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"*

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.

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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…


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