Small Axe – 9

Although I gave Mangrove my vote for (co-)best film of 2021, I haven’t separately reviewed the other four installments of Steve McQueen’s five-part reminiscence of West Indian life in racist London in the ’70s and ’80s. Each film stands on its own, although all share a common venue and sensibility: Black Londoners trying to get along and make a life–indeed, improve their lives–despite being put down, intentionally or just sytemically, by the white society that refuses to acknowledge them, let alone absorb them. To learn that the stories are all based on real people, including McQueen’s, adds to the power of the message. More than anything else I’ve seen about racial discord, there was less preaching and less melodrama, although plenty of drama. By being real, the stories didn’t have to hit you over the head; the moral was plain to see.
Of the five, my least favorite was Lovers Rock, which was more about interactions among the Blacks and between the sexes than about the always lurking white presence. It was a meditation on the music of the community. Red, White and Blue, the story of a young Black who becomes a police officer, featured a starring turn by John Boyega, and like all the series presented diverse characterizations: there were good people and bad, among both races. Alex Wheatle and Education would both be depressing for the litany of hardships and prejudices young Black men are thrown against were it not for, true story, the amazing successes both heroes became. Again, if these were fictional tales produced for American TV to celebrate Black achievement, I probably would have been turned off. But by presenting the characters in convincing compexity and building a world around them–1970s London–that was foreign to me but eminently believable, I was chastened and heartened and felt the better for having shared the experience.

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