Tag Archives: Steve McQueen

269 – Small Axe: Education

Listen on the players above, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

Small Axe ends with what, based on his 2014 profile in the Guardian, we take to be a tale partially inspired by Steve McQueen’s own childhood. In Education, a young dyslexic boy, Kingsley, is transferred to a school for the “educationally subnormal”, a real practice in the 1970s that disproportionately involved black children. The institution to which he’s sent is barely a school, the children left unsupervised by bored teachers and allowed to run riot – but it’s covertly investigated by a group of activists hoping to fight and end the system.

Mike relates to the film, recognising in Kingsley’s mum the same righteous anger and desire to fight for her son that his own mum showed for him as a youngster, and to its evocation of British school life. (It may be set twenty years prior to his school years, but British kids have had to perform London’s Burning on recorders and tambourines since time immemorial.) The aesthetic evokes the era vividly, the visual quality of the images, the shot selections and editing all perfectly emulating the look of Play for Today, the iconic anthology series. And as with the rest of Small Axe, a concise historical struggle within Britain’s wider racist society is effectively rendered complex…

… up to a point. Though the situation and its effects are complex, the characters are mostly fairly one-note, and the film’s ending is rather pat – even a little phony, though it’s forgivable for this series to want to end on a hopeful note. Still, it’s an intelligent, thoughtful film that fits in perfectly amongst the rest of the series, and as we have throughout, we implore you to watch it all.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

268 – Small Axe: Alex Wheatle

Listen on the players above, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

The theme of assimilation is given a fascinating twist in Alex Wheatle, the fourth Small Axe film. While Mangrove and Red, White and Blue, in particular, depicted black people’s attempts to assimilate into mainland British culture and life and the racism they faced, the title character here is a young black man brought up in an abusive children’s home, orphaned from his parents, and whose move to Brixton sees him culturally dislocated and having to, in effect, learn to ‘be black’.

Cultural and familial dislocation are connected through Alex. The abandonment by his parents led to his upbringing by the state, amongst white Britons, and when an influential Rastafarian he meets in prison expounds on the importance of education and knowing one’s past, to Alex, he’s speaking just as much about his personal past as about the history of the African disapora. This is the most interesting aspect of Alex Wheatle and we focus on it, but there’s more to discuss, including the continued invocation of music as a kind of life-giving force, how Alex learns to be black and British and the spaces in which that happens, and director Steve McQueen’s expressive formal visual storytelling.

Alex Wheatle elegantly tells a unique and complex story, and we continue to urge you to watch this remarkable series of films in its entirety.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

267 – Small Axe: Red, White and Blue

Listen on the players above, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

Another Steve McQueen rendition of a true story, Red, White and Blue examines institutional racism in the Metropolitan Police, as did Mangrove – but from the inside. Leroy Logan, a research scientist, applies to the police with the express intention of combating its attitude and behaviour towards black people, in part because of his father’s own abuse at their hands.

The theme of black British identity runs throughout Small Axe, and here it’s intriguingly augmented by imagery of the Queen; we discuss how it can be interpreted, including as a symbol of the common nationality the Windrush generation ostensibly shares with British-born white people, and a painful reminder of the fact that that shared identity is not truly embodied, and also as an icon of the establishment Leroy hopes to disrupt and improve. We also concentrate on Leroy’s relationship with his father, which frames the entire film, and how their attitudes, experiences and understanding of each other intersect.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

264 – Small Axe: Lovers Rock

Listen on the players above, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

Small Axe continues with Lovers Rock, a stunning musical set in a house party in the 1980s. Hit follows hit on the soundtrack, and José in particular is blown away by how Steve McQueen’s camera observes its euphoric subjects, concentrating on specific body parts, taking as much time as it likes to explore the mood, the resulting experience as sensuous as any we can recall. We discuss the cross-national identity the partygoers occupy, the Christian symbolism conspicuously on display, the open-ended narrative structure, and more, but always returning to the bold and brilliant dancefloor sequences. A masterpiece.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

263 – Small Axe: Mangrove

Listen on the players above, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

Small Axe, Steve McQueen’s remarkable anthology of five films made for the BBC, begins with Mangrove, a dramatisation of the 1971 trial of the Mangrove Nine, a key event in British history in which the institutional racism of the Metropolitan Police was successfully litigated by members of the black community in Notting Hill. While it is undoubtedly key, it’s an event with which neither Mike nor José is familiar, and the film embodies the BBC’s iconic mission statement of “inform, educate, entertain”, doing all three wonderfully.

We discuss the way in which Mangrove both fits into and demonstrates an evolution of McQueen’s filmmaking – it’s as powerful and subtly impassioned as any of his previous work, but, perhaps owing to the medium for which it is made, unusually accessible, less keen to make the audience seek its depths for itself. The long-term implications of the trial in raising the nation’s consciousness about institutional racism are clear to the characters, and they’re not shy about discussing them, indulging in justified and welcome exposition. Mike discusses the differences between the characters, particularly Frank Crichlow, the owner of the titular restaurant, and Darcus Howe, an intellectual who is introduced to us as such, how they play off each other, and particularly the way in which Howe persuades Crichlow of his central place in the West Indian immigrant community and their fight to address the racism they face from the police. And José picks up on McQueen’s style and visual expressiveness, confidently holding some shots for a long time, and carefully composing others with considerations of framing and colour to create striking imagery.

Mangrove is the first of an extraordinary series of films about black British history and the experience of West Indian immigrants and their children in the 1970s and 80s, and our podcasts on the others will follow. They’re on iPlayer and unmissable.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

112 – Widows – Second Screening

José drags a somewhat recalcitrant Mike to the cinema for a second go at Widows, joined by Lee Kemp (@leekemp), a Birmingham-based filmmaker and founder of Vermillion Films. And wow, we cover a lot!

Mike and Lee both agree that some of the cinematic technique is distracting on the first viewing, whereas second time round, knowing what to expect, it’s easier to appreciate the art of some shots and evaluate them more intimately. José simply luxuriates even more deeply than before in the visual splendour and tone. We agree that it’s a heist film that isn’t really about the heist, though what we then make of that – how clever we think that is – is up for debate. What isn’t up for debate is the film’s economy, both visually and in dialogue. It’s so, so elegant and deliberate, and that all becomes clear as we compare things that struck us.

The film’s use of the Church comes into focus – morality and God is almost never in question when it comes up, the film instead framing it in political, corporate and corrupt terms. The film equates the worlds of politics and gang crime, one white, the other black, a theme expressed through the two opposing political candidates and their associates.

We take time to consider the similarities and differences between the central female characters; how, for instance, the two black women are members of very different social classes. We praise how the film depicts how they deal with grief, the lack of connection they so desperately feel, and the way it affords each of them their scene to express it. Mike has, since the first podcast, watched the first Prime Suspect (written by Lynda La Plante, creator of the original Widows) and talks a little about it; José finds it interesting that an originally British television programme adapted in part by a British filmmaker should yield such a sharp commentary on American society.

We also consider wider questions of how to watch films critically. Mike goes on a brief rant about why the lack of seriousness with which media studies education is still taken has resulted in a world of Trump, Brexit, and fake news. Methods of analysis come in for scrutiny; we mention the video essay series Every Frame a Painting and discuss how one of its episodes in particular, the one on 2011’s Drive, is or isn’t a good example of textual analysis. We discuss the scene in which we see the protagonist’s son’s death; would we have watched it differently ten years ago, when it’s set?

All this and even more in a discussion that’s full to the brim. Mike is begrudgingly forced to concede that he misjudged the film the first time. José loves it even more than he thought he could. And many, many thanks to Lee for joining us. And check out War of Words, the UK battle rap documentary on which he worked as executive producer, now on iTunes!

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

107 – Widows

José falls in love with Widows, a portrait of life and survival in modern America in the skin of a heist film. Mike can see exactly why he should love it, but just doesn’t click with it.

Based on Lynda La Plante’s 1983 ITV series of the same name, Widows sees three women lose their criminal husbands in a heist gone wrong, and their attempt to complete their final job with the promise of a big payoff. The film draws parallels between urban gang violence and entrenched political dynasties, complicates the widows’ grief with sex and intimacy, and constructs the potential payoff not as a cause of celebration but as a way out of bad situations. José finds the film a visual marvel, layered and expressive, but to Mike it’s more a reminder of what he loved so deeply about You Were Never Really Here than great in its own right.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.