens their mouth.

What sets Mangrove apart from most courtroom dramas, however, is what happens outside of the courtroom. Whenever the Nine leaves the courtroom, a personal side to each character’s story is revealed. Whether it be Chrichlow’s bible, Darcus Howe’s intellectual endeavors, or Altheia Jones’ role in the Black Panthers, McQueen artfully drops hints throughout the movie as to what we can expect from each character. So artfully in fact, that this film borders the line between the art-house and historical drama. A feat that few can achieve.

Lovers Rock:

A vibe. Not Issa Vibe, a vibe check, or today’s vibe. It is the vibe of lovers and rockers everywhere. As the second entry in Small Axe, Lovers Rock is a time machine that transports viewers into 1980’s London, a time of reggae, soul, and mercury sound.

Taking place at a blues party, the film covers the events of a single night, and while McQueens’s masterful tracking shots may dupe viewers into thinking this is a regular party, this is far from the truth. An alternative to Britain’s racist club scene at the time, blues parties were safe havens for Carribeans who sought community, but also ferocious tunes.

One part rave and one part house party, Lovers Rock draws you in through the kind of silent character development that only few films achieve. Take Clifton for example. Undoubtedly he is a lost soul, but no one really tells you this. Through his raucous dance moves and sneaky beer stealing you learn this is a young man seeking a place to belong. The tragedy of Clifton’s life flows from his erratic dancing, and one move at a time the emotions in his mind are revealed. 

Clifton, however, is only one of many characters that are developed this way. Through dance and song, McQueen tells more about a character than dialogue ever could. From grinding hips to joyful Kung Fu fighting, each dance during the night reveals something about the film’s characters. There’s the church girl who’s stiff, but dying to break free. There’s the auto mechanic who’s smooth, but more kind than he lets on. And, there’s also the creep who’s dangerously seductive. Each person has their moment, and when they do, song and dance speaks the truth to who they really are.

No song gets at this more than Janet Kay’s “Silly Games.” The song first appears in the early moments of the film, but it has its shining moment much later. At the peak of the night, the infectious tones of “Silly Games” bubble into existence, and instantly every party-goer knows what song it is. The main line of the chorus – “No, I’ve got no time to play your silly games” – works effectively on two levels. Firstly, it embodies the atmosphere of the night. For the seasoned relationship, or for the fresh spark, “Silly Games” gets at what we all want: honest love without all the guessing. Secondly, and just as importantly, “Silly Games” tips its hat to Small Axe’s larger theme: racism and social justice. Just like in love, we all want politicians who are honest. Politicians, who do not deny the racism they incite. While some of the Caribbean party-goers of the night find the honest love “Silly Games” yearns for, an honest politician is something that none of them will get.

In all, McQueen’s Lovers Rock is a party, a vibe, and so much more all at once. It reveals the rocker inside all of us who wants to get our freak on. The lover whose tender heart longs to be held. It also reveals the dangers of wanting these things too. With clever music choices, and drawn-out scenes McQueen gives you no choice but to enter his world. A world, nonetheless, that he has meticulously crafted.

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