Tag Archives: Alastair Siddons

BBC FILM REVIEWS: SMALL AXE ANTHOLOGY (2020)

BBC FILM REVIEWS: ‘SMALL AXE’ ANTHOLOGY (2020)

Director by: Steve McQueen

Producers by: Anita Overland, Michael Elliot

Writers: Steve McQueen, Courtia Newland, Alastair Siddons

Composer: Mica Levi

Cinematographers: Shabier Kirchner

Original Network: BBC and available on Amazon Prime.

*** CONTAINS HISTORICAL SPOILERS ***



Small Axe could also be described in the vein of ‘Small Acts’. Dramatized and rich slices-of-life that reflect significant historical figures and events from black culture in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.  MANGROVE (2020) was the first in a set of five films devised, written and directed by Steve McQueen. It premiered at the London Film Festival in 2020, before being released on the BBC television network. I reviewed the film MANGROVE (2020) here. Such was its power, the searing drama would make my list of favourite films of 2020.

Ultra-talented McQueen was not satisfied with one amazing work. He, his incredible cast and production team also delivered four more high quality dramas called LOVERS ROCK (2020), RED WHITE & BLUE (2020), ALEX WHEATLE (2020) and EDUCATION (2020). I had the privilege of viewing these films via the BBC over the New Year period and provide short reviews here.


LOVERS ROCK (2020)

Main Cast: Micheal Ward, Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn, Kedar Williams-Stirling, Shaniqua Okwok, Ellis George, etc.

As well as alluding to the main love story within the narrative, Lovers Rock also makes specific reference to a style of reggae music with a romantic sound and content. Set over one night during a London-based birthday party, the film opens with the setting up of a sound system, making of food and preparation of the large house. While mostly an ensemble piece, the story narrows its focus on prospective lovers, Franklyn and Martha, who fall for each other amidst the thumping bass and hearty vocals of the music. Surely, Lovers Rock is a testament to the power of harmony and community and love. There are brief moments of drama to spike the party mood, but ultimately this is about the joy of being alive and drunk on song and romance. Lastly, it’s arguably as close to feelgood as McQueen’s intense filmmaking style gets in this amazing anthology.

Mark: 9.5 out of 11


LOVERS ROCK (2020)

RED, WHITE AND BLUE (2020)

Main Cast: John Boyega, Steve Toussaint, Neil Maskell, Joy Richardson, etc.

As well as evoking the socio-political landscape of the era so well, the costumes, hair, make-up and location work feel so authentic in all of the Small Axe films. Such authenticity serves the stories well, as does the virtually perfect casting too. Fresh from his energetic portrayals of Finn in the Star Wars trilogy, John Boyega’s performance as Leroy Logan in Red, White and Blue (2020), brings his character into conflict with a whole different kind of dark side. Logan was one of the first prominent black police officers in the Metropolitan police. He subsequently founded the Black Police Association and attempt to reform the police from within. No two ways around it, based on the early part of his police career, Logan is represented as a trailblazing hero. He is intelligent and tough and ready to face up to the barbaric language and violence from both white police officers and members of the black community who saw him as a traitor. Boyega is spellbinding as Logan, navigating his way up the ranks facing rancour and rejection from within the police and his own father too, who was understandably unhappy at Leroy’s controversial choice of career.

Mark: 9.5 out of 11


RED, WHITE & BLUE (2020)

ALEX WHEATLE (2020)

Main Cast: Sheyi Cole, Robbie Gee, Johann Myers, Johnathan Jules, etc.

What Steve McQueen deserves praise for with Small Axe, among many other things, is bringing to the fore individuals one may not have heard of, or reminding us of important events from within recent British history. In Alex Wheatle (2020), McQueen weaves the early years of now famous author, Alex Wheatle, with circumstances relating to the Brixton riots and the New Cross fire tragedy of 1981. The latter took the lives of fourteen young black people and fuelled much anger at the time in regard to racist attacks on the black community. Alex himself was brought up in care and grows up an angry young man. He finds solace in music and expressing lyrics in a political and combative style. We first meet him in a prison cell sharing with Rastafarian, Simeon (Robbie Gee). The fractious scenes between the two, with both Gee and Sheyi Cole giving fine performances, are full of anger and humour. Far from being a comedy, there remains both witty banter and pathos fizzing around this profile of Wheatle’s formative years. This fine profile finds a young rebel discovering his voice and identity amidst the urban decay, racism and police brutality of the mean streets of London.

Mark: 10 out of 11


ALEX WHEATLE (2020)

EDUCATION (2020)

Main Cast: Kenyah Shandy, Sharlene White, Josette Simon, Tamara Lawrence, Daniel Francis, etc.

Having addressed social and cultural issues relating to civil liberties, law, music, work and identity, Steve McQueen focussed specifically on educational themes within the black community in the aptly named, Education (2020). The highest praise I can give Education (2020) and all the films in the Small Axe anthology is that I felt genuine emotion for all of the characters and the situations they were in. They may not have been perfect and had their flaws, but ultimately all five of these narratives made me feel and care about the characters. Because they were up against an unfair system which demanded to be challenged and changed to stop the systematic prejudice of the time. Education (2020) feels extremely personal to Steve McQueen as one senses the lead character, twelve-year-old Kingsley Smith (Kenyah Sandy) experiences much of the grief he may have when younger. Considered disruptive at the local Comprehensive, Kingsley is dumped into a “Special School” where he becomes lost and ill-educated. One absurd scene simply shows a teacher playing House of the Rising Sun as part of a lesson. Kingsley’s formidable mother, with help from political forces within the black community, strive to right these educational wrongs in a powerful and moving final chapter to the Small Axe anthology.

Mark: 9.5 out of 11


BBC FILM REVIEW: MANGROVE (2020)

BBC FILM REVIEW: MANGROVE (2020)

Directed by: Steve McQueen

Produced by: Anita Overland, Michael Elliot

Screenplay by: Steve McQueen, Alastair Siddons

Cast: Letitia Wright, Shaun Parkes, Malachi Kirby, Rochenda Sandall, Nathaniel Martello-White, Richie Campbell, Alex Jennings, Jack Lowden, Darren Braithwaite, Sam Spruell, Samuel West, Llewella Gideon, Jodhi May, Gary Beadle, Jumayn Hunter, Duane Facey-Pearson, etc.

Music by: Mica Levi

Cinematography: Shabier Kirchner

Original Network: shown on the BBC as part of the Small Axe anthology

***CONTAINS HISTORICAL SPOILERS***



“So, if you are the big tree… We are the small axe… Ready to cut you down… To cut you down…” — Bob Marley song, Small Axe


You wait for a thought-provoking courtroom drama about individuals battling an oppressive legal system and end up watching two in two days. It wasn’t a specific plan to follow up my viewing of The Trial of the Chicago Seven (2020), by watching Steve McQueen’s majestic adaptation of the ‘Mangrove Nine’ narrative, but it was most certainly historically and culturally serendipitous. However, while Aaron Sorkin’s entertaining distillation of the 1968-1969 events, which occurred at the Democratic National Convention and subsequently in the U.S. courts, were delivered in an irreverent and satirical style, Steve McQueen’s approach to the systematic racism and brutality of the police force and legal battle which followed in Mangrove (2020), is treated with far more intensity and power.

Mangrove (2020) is the first in a set of five films curated, written and directed by Steve McQueen, in what has become known as the ‘Small Axe’ anthology. It premiered at the London Film Festival in 2020, before being released on the BBC television network. The aim of the ultra-talented McQueen, and his writers, cast and crew is to reflect important historical figures and events from West Indian culture in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Mangrove (2020) centres on the trial of the ‘Mangrove 9’, namely Frank Crichlow, Darcus Howe, Althea Jones-Lecointe, Barbara Beese, Rupert Boyce, Rhodan Gordon, Anthony Innis, Rothwell Kentish; and Godfrey Millett. They were seen as leaders of protests which occurred in August 1970, that resulted in battles with police on the Notting Hill streets. While original charges were thrown out by a magistrate, the then Director of Public Prosecutions decided the case should go to court in 1971.



The excellent screenplay by McQueen and his co-writer Alastair Siddons expertly establishes the era and setting of the story. Similarly, the production design perfectly captures the look of late 1960’s West London. Shaun Parkes’ portrayal of Frank Critchlow is both moving and influential in drawing the viewer into the character’s desires and culture. Critchlow opens the Mangrove Restaurant in 1968 with a longing to establish a place that serves West Indian food; and provide a meeting place within the community. Alas, due to the heavy-handed approach by the police in the area, led mercilessly by Sam Spruell’s P. C. Frank Pulley, Critchlow’s dream is left in tatters by constant raids and arrests. It is the Metropolitan Police’s belief that the Mangrove Restaurant is a hive of criminal activity and drug use. No drugs were found during these raids, thus Critchlow filed charges himself of unlawful arrest. Eventually, Critchlow, Howe, Jones-Lecointe and others became involved in marching and protesting at what they saw as clear racial prejudice by the police.

My emotions while watching the events unfold, from the clashes with police to the subsequence court case, was that it is tragic that there was such violence and division between people of the Commonwealth and the authorities. After all, West Indians were invited by the British Government to come to here in the 1950’s, to help rebuild post-war Britain. Obviously, not all British people rejected them, however, clearly there was an incredible amount of racism and abuse, here illustrated by the police’s horrific attitude in Mangrove (2020). Thus, Steve McQueen and his exceptional cast deserve all the plaudits coming their way in bringing such a vital legal case to the screens. The Mangrove 9’s case is emblematic of the horror of ignorance that has occurred in British history and that we must continue to stamp out vitriolic actions based purely on cultural difference and the colour of an individual’s skin. In representing such important events and individuals moreover, Steve McQueen has delivered one of the most powerful films of 2020.

Mark: 10 out of 11