With his five feature-length Small Axe films — which are being released each Friday as of Nov. 13 and best viewed sequentially — director/co-writer Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) has woven a tapestry of connected yet independent narratives unlike anything in cinematic history.
Set between the late 1960s and mid-’80s in London’s Caribbean immigrant-centric West Indian community, the sadly prescient works suggest that McQueen knew the world would come to a tipping point in 2020 and made these films to honor the struggles on which modern protest movements are built.
That sentiment is especially prevalent in Mangrove (124 minutes), the less theatrical but arguably more relevant and impactful cousin to Aaron Sorkin’s achingly similar The Trial of the Chicago 7. McQueen’s dramatization of the plight of The Mangrove Nine — who endured intense harassment by racist Notting Hill, London police officers around the same time that the Chicago 7 clashed with cops during the 1968 DNC — expertly builds its characters, then places them in a pressure-cooker courtroom situation where proving their innocence feels of the utmost importance.
After a suspenseful battle for human rights, Mangrove concludes with a perfect placement of Toots and the Maytals’ timeless “Pressure Drop,” which doubles as a strong lead-in to the music-heavy Lovers Rock — the series’ lone fictional offering.
Though the second film works as a recreational balm for the social justice hardships in the initial installment — chronicling a secret, all-night house party for Black youths unwelcome at white music clubs — the cinematic endurance test plays like a 65-minute expansion of the “Too Late to Turn Back Now” scene from BlacKkKlansman.
Some pleasure is derived from getting immersed in the joys of people losing themselves to song and dance, but the actors’ accents are extremely difficult to decipher (be sure to turn on closed captions) and hints of a plot are few, forcing most viewers to interpret the basics of what’s happening from body language and vocal tones.
Things pick back up with Red, White and Blue, based on the life of Leroy Logan (John Boyega, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), who left his career as a forensic scientist to better help his community as a policeman. An emotional, 80-minute exercise in personal conviction, the film is bolstered by Boyega’s powerful depiction of Leroy as he attempts to weather the disappointment of his father and Black brethren, plus bigotry within his department.
This third installment also features the closest that the series comes to a long take — typically a McQueen staple — via an especially tense suspect foot chase. While the flash of technical bravado is a welcome addition, the director’s otherwise restrained style works well with the material at hand and adds to his already impressive filmography.
Mangrove and Lovers Rock are available to stream via Amazon Prime Video, where Red, White and Blue joins them starting Dec. 4, followed by Alex Wheatle (Dec. 11) and Education (Dec. 18)