Filmmaker of the Year Steve McQueen: “All We Have Is Our Morality and Our Sense of Justice”

Small Axe Anthology director opens up about cultivating resilience in a year of heartache

Filmmaker of the Year Steve McQueen: "All We Have Is Our Morality and Our Sense of Justice"*
Filmmaker of the Year Steve McQueen

Our Annual Report continues this week with the announcement of Steven McQueen as our Filmmaker of the Year. Stay tuned for more awards, lists, and articles in the days and weeks to come about the best music, film, and TV of the year. If you’ve missed any part of our Annual Report, you can check out all the coverage here

It’s November 5th, two days after Election Night 2020, and Steve McQueen and I look no worse for wear. Even through the Zoom screen, yet another way the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way film journalists do business, we understand that other, urgently important things are going on. It’s the middle of a hellish week where the world would collectively gnaw on its fingernails hoping for someone, anyone, to declare the next president of the United States. (Besides the guy trying to steal it, of course.)

But even amid the strain and trauma of that week, just one of 52 that would offer no small amount of pain to everyone this year, there was still cause for celebration. While theaters are closed and the fate of mainstream moviemaking lies in a precarious limbo, McQueen’s latest works — the five-part anthology Small Axe — came right into people’s homes through Amazon Prime Video, offering both a much-needed balm and a cathartic confrontation of the demons we’ve all faced this year.

A thoughtful, elegantly-crafted series of stories set in and around London’s West Indies immigrant populations throughout the 1960s and 1980s, Small Axe chronicles real-life tales both personal and historical of Black joy, success and resilience through harsh times. From the undulating rhythms and yearning tactile sensations of Lovers Rock to the riveting courtroom drama of Mangrove, McQueen’s films (and they are films, no doubt about it) hone in on the unique struggles Afro-Caribbean neighborhoods in Britain faced during these tumultuous times, which inevitably rippled out to a 2020 where a resurgent protest movement for Black lives puts these issues at the forefront of our culture.

The title comes from a Jamaican proverb — “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe.” It’s a call to arms and a cry for solidarity all in one: in the face of systemic pain and oppression, a unified people can rise up and topple the mightiest forces. Whether that takes the form of massive protests in the streets, or the simple escape of an intimate house party, every expression of power and liberty is an act of revolution.

And so it went that, in the middle of Election Week, McQueen and Consequence sat down to reflect on the year that was, how his incredible series of five films ended up speaking to their moment, and the importance of finding love, joy, and hope in times of heartbreaking challenges.

On Sharpening his Small Axe

How long had Small Axe been ruminating as a project? What made you want to focus on the specific environment of London’s West Indies communities in the ‘60s-’80s?

The development happened over 11 years since I first had contact with the BBC about it basically straight after Hunger. And it’s just taken a while because, to be honest with you, I had to get to know myself a bit. I just wasn’t matured, I wasn’t ready yet. I couldn’t live in that kind of world without having the experience I have now. And even then, I was still unsure — I think you need to get a real perspective on things that are too close to you. It’s like seeing your parents when you’re a fresh-faced teenager, then seeing them when you’re 50 years old. I just needed that difference in perspective and time before I undertook this project.

It was originally planned as a TV series, but it became a series of movies. Where does it sit for you? Do you consider Small Axe to be a TV series or a movie anthology?

They’re feature films, whether they’re on television or streaming. And that’s what the intention and ambition were — I felt that these stories needed that kind of platform and wanted to execute them as such. To have the sort of end result where you have two films at Cannes, and three at a film festival in London, and, of course, Rome too. It was a blessing, it was a wonderful pat on the back for the films and the effort we put in, through all the artists who are involved. And the fact that we’re putting them on streaming services, BBC, and Amazon? I don’t notice, really, to be honest.

We’re obviously missing the theatrical experience right now. Do you feel these translate well to television? Is there a greater sense of accessibility that comes from them being able to be seen by such a wide audience so excessively?

That’s it, really. Look at the New York Film Festival, where we could show these on their streaming platform as well as drive-ins, there’s great accessibility to that. Millions of people saw them, which is pretty amazing.

Look, I first saw the films I fell in love with on television. I was very lucky to have a situation in Britain in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, where we had a lot of great, proper cinemas that showed classic movies on film. I had the best of both worlds.

So to me, right now, of course with this unfortunate situation we find ourselves in, I just really want people to see the movies. Obviously, it’d be great for them to be in the cinema, but in whatever way possible.

Mangrove (Small Axe) (NYFF 58)

Mangrove (Amazon Prime Video)

You mentioned finding the right collaborators and artists for this. What about working with screenwriters Corttia Newland and Alastair Siddons on this? Where did you find them, and what was your experience with them?

I did think Small Axe would be sort of a TV series in a way. First of all, I thought it could be one family over a series of decades. Then I discovered I wanted to work on the Mangrove Trial, which had to be unique. So I knew I needed to make this a series of stories, individual true stories as well as stories which I experienced. So Mangrove was one, I had one about my aunt going to a blues party, and the last one being Education, which was outside of the writers’ room process because it was based on me and my own experience.

Our writers’ room worked, in some ways, like an audition for the writers I actually wanted to work with. Because in the end, I didn’t want to go down that road. And what came out of it for me were, obviously, Alastair Siddons and Courttia Newland, as well as Alex Wheatle, who was one of the writers in the room. It’s quite strange because everyone was emptying their handbags on the table so to speak: Alex told his story, and I thought, Why don’t you tell your story? And that was it.

He was an amazing writer for us, not just in that we loved to see his story, but as a consultant for the rest — he was another person who was fully conscious in those times. We were all kids at that time.

There’s Lovers Rock too, which isn’t based on a true story per se, but the blues parties of the ‘60s and ‘80s. What was your frame of reference for that story, specifically?

That was about my aunt when I was living with her. I remember my uncle holding the back door open for her to go to these parties; in fact, Corttia Newland used to hold blues parties in her house at that particular period. I remember also going on one occasion and being left on the bed because I was [my aunt’s] scapegoat, just sitting on the piles of coats so she could go off to the blues.

But also, I didn’t participate in blues in the ‘80s; it was a different kind of period. So it was all about the detail, really. I think it was just me combining and sharing our memories of those days. For me, going back in time wasn’t so much about the sounds, but because things smelled different than they do now. People heated their homes differently, they used more fire, there were more diesel cars on the street, the food — those things brought so much stuff into my visual memory.

That’s what you see in Lovers Rock, but it was mainly about Cinderella stories about my aunt. Because in the morning, she still had to go to church; the carriage turned back into a pumpkin and the horses turned back into mice.

Steve McQueen's Lovers Rock Is Joyfully Intoxicating: Review

Lovers Rock (Amazon Prime)

You mentioned capturing the smell of an environment, which is obviously, outside of, like, Smell-O-Vision, not something that’s really been tried before…

Oh, what’s that John Waters picture with Divine? Polyester!

Yeah, I’ve got the Blu-ray with the [Odorama] smell card. [Laughs.] But when it came time to finding the tactile elements of the costumes and production design, how did you come close to conveying that smell on screen?

What’s interesting about texture is that, when you see something that has texture, or plastic covering a couch, those things resonate. When we debuted Lovers Rock at New York Film Festival, it was a celebration of all the senses in a way.

Because, of course, the coronavirus has deprived people of these pleasantries — the smell of the food, of the substances being smoked, the sound of the music, the taste of the film, the touch of the skin, the sensuality and sexuality.

It was a real celebration of this reverberating perfume through the audience. When people are deprived of things, those experiences are much more heightened. And that’s what captivated people’s imagination on this.

There’s such a yearning for a sense of community and touch and texture right now that we’re all missing, which bears out in that “Silly Games” scene. Talk about the vibe on that day; as I understand it, the a capella section materialized from thin air.

To be honest with you, I wanted it, but you can’t push that. You play the music, you hear people singing, and you say, “Turn it off.” You hear that, and you encourage it. You fan the flames. This is one of those things that couldn’t happen without that environment.

We had an amazing choreographer, Coral Messam, with practical ways to have men dance with women at these parties. I remember as a child, being of a certain height, that the men approached the women and their arm would move down their forearm to the wrist. The woman would catch your hand, and if they did, they wanted to dance with you. If not, you had to seek pleasure with someone else somewhere.

Steve McQueen's Lovers Rock Is Joyfully Intoxicating: Review

Lovers Rock (Amazon Prime)

So the ritual of that, and the whole idea of people who look similar to each other — and the fact that the director was Black, the DP was Black, there was a safe space for the first time where they could play themselves. And there’s a level of discipline, too, because they’re in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, not that they have to stay within a frame of reference. But also within those limitations, there was so much freedom. So, it got to a point where that probably would have happened whether the camera was there or not.

At a certain point, Shabier Kirchner, the DP, and I became invitees; we were invited into that space. There was a spirituality in the room that was just beautiful. It just happened, it took over; we were witnesses to it. What was happening in front of the camera was happening behind the camera, because Shabier was in it, immersed with what was going on. It was spiritual. And when you get to the “Kunta Kinte” track at the end of the dance, we were just done.

What was it like finding Shabier and working with him on this? This is the first time you didn’t work with your usual DP, Sean Bobbitt.

It’s like when The Rolling Stones replaced Brian Jones with Mick Taylor. Bringing in someone new is always difficult, but I was just so grateful to meet Shabier. I thought, Oh, this is an interesting guy. One thing that’s amazing about Shabier is that, as well as lighting, he has some of the best hands I’ve ever seen. He’s a skater, and he’s actually a citizen sailor, so his sense of balance is unparalleled. In that dance, in the riots, in the uprising in Brixton or the demonstration in Mangrove, he’s in the middle of the fray.

Then there’s Mangrove, which is much more based on true events and takes the form of a big courtroom drama — this feeling of community around this one guy, Frank Crichlow, who seems a reluctant figure in this whole movement. What was it like crafting that story?

There was a man called Frank Crichlow, who opened a cafe for the local community to feel home away from home. It’s almost like a Western — this guy, Frank, had some problems in the past but was on the straight and narrow now. But there was a big bad sheriff who would not let him forget, who was always on his tail.

So, it starts as a bit of a soap opera, then turns into Ben-Hur. We go all the way up to the Old Bailey, the highest and oldest court in the land, which was only ever used for serious crimes and treason. Then you have a shop owner being put up for rioting and affray.

Mangrove (Small Axe) (NYFF 58)

Mangrove (Amazon Prime Video)

The intimidation was such that the authorities — this goes all the way to the top, not just police — didn’t want a Black foothold in the UK. They were afraid of a cafe where intellectuals, as well as locals and the hoi polloi, congregated! This tells you how much they were scared of what could happen with people who had ideas.

To prepare for this film, I had to go to the source: a man just wanting to create a space for his local community, but whose liberties, and the liberties of those after him, were threatened.

Read ahead to hear McQueen reflect on the tumultuous year…

On How His Films Meet The Moment

Mangrove (Small Axe, NYFF 58)

Mangrove (Amazon Prime Video)

I sometimes bristle at the word ‘timely’, especially in a year where we are more focused than ever on the way Black communities are policed. What was it like seeing the renewed resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police, and these movies crystallizing those issues?

Well, it was heavy. You know, obviously, I would rather he be alive today. Hopefully, he didn’t die in vain. It’s just one of those things where I’d rather not be here talking to you about the sort of situation we’re in right now with regards to these films.

But this is what the films are about because it keeps going on and going on. These movies aren’t about the past, and not about the present. They’re about the future. These are sci-fi movies, in a way, because it marks where we were, how far we’ve come, and where we need to go.

It’s like Angela says in Mangrove, “It’s about my unborn child.” And it’s our duty to pave the way for them.

What strikes me about your stories is that you’re attracted to tales of resilience — people enduring and spreading their message, remaining true to themselves through incredible circumstances. The Small Axe films are, to a certain extent, success stories. The Mangrove trial was a turning point, Lovers Rock is a celebration. Was it a deliberate choice to tell these stories that don’t often get told in a landscape even when Black filmmakers are getting more opportunities?

Absolutely. Mangrove was an exception, you know. They tried the highest court in the land and were found “not guilty.” That was a real victory because they had to take on the establishment. The day after, Rothwell Kentish [one of the Mangrove Nine] got his arm and leg broken and was put in prison for 36 months on trumped-up charges. But people still marched on. So yes, these stories are about resilience. Because, to be honest with you, there’s no alternative.

We’re in quite an emotional state right now, but in some ways, there’s real hope. Because all we have is our morality and our sense of justice. What else do we have, honestly, right? We can march on proudly — there are no ifs, ands, or buts, we must pursue that. We can’t take our foot off the gas. We have to make people accountable.

I often ask myself, “What’s it all about?” And one day, my wife, and it sounds ridiculous, but she just told me, “Love.” And I went, “Oh, yeah.” It might be silly, but that’s worth living for.

Steve McQueen's Red, White and Blue Doesn't Give Easy Answers on Police Brutality: Review

Red, White and Blue (Amazon Prime)

This brings me to Red, White, and Blue, which has such an interesting story behind it, and you have John Boyega in the lead. What was it like working with him specifically, and finding ways to calibrate his star power post-Star Wars?

It’s interesting because I think Leroy Logan’s story parallels John’s own story. Both are seen as poster boys, you know, the golden boys in their field. Leroy’s told, “Would you be a poster boy? You’re amazing, we want to show you as an example to others of the police force.” John is given this amazing opportunity in the biggest franchise in the world, Star Wars, basically second or third lead in those films.

We always do an amazing job, but that’s not enough. You hit a glass ceiling and end up being rejected for no reason on their own — not for not being excellent, but for being who they are. When we were making Red, White, and Blue, that was the same time John gave that speech at the Black Lives Matter protest at Hyde Park. And after that, we went back and did some extended scenes.

So it’s interesting how the situation in Hyde Park influenced the movie and intertwined his reality with his artistic life. It was heavy, but it was kind of beautiful. At the same time, he found a voice — he found his voice. He wasn’t reacting, he was doing something else.

There’s a sense of activism in both that Hyde Park speech and his turn in Red, White, and Blue that feels like a new beginning for him — a way to escape that Disney dome and stand for something. That was really cool to see.

The craziest thing is that no one told him to do that. It was amazing because a lot of people thought he would ruin his career by doing that.

Like with Leroy, there’s probably a lot of pressure not to rock the boat. And, of course, the angle of exploring the life of a Black police officer in a year where we’re having conversations about the role of police in our society. It does strike this interesting line of whether you’re complicit in participating in that system or are you representing your community?

To be honest with you, I entered the story through the relationship between Leroy and his father. I and Corttia and John all have these interesting relationships with our fathers about what we wanted to do with our lives and their feelings about that. So there’s a similar tension there.

The film talks about Black masculinity; the father wants to protect his son, and they’re knocking heads about what’s right and what’s wrong. This is a story that’s familiar with a lot of men and their fathers, and I think that’s what drew me in.

Red White and Blue Small Axe NYFF Review

Red, White and Blue (Amazon Prime)

In the beginning, I couldn’t understand why Leroy wanted to join the police, to be honest. But I came to understand Leroy more through that father-son relationship, especially that conversation at the end of the picture between the two of them.

All of that has to do with Steven [Toussaint]: when Leroy’s father tells the story of his mother saying to him, “If he’s a gravedigger with an education, then that’s what you chose to do, and I have to support that,” that came from directly from Steve’s own mother not understanding why he wanted to be an actor.

So art and life and discovering things for people were very important to me to understand who Leroy was. Without people like him, barriers wouldn’t be broken down.

There’s a line in Red, White, and Blue that really stuck with me: “Big change is a slow-turning wheel.” Do you think that’s the way forward? That we have to be resilient, we have to make whatever strides we can?

There’s no other way. I think Black people have known that for a very, very, very long time. And certain people just wait. The morning of the election of Donald Trump, after Hillary lost, a lot of people said, “What’s going on with this world?” Well, welcome to the club! Welcome to an aspect of our world.

But we have to have resilience, and that’s why hope is so important. Without that, people would have lost their minds a long time ago. It’s about that idea of “keep keeping on,” and now you understand what it means. Keep keeping on.

On Cinema As Communication, and What’s Next

 Filmmaker of the Year Steve McQueen: All We Have Is Our Morality and Our Sense of Justice

Steve McQueen

Going back to your style as a filmmaker, one thing that resonates with me is the amount of trust you put in your audiences as a cinematic communicator. You’re never strident, you almost feel allergic to exposition. You let the scenes bear out with this grace, and leave it to the audience to figure things out. How do you approach how much to tell audiences about what they’re seeing?

People love to find things out themselves. I think, once you give someone something to find out, they’re hooked. Attention heightens their alertness; it heightens everything — the idea that there may be clues we might not see. But they see, and it just draws them in. I do it for no other reason than I want people to participate in their art. I don’t want passive viewers; I want participants. I’m excited about that kind of cinema and grateful that people will respond to it in that way.

Now that this 11-year project is done, what’s next for you? Where does this anthology fall in the context of your career, given how much of a passion project it’s been for you?

Whew. I don’t really think about career business, I don’t really know. When you think of a career, career people get too carried away with “Am I going to do this next? Am I going to do that next?” I don’t know.

I’ve got one thing on my sleeve that I want to get going on, but I can’t talk to you about that. But I am doing a documentary called Occupy City, which is about Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation of 1939-1945. I’m very excited about that because that’s where I live. It’s about living with ghosts because that’s what you do in Amsterdam. It’s a 17th-century city, the buildings are all there. For example, my daughter’s school, where she used to park her bike and have a locker, and the kids would have a ruckus in the corner or whatever — that’s exactly where the SS had their interrogation center.

The fact that the living and the dead can be combined on film and filter it through this recent history and present history, is very important. It’s important because of things like Brexit, because of things we’ve talked about with this election, and so forth. We can’t forget; once you forget, things tend to repeat themselves. So it’s another extension of Small Axe for me but in another trajectory.

On How NYFF Gave Small Axe New Life in 2020

nyff Filmmaker of the Year Steve McQueen: All We Have Is Our Morality and Our Sense of Justice

Lovers Rock at NYFF 2020

Before we go, I just want to praise the New York Film Festival. What they did in persevering with that festival gave so much hope to so many people at a time when we needed that. The fact that film could be so powerful at a time when it’s being battered about a bit because of television, I was so heartened by that. And I’ve never had so many amazing responses for anything in my life, even 12 Years a Slave or anything. It gave so much light in a time of darkness.