“Very often, as a director, you can become an observer, you can become a visitor within a scene. And that was one of them and it was just beautiful to see. You know, that for me is what art and filmmaking is about. Your imagination is limited, I think, but at a certain point, other things come into play that take it to another level. And that’s what happened.”
The words of award-winning British artist, writer and director Steve McQueen describing an almost-unplanned scene in his film, Lovers Rock, one of the constituent parts of his anthology series, Small Axe, to Seán Rocks on Arena. McQueen – who became the first black director to win an Oscar for Best Picture in 2014 for 12 Years a Slave – says Small Axe is a certain kind of celebration:
“A celebration of coming together. A celebration of championing the odds, which are against you and, you know, surviving and thriving. And that’s what we are doing in the black community in the UK and elsewhere. And there’s kind of joyfulness, but within it, there’s a battle and in some ways, sometimes a battle makes you whole. You understand who you are and what you can do.”
Small Axe reflects the Black British experience from the late 1960s through to the early 1980s. The series of five films was shown on the BBC late last year. The title comes from a proverb that was popularised in a Bob Marley song, “If you are the big tree/We are the small axe/Sharpened to cut you down.” McQueen told Seán that the series came about by him looking at stories that had been swept under the carpet and virtually erased from history.
“So, it was my sort of obligation and my passion to want to delve deeply into the recent history of the Black experience in the UK.”
The first film in the anthology, Mangrove, takes its name from the Mangrove restaurant in West London and tells the story of the Mangrove Nine case in 1970, involving police harassment and racism. One of the scenes has the racist PC Frank Pulley telling the owner of the Mangrove that Black people need to know their place, “Just like the Micks”. McQueen’s first film was Hunger, which featured Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands, and he told Seán that the attitudes of the police to Black people in Britain in the period of Small Axe was similar to the attitudes of the security forces in Northern Ireland:
“There was a similarity. Absolutely… There was a definite relationship there of colonialism, of the legacy of that, but also it was about a certain kind of situation where people wanted to remain in power and saw a threat. And they rained down on anything they saw as a threat – even if it was a café – with a huge amount of violence and forcefulness.”
The series was shot in pre-pandemic times and Seán wondered, despite the seriousness of the subject matter, how much dancing, singing and eating of goat curry was done by the cast on set. A lot, was the answer.
“When people come together and there’s some kind of vibe, there’s some kind of understanding, it just gels. That’s it. You can’t make that stuff up. Things just occur… And I was very fortunate that it happened on set and we had a camera which was in focus and we had sound which was working to record it.”
McQueen returned to what art is all about by again referencing the cast and crew of Small Axe and how they came together to make something that he considers very special:
“I think that’s what we were talking about as far as art and life and how things can actually come together and that’s what happened on that set. It wasn’t just what was happening in front of the camera, it was also what was happening behind the camera. It was beautiful. We were very fortunate.”
You can hear the full conversation between Seán and Steve McQueen on Wednesday’s Arena, by going here.
Steve McQueen will be in conversation with Mark O’Halloran as part of this year’s Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival.
Niall Ó Sioradáin
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