Director Steve McQueen On How Anti-Black Racism Fueled “Small Axe”
Exclusive: The award-winning filmmaker’s father narrowly avoided a lynching in the United States and other untold Black Briton stories
Progress is a slow turning wheel and Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen celebrates the victories and the pain it took to get to where we are in a five-part film anthology called Small Axe, airing now on Amazon Prime. Borrowing a name from a Bob Marley song that speaks of a big tree cut down by the constant chipping of a small axe, the film posits that Britain’s West Indian (Caribbean) community is the axe. White Britain is the tree.
McQueen’s series masterfully documents systemic oppression and the London community’s stunning resistance during the 1960s and 1980s. McQueen, who has Grenadian roots, takes the audience on a journey through the complex social and political landscape of his hometown but also shares with us the rituals of language, food, music, and dance that made his community’s survival both glorious, and possible. The films release weekly. McQueen talked to Momentum about his ideas behind the anthology and the importance of visiting Black British history and systemic oppression on both sides of the pond.
Momentum: You are clearly inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States. Where do you see yourself in that struggle?
McQueen: We don’t have to climb Mount Everest. It’s just about being healthy; mentally and spiritually. That’s a victory as far as I’m concerned. Black people, we deal with so many extremes. When we watch TV and see a Black man beaten up or a Black woman dragged across the floor, it affects us even though we try and block it out; it affects our mental health.
How do you recover from this trauma?
Prayer. Meditation. Go for a walk. Have that five minutes to yourself because we carry a lot of weight. I’ve done meditation. I’ve had a therapist, but you have to find the right one.
There’s been so much blood lost. One of the Mangrove 9 went to jail on trumped-up charges. The cost of [Black liberation] is so great and it’s painful.
Of course it’s painful. There’s no other way unfortunately. That’s it. That’s the nature of the beast. Of course they’re painful, there are lots of things that have happened to me as an individual, there are lots of things that have happened to you as an individual. There are lots of ways that we have to come to terms with it and deal with it. No one comes out unscathed, but the fact of the matter is that it’s a battle worth fighting for.
This film series brings full circle all the unspoken things our elders rarely tell us about scary racial experiences. What would you say to your father if you had a chance to talk to him one last time?
My father went to Florida (from Grenada) in the 1950s to pick oranges. In breach of the compound rules, he leaves with two Jamaican guys and they head to town to a local bar. One of the guys says, “I’d like to have a drink.” and the bar man says: “We don’t sell to niggers here.” So one of the Jamaican guys says ‘Okay, we’ll serve ourselves.’ So, he picks up a bottle and smashes it over the bar man’s head and then all three of them run out. And then they run, run and run and there were dogs behind them. In the dark and they were running, and my dad jumps into a ditch and he hears a BANG! Then BANG! And he was hiding in the ditch and he said he was there for hours and slowly but surely, he gets up and makes his way back to the compound and he never saw those two guys ever again. He only told me that toward the end of his life and I know he had been carrying that with him all of this [time]. He knew how precarious his (Black) life was and what could have happened and that’s why he was so careful with me and my sister. I would tell him I understand, and I love him.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.