McQueen, whose position on the racial issue did not begin to manifest itself until the appearance of his Oscar-winning film 12 Years of Slavery (2013), devises three arguments of his own and is inspired by two real characters to draw this fresco in which the idea of the community as resistance, education, the attempt to eradicate from within the police the prevailing racism in the body, the manipulation of the judiciary and, especially, the Jamaican musical culture as identity and awareness.
Before 12 years of slavery, McQueen had made two camera films with white characters, both played by Michael Fassbender, Hunger (2008), about an IRA member who leads a hunger strike in prison, and Shame (2011), centered on the self-destructive sex life of a New Yorker. After his plea against racism and slavery, his work has taken a thematic turn: Viudas (2018) adapted a British television miniseries from the 80s to the Chicago racial confrontation, and the five installments of Small ax – the last one, broadcast last Thursday on Movistar + – portrays the hard life of the population of Caribbean origin in a post-swinging London and in the Thatcher era.
The music is fundamental in the second chapter, Lovers rock, which is the name by which the most romantic variant of reggae music is known. The title of Small ax is taken from a 1973 Bob Marley & The Wailers song, in which whites are equated with a thick tree and blacks with a small but very sharp ax in order to cut it.
Epifánico sound system
The Lovers rocks action takes place in a house, around 1979 or 1980, in which a massive party is held on Saturday night, when young blacks had difficult access to white discotheques. There, the sound system made up of disc jockeys and sound technicians who create the atmosphere between hedonistic and erotic with reggae, dub, rock steady and disco themes that McQueen films with great precision, takes on special importance.
Dance, innuendo, sweat, courtship, seduction, pure expression of bodies vibrating with the music, from the hit disco of the era Kung fu fightin, by Carl Douglas, to He’s the greatest dancer, by Sister Sledge, until reaching the authentic epiphany by Silly games, by Janet Kay, danced by the protagonists and chanted at the end a cappella in a sublime moment. The producer of this song, Dennis Bovell, appears briefly as one of the partygoers.
In the old European episode films it was always the same: some chapters were correct, others discreet and there was one that shone with its own light and obscured the others. Something similar happens with Lovers rock. None of the other four parts of Small ax has its power of conviction, its harmony, its narrative musicality beyond being built from a musical party.
In the first, El Mangrove, and the fourth, Alex Wheatle, music also plays an important role. Mangrove is the name of a Caribbean food restaurant turned into the epicenter of the punished black community of the Notting Hill neighborhood. The action takes place between 1968 and 1969, and Jamaican music is very present in the opening minutes as an element of cultural cohesion and attachment to roots. The film then drifts towards a more conventional story -McQueen is more interesting when he films sensations than when he illustrates thesis- about the trial to which the participants in a demonstration are subjected, unjustly accused of assaulting the police (does that sound familiar? ).
For his part, the real character of Alex Wheatle, renowned writer and DJ of the London black community and author of books such as Brixton rock, remembers his years of youth and training after entering prison for participating in the riots in Brixton, in 1981 For Wheatle it was decisive his arrival in this neighborhood and the introduction in record stores with reggae music and Rastafarian culture.
Leroy Logan, the protagonist of the third story, Red, White and Blue, is also real: he was a forensic technician who, in 1983, became an agent of the metropolitan police with the idea of combating racism and segmentation, being repudiated by those of his race and humiliated by white agents. On this general overview, McQueen draws a more personal conflict, since Leroy’s father has been attacked by the police and cannot understand his son’s attitude. In both the Wheatle and Logan stories, McQueen decides to end long before the protagonists achieve their purposes: Logan founded the Black Police Association and received the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, but none of that is seen in the film.
The Education anthology closes, still with the resounding echoes of Silly games. Unlike the rest, it focuses on a black child with attention problems who is sent, against the will of his family, to a special education center. The boy dreams of rockets and space travel, and McQueen makes him the victim of a type of disguised segregation in the realm of education.