Steve McQueen is one of our greatest modern directors. His 12 Years a Slave won the Best Picture Oscar back in 2013, and his work behind the camera on such varied flicks as Hunger, Shame, and Widows is not to be ignored, even if the man himself has never won an Oscar. So, how very 2020 of him to drop five new films all at once on Amazon Prime.
Billed as the “Small Axe” series, these five films may blur the line between television and film given their relatively short lengths – the longest of the five (Mangrove) runs 129 minutes, and the others rest comfortably within the 60-80 minute mark – but make no mistake, these are movies. They’re also works of art, each focusing on real-life experiences of London’s West Indian community set between 1969 and 1982.
Like any series of films, some of the entries are stronger than others, but all are worthy of your time. Each film was released a week at a time from late November to December 18, and it was a real pleasure to have a new McQueen film, instantly streamable in your home to look forward to every week. Here are the five Small Axe films, ranked in order of quality/preference:
(1) Red, White and Blue. This is my favorite of the bunch. Most critics seem to be fawning over Lovers Rock (more on that in a second), but I was really taken with the story and the charismatic performance by John Boyega at the center of this one. Most people probably know Boyega as Star Wars’ Finn, but there’s so much more to him as an actor than we got to see in those films. He approaches Denzel-levels of greatness here, as a rookie cop trying to bridge the racist gap between the largely white police and black citizens in the community. He finds himself being ostracized by both, even his own dad. Touching, simplistic, riveting and unfortunately still topical today. ****1/2 out of 5 stars.
(2) Lovers Rock. Runs only 68 minutes and is a largely plotless affair, focusing on a young woman finding love at a house party, but man, is it well constructed. The music, the dancing, the camerawork. That camera just glides through the dancing bodies, totally enveloping the viewer in the experience. I don’t know how McQueen and his collaborators pulled it off. Features one of the best scenes of the year when a song stops playing, but everyone at the party keeps dancing and singing along for five minutes. Intoxicating and invigorating filmmaking. **** out of 5 stars.
(3) Mangrove. I was a big fan of Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of Chicago 7, but I’ve got to hand it to McQueen – the courtroom drama depicted in Mangrove kind of puts Chicago 7 to shame. I’m also impressed by the way the film effortlessly morphs from an unjust tale of the effects of police racism on a small business struggling to get by, into the stately, weighty courtroom drama that makes up the back half. **** out of 5 stars.
(4) Education. A laser-focused look at the indignities and unfair class system that befalls some needful students. Inspiring and anything but flashy, Education succeeds by focusing on one family’s fight to get a better education for their son. While not as strong as the first three, taken on its own merits, it’s another rock solid effort. ***1/2 out of 5 stars.
(5) Alex Wheatle. The weakest of the bunch. Feels undercooked from a script perspective – rushing through its story of a young troublemaker who finds a path to healing in prison. But, it’s still well-acted and has enough keen observations in it to make it worthwhile. *** out of 5 stars.
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