Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series presents Black Britons not as objects but as protagonists, not as heroes but as humans.
On October 24, 2017, Paulette Wilson was transferred from Britain’s Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre to London’s Heathrow Airport for deportation to Jamaica. It didn’t take long to pack; she was arrested at a regularly scheduled appointment at a government immigration center, and the clothes she was wearing were confiscated. She would make this journey in her prison clothes. Wilson, who was by then sixty-one, had been sent to Britain from Jamaica by her mother forty-nine years earlier to live with her grandparents and had never been back. Indeed, she had never left Britain.
In the near half-century between arriving as a child and finding herself on the verge of deportation, she had worked as a cook in the House of Commons, paid her taxes, volunteered at a local soup kitchen, and become a grandmother. She considered herself British: she was British. She had entered the country legally. She had evidence of her tax payments, National Insurance records, and archived documents from a brief childhood stint in the UK’s foster care system, all proving she had been in the country for decades. But she couldn’t get anyone in officialdom to look at them. Now classified as an illegal immigrant, she could no longer work or claim benefits and had been left destitute, supported only by her daughter. With her mother and grandparents dead, she was to be sent to a country where she knew no one.
An urgent intervention from Wilson’s member of Parliament, who had been lobbying on her behalf for some time, combined with inquiries from the media prompted a last-minute reprieve—with “her case forwarded for further investigation and consideration.” Amelia Gentleman, the Guardian journalist who reported on Wilson’s ordeal, was at a loss to account for why Wilson had been singled out this way. But once her story was published, many others who had arrived in Britain as children, mostly from the Caribbean in the 1950s and 1960s, came forward. They too had found themselves deprived of their rights because they could not prove—with the “correct” paperwork—that they were what they had long been: British.
There was the “chambermaid at the Ritz forced out from Britain after fifty-three years here,” explains Gentleman in her book The Windrush Betrayal (2019),
a special needs teaching assistant sacked from his job…an ambulance driver made homeless…a car mechanic denied cancer treatment [and] a man whose children took him to Jamaica for a fiftieth birthday surprise holiday, who wasn’t allowed to travel back to Britain for almost two years.
Around 12,500 people were caught in the snare, the legacy of a 1971 immigration act coupled with a new “hostile environment” immigration policy introduced by former prime minister Theresa May in 2012, when she was home secretary. The result was that those who had come to Britain as children before 1973 could now be branded illegal immigrants unless they could provide documentary evidence for every year they had been in the country since 1973. Wilson’s case was not, it turned out, a glitch in the system; it was the system.
After a protracted period of government stonewalling, Gentleman’s reporting finally broke through, forcing the resignation of a government minister, an inquiry, a compensation scheme, and an all-too-slow recognition of citizenship. The affair became known as the Windrush Scandal, after the ship that anchored at Tilbury, east of London, on June 21, 1948, carrying hundreds of immigrants from the Caribbean and elsewhere—the first of a wave of migration that lasted until the early 1960s, and a moment that later came to symbolize the commencement of postwar colonial immigration. Wilson died on July 23, 2020, only partly recompensed for her trauma. Her daughter hailed her as “a fighter”; a family friend said her spirit had been “broken” by her mistreatment.
“About fifty years from now,” wrote the pioneering sociologist Ruth Glass in her 1960 book, London’s Newcomers,
future historians…writing about Europe in the nineteen fifties and sixties will presumably devote a chapter to the coloured minority group in this country. They will say that although this group was small, it was an important, indeed an essential one. For its arrival and growth gave British society an opportunity of recognising its own blind spots, and also of looking beyond its own nose to a widening horizon of human integrity.
Steve McQueen’s film series Small Axe, five extended vignettes showcasing Caribbean life in London from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, offers a revealing portrayal of how this small, essential group fought to prevent British society from squandering that opportunity. Small Axe spans a period that was formative not only for Black Britain but for McQueen himself. In the films, McQueen, who was born in London in 1969 to parents from Grenada and Trinidad, explores themes that shaped the world he grew up in, but that he has not focused much on in his work until recently.
In 2019 London’s Tate Britain gallery mounted an exhibition of “Year 3,” McQueen’s photography project that featured class portraits of almost two thirds of the city’s second graders, all taken from the same distance, in classical style. Before the opening, I asked him why he had chosen to capture that moment in a child’s life. “It’s a limbo,” he told me. “It’s the first time these things are being introduced to them like race, class, and gender. How do they grapple with that? I don’t know.” McQueen was entering this new stage of consciousness as the material he draws on for Small Axe was unfolding.
McQueen shot to prominence as a visual artist when he won the Turner Prize in 1999 for a collection of short video works. The judges praised him for the “poetry and clarity of his vision, the range of his work, its emotional intensity and economy of means.” It was almost a decade before those skills reached the big screen with Hunger (2008), about the Irish Republican Army’s hunger strike of 1981, which won the Caméra d’Or, the award for first-time directors, at Cannes. Five years later came the Academy Award–winning 12 Years a Slave. His other work, ranging from a heist movie (Widows, 2018) to a Kanye West music video, speaks to both his versatility and his industriousness.
His first retrospective since he won the Turner Prize opened at the Tate Modern last year to great acclaim. It included work from throughout his career: memorable pieces like Western Deep, part of a film installation that offers the sensory assault of a simulated descent into the world’s deepest gold mine, and 7th Nov., 2001, the projection of a single photograph of the crown of a scarred scalp accompanied by audio of McQueen’s cousin telling the story of the day he accidentally shot and killed his own brother. Most of his art in some way centers on themes of endurance, for both his subjects and the viewer.
McQueen’s work is often pointedly interested in questions of race and resistance, so we should not be surprised that he has now turned his lens to matters closer to home. While over the last two decades he has settled in Amsterdam, London is still more than just the city where he grew up. “I need this city because it’s given me so much,” he told me. “It’s given me my belief system. It’s given me my viewpoint on life.” That this new focus on London would come in the immediate aftermath of huge antiracist demonstrations and calls to decolonize the British curricula from primary schools to universities, and with the Windrush Scandal still fresh in public memory, was a halfway fortunate coincidence.
In 1968, the same year that Wilson arrived in Britain, a Conservative MP, Enoch Powell, delivered what came to be known as his “Rivers of Blood” speech, arguably the most incendiary speech ever given by a senior British politician. “As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding,” he proclaimed. “Like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood.’” The bloodletting he foretold was, in effect, that of a race war. Witnessing the arrival of migrants from Britain’s former colonies in the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia was, Powell claimed, “like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre.” Referring to the town of Wolverhampton, his constituency in the West Midlands where Wilson eventually settled, he said:
It almost passes belief that at this moment twenty or thirty additional immigrant children are arriving from overseas in Wolverhampton alone every week…. Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.
This was also the year Frank Crichlow opened the Mangrove, a Caribbean restaurant in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood that became a meeting place for Black intellectuals and activists and, as a consequence, the focus for persistent police harassment on the unfounded grounds of drug-dealing. On August 9, 1970, following constant police raids, 150 demonstrators marched to the local police station in a protest that ended in violence and several arrests. Nine protesters, including Crichlow, were arrested and tried for incitement to riot. The case was initially thrown out, only to be reinstated by a higher judicial authority, resulting in a charged political trial that saw all the accused cleared of the most serious charges. The struggle to defend the restaurant provides the material for Mangrove, the first film in Small Axe.
The second film in the series, Lovers Rock, covers one sweat-drenched night at a dance party in a private house in West London, featuring a music genre (lover’s rock) that emerged out of London’s reggae scene. With hints of menace both outside the party (from white racists) and within it (from sexual assault), this is a slow, atmospheric, and sensual night made possible by small-scale entrepreneurship (a fifty-pence entry fee plus home-cooked Caribbean food for sale). What little narrative there is in this film primarily revolves around a romantic encounter between the two leads, Martha and Franklyn, which ends with a lingering kiss at a bus stop before Martha catches the early bus home in time to climb up a drainpipe and slip into bed fully clothed, soon to be called downstairs to go to church.
The third film, Red, White and Blue, follows the true story of Leroy Logan—at one time literally the poster boy for the London police force in ads aiming to recruit more “coloured” officers—as he navigates the institutional racism and personal animus of his white colleagues. Logan, whose real-life counterpart recently published a memoir, Closing Ranks, believes “someone’s got to be the bridge” between fellow officers who warn him, “out there it’s us and them” and a Black community that, as a result, does not trust the police. As his colleagues abuse, obstruct, and abandon him, and as his father, Kenneth, pursues a grievance case against the police who beat him up during a traffic stop, Logan wrestles with the realization that he may be building a bridge to nowhere.
The fourth film, Alex Wheatle, traces the troubled early years of the eponymous young man, who grew up to be a successful young-adult fiction writer—from the time of his release from the foster care system, through a process of self-discovery and personal development (in which he learns basic grooming skills and how to walk with swagger) and on to petty crime. Abandoned first by his parents, then by his negligent foster carers, and raised in a state institution near London, Wheatle keeps being confronted by the question “Who are you?” and drawing a blank. (When a barber insists that Wheatle is African, he replies, “I might be Black, but I’m from Surrey.”) His involvement in the 1981 uprisings in Brixton, South London, leads to a term in prison, where his Rastafarian cellmate, Simeon, lends intellectual heft to the nascent social and political consciousness he acquired on the streets.
The last film, Education, is based on a 1971 report by Bernard Coard, a Grenadian political activist who had worked as a school teacher in South London. Titled How the West Indian Child Is Made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System, the report detailed the institutional exclusion of Black children by Britain’s schools at the time. It sold out its original print run of 10,000 copies.
Education deals with one family’s efforts to secure a decent and appropriate education for their son, Kingsley, who has poor reading skills and gets mixed up in some minor tomfoolery at school, resulting in his being shunted into an establishment for the “educationally subnormal,” or ESN. “I am the messenger of good news here, Mrs. Smith,” the head teacher blithely tells Kingsley’s mother, Agnes, before insisting to Kingsley, “This is a great opportunity for you, young man.”
Naturally, it is anything but. Before long, a group of dedicated antiracist educators reaches out to Agnes to warn her, persuading her that Kingsley is one of many Black children discriminated against and marginalized within the education system, and explaining how this will affect his life chances. They assist her in both challenging his exclusion from a regular school and joining with other parents who face similar situations. Kingsley goes on to attend a Saturday morning supplementary school, a volunteer effort run by Black educators, and gains confidence and skills in this more affirming setting.
The five component parts of Small Axe are uneven. In length, to begin with, Education, the shortest, lasts an hour, while the longest, Mangrove, is twice that. Their genres are also diverse: I would consider two biographical, two thematic, and one atmospheric. All have their merits, but Mangrove, Lovers Rock, and Red, White and Blue stand out as the strongest. Each part can be watched individually as an engaging drama, complete with a reggae and ska soundtrack, though for a full appreciation they are far better understood as a series. The themes overlap and intertwine.
In Mangrove, we encounter the celebrated Trinidadian Marxist intellectual C.L.R. James, only later to note that his essential book about the Haitian slave uprising, Black Jacobins, is recommended to Alex Wheatle by Simeon. Also in Mangrove, we hear Darcus Howe—in real life, James’s nephew and a leader of the British Black Panthers, a group name-checked in Alex Wheatle—suggest that Black Jacobins should be on England’s high school curriculum, anticipating the critique in Education of the lack of Black history texts in schools. In similar fashion, in Red, White and Blue we get an inside look at the police racism and institutional culture that make the raids on the Mangrove restaurant possible and Wheatle’s eventual arrest inevitable.
Throughout the series (with the exception of Lovers Rock), we see Black people stymied again and again not by codified, official racism, but by a web of processes, cultures, prejudices, and policies that stack the odds against them. The obstacles they face offer plausible deniability to a British society that prides itself on fair play even as its outcomes suggest otherwise. “The police in cahoots with the council, the council with the damn judge, the judge with the police,” says Crichlow in Mangrove. “The best we can fight for is a draw,” the reluctant community leader says later, as he contemplates taking a plea bargain. “Da system rig[ged].”
Small Axe presents us not only with a comprehensive picture of how British racism evolved during the post-Powell era, but also with a sense of how widespread resistance and resilience in the face of that oppression cleared space for Black Britons to thrive and reinvent themselves. Lovers Rock is crucial in this regard for its demonstration that, while racism may have shaped Black peoples’ lives, it never defined them.
Most of the films offer hope without descending into schmaltz or uplift propaganda. Mangrove closes with a party celebrating the acquittal. In Red, White and Blue, Logan’s travails on the police force appear chronic, but the tension between him and his father, who vehemently opposed his joining the force, abates over a glass of rum. Recalling his mother’s words, Kenneth tells Leroy: “The world just move forward. Always do. Big change. That is a slow-turning wheel.”
The series is also held together by McQueen’s cinematic style. The long, lingering shots—of a colander knocked to the floor in a police raid in Mangrove; of the whole party rapturously singing “Silly Games” in Lovers Rock; of Wheatle restrained by teachers on the gymnasium floor—all speak of a director disinclined to trade an auteurial aesthetic for pace.
McQueen’s focus is narrow in one sense, for the Caribbean experience in London cannot serve as a proxy for all Black life in Britain. Liverpool, a port city, has an older Black community. And while Caribbeans dominated Black life when the films were set, today only a third of Black Londoners describe themselves as Caribbean, while around 40 percent of Black Britons live outside the capital. Nonetheless, as a lens through which to view Black British life, that experience remains essential. Small Axe covers a demographic turning point, from when most Black people in Britain were born abroad, albeit in places often still subject to the British Empire, to when the majority were born in the UK.
Like McQueen, who is just nine months younger, I am one of the latter. My mother came to Britain from Barbados in 1962 to work in the National Health Service, which was undergoing fundamental restructuring by Minister for Health Enoch Powell. She arrived with a British passport, since Barbados did not gain independence for another four years.
Growing up in the 1970s, when the far right was on the rise and The Black and White Minstrel Show was screened on the BBC in prime time, I never described myself as British. It simply didn’t feel like there was space; many people made it clear that, whatever your accent, address, place of birth, or acculturation, people like me didn’t fit. Some just told you to go back where you came from. Others would remark on the cold weather and say, “I bet it’s not like this where you come from.” There were those who insisted you were as British as them—and even though I knew they were trying to be friendly, I also knew that was not quite true either.
And then there was my mother, who with the pride that comes from being an immigrant and the fear that comes from being a Black parent, was not quite ready to surrender me to the mother country. There was a map of Barbados on our living room wall and a broken-trident flag on our door. “You can do what you want out there, but step into this house and you’re in Barbados,” she’d insist.
The dislocation between race and place, between the color of my skin and the crest on my passport, challenged me for most of my adolescence. I flew a flag of inconvenience. The answer I gave to the simple question “Where are you from?” depended as much on what I thought the motivation for the question was as on my perceived interests at any given moment.
I grew up not in London but in Stevenage, a satellite new town thirty miles away with very few Black people. London was where my mother went to meet friends, get her hair done, and buy Caribbean produce she couldn’t get in Stevenage. It was also where she helped set up a Saturday school exactly like the one in Education. For me, it was a place where the Black people seemed impossibly self-confident, resilient, and semi-autonomous—they were at the sharp end of British racism, but they also formed a critical mass that could provide support and community. It was only when I stopped trying to reconcile my racial and national identities and realized that they were not in fact in conflict—that you could be Black and British and need not submit to the definition of others—that an ease of presence could take hold.
With hindsight it became clear that this journey was not unique to me. In time a particular, hybrid, cosmopolitan Black British identity emerged that borrowed and integrated a variety of influences from what one of its most prominent intellectual voices, Paul Gilroy, the founding director of the Centre for the Study of Race and Racism at University College London, has called “the Black Atlantic.” (Gilroy was a consultant for the series.) Through the sweep of Small Axe, we see that identity in the making but not yet quite made.
In Lovers Rock, Martha is British-born and Franklyn is not. “Where ya people dem come from?” he asks. When she tells him, he laughs. “Country gal.”
“Not me,” she says. “Born right here so.”
But it is beginning to become so. We see this tension play out explicitly only once, in one of many arguments between lovers, British-born Beese and Trinidad-born Howe. “You grew up in a society where Black people were the majority,” Beese tells him. “I grew up in a society where I was the minority. From day one I was judged too negroid to be adopted.”
Elsewhere we see the flat London vowels of London children engage with the Caribbean lilt of their parents, while teens and young adults develop their own patois, borrowing and blending from across the ocean. In Red, White and Blue, Leroy wants his father, who is learning to strategically navigate British racism, to take the settlement offered by the police, while his father wants the British legal system to live up to its promise.
“What d’you say dad?” asks Leroy, wearing his police uniform in the court corridor. “Playing a long game? It’s not ideal but it’s better than nothing.”
His dad replies, “I wan’ my day in court. That’s what dey promise right? In this country? Your day?”
When Crichlow asks the activist and his fellow defendant Althea Jones-LeCointe in Mangrove why they should continue fighting a system that is so clearly rigged against them, she replies, “For my unborn child.” It would be the task of those children, for whom Britain would be the only country they ever really knew, to find a way to belong and fight for the right to thrive.
That, in no small part, is why the Windrush Scandal, in which the government sought so cavalierly to eject that small cohort of Black Britons who straddled the two camps (born in the Caribbean but raised from childhood in Britain), struck so deeply. It revealed that the length of time you had been in the country, the amount you had contributed, the life you had made, the taxes you had paid, the children you had borne or fathered, and the relationships you had built could still count for nothing against an intransigent, racist bureaucracy. When Amelia Gentleman asked Paulette Wilson if she felt British, Wilson replied, “I don’t feel British. I am British. I’ve been raised here, all I know is Britain. What the hell can I call myself except British? I’m still angry that I have to prove it.”
In his closing address to the court in Mangrove, Darcus Howe says, “This case has opened issues which are likely to decide the shape and future of British society…. It has seared the Black consciousness to an extent that the history of Britain cannot be written without it.” The first point is debatable. It certainly wasn’t the last time that Black people (and the Irish, as the IRA bombing campaign escalated in England) would find themselves in court on fabricated charges for political reasons. Indeed, many spent several years in jail before being exonerated. The second, regarding British history, is not.
The dominant interpretation of British history—complete with kings, queens, battles, revolts, and parliamentary business—has managed, with the characteristic ease of a compulsive amnesiac, to exclude stories like those of the Mangrove restaurant, Officer Logan, and the racial composition of the ESN schools. “We look to history for warm baths to feel comfortable about our past,” the professor and journalist David Olusoga, my colleague at the University of Manchester, told Gentleman for her book. “Facts struggle when they are up against myths that are so potent.”
The power of Small Axe is that it stands as proposer, seconder, and resounding voice vote for the inclusion of stories, events, and experiences too long absent from the record of British history. It presents Black Britons not as objects but as protagonists, not as heroes but as humans. It depicts Britain as a nation that is deeply flawed but also capable of improvement—although the heavy lifting for those improvements will fall on the backs of those most in need of them.
Bringing the recent past to life is a prerequisite for addressing our troubled present. Black people still feel a significant degree of alienation and of skepticism about how much has really changed. Last year a YouGov poll revealed that two thirds of Black Britons believed there was still “a great deal” of racism around—only a slightly smaller proportion than the three quarters who felt this was true thirty years ago. It’s not difficult to see why. Half of those surveyed said their career development had been affected by racism and that they had experienced racial abuse at work. And nearly four decades after Leroy Logan joined the London police force, 69 percent of these Black respondents said they believed it to be institutionally racist.
Their skepticism is grounded in a gruesome reality. Even today, children of Caribbean descent are almost three times more likely than white children to be excluded from school. Black people are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched by police, and three times more likely to be arrested than white people.
At the end of March, the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, set up by the government after last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, published a report claiming that Britain is not blighted by structural racism but is, in fact, a model to other majority-white countries. McQueen’s films tell a different and far more convincing story that helps us to understand current inequalities not as separate, individual strands but as the warp and weft of British society; it will take considerable effort to unpick them.
Last fall, the independent report published by the Home Office, Windrush Lessons Learned Review, recommended that all its civil servants be taught about Britain’s colonial history, the history of inward and outward migration, and the history of Black Britons. One senior official told its author, Wendy Williams:
One of the notable things…about when Windrush broke was [that] we all had to go and educate ourselves…. No one knew…about British colonies that got independence and what happened to people from those colonies…all of that was thirty, forty years ago. Well, it’s still live—it still matters but nobody had thought about that for a very long period of time.
The series draws its name from Bob Marley’s “Small Axe”: “If you are the big tree/We are the small axe/Ready to cut you down.” Viewed together, the films in McQueen’s series provide a useful blade to hack away at the stubborn roots of Britain’s selective ignorance and Black Britain’s sense of erasure. It’s a pity Paulette Wilson never lived to see it.