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'Small Axe': Steve McQueen Talks 5-Part Anthology

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For many in the U.S., this past year has been a time of sorrow and awakening about the realities of race and racism directed at Black people. For others, it's been a time of long overdue recognition about those realities. Now, award-winning film director Steve McQueen is bringing his lens to similar terrain but to the experiences of Black people in Britain. Called the "Small Axe" anthology, it is a set of five standalone movies where McQueen explores life in the West Indian communities of Britain. Set in the late 1960s to mid-1980s, the anthologies range from courtroom dramas to love stories, some fiction, but also dramatizations of real-life events and people. And while each movie features uncomfortable and haunting moments, they are also a celebration of resilience and hope, something McQueen captures in part in the music heard throughout the films.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE OF "SMALL AXE" ANTHOLOGY)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) You're as much to blame 'cause you know you feel the same.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, singing) Uprising, it's an uprising. There ain't no work (unintelligible).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Here to tell us more about the "Small Axe" anthology is director and co-writer Steve McQueen.

Steve McQueen, welcome. Congratulations on this beautiful work.

STEVE MCQUEEN: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And since this is our first time talking, I'm going to also offer my overdue congratulations on your Academy Award for "12 Years A Slave" and the many other awards and accolades for your work, so quite an impressive body of work. But this - I mean, this is quite an undertaking. I mean, five films, all films, some with very different styles, different wardrobe, different neighborhoods. What inspired you to do it?

MCQUEEN: It was time, you know? It was one of those situations where stories I wanted to see, stories I wanted to hear were not projected, were not sort of given space within the canon of the British film narrative. And I needed to see these stories.

I mean, the West Indian community have been so influential in the United Kingdom. But at the same time, we have not been represented correctly or acknowledged properly within film. And I just felt it was a bit of a crazy undertaking, the way of making five films. But in some ways, it was such a big hole that I needed to sort of attempt to fill it, at least.

MARTIN: So before we dive into the more painful content of the movies, I do want to make sure that I say there is...

MCQUEEN: Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.

MARTIN: ...So much joy...

MCQUEEN: Not just pain. There's joy.

MARTIN: Well, that's where I'm going.

MCQUEEN: Let's not play.

MARTIN: That's where I'm going. I'm coming - I'm going right there. I'm going right there (laughter).

MCQUEEN: Before we enter the painful...

MARTIN: Exactly.

MCQUEEN: Hit me, hit me.

MARTIN: I wanted to share how much joy there is in these films. And...

MCQUEEN: There you go.

MARTIN: One of the main ways you do this is through music. And there are long scenes where we get to watch your characters enjoying music and enjoying music together. We gave listeners a little taste of that in the intro. Was that always something that you envisioned from the beginning? Was that always meant to be a part of this project? And why?

MCQUEEN: Well, it's inherent. It's in every day - you know, the narrative. It has a very broad spectrum. And, of course, there are situations which are, you know, troubling. But there's instances which are full of love and compassion and triumphs. So, you know, that's what I wanted to sort of explore the whole gambit, to put as much sort of effort into the things which come out organically within Black culture, which is music and how that is used as a healing tool and how that is used to sort of just sort of elevate. Anyway, I'm going on - sort of on a tangent here, but...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

MCQUEEN: ...Yes, it was very much about that.

MARTIN: Did you have an audience in mind or audiences in mind that you hoped for? I mean, these are on BBC One in Britain. Americans have access through Amazon Prime. Did you have someone in mind that you hoped would see these?

MCQUEEN: Black people in the U.K. - that was my audience. And it's - what's happening, which is - I'm very, very, very touched by, is that families are watching "Small Axe." You know, grandmothers, daughters and their children are watching "Small Axe" on a Sunday. And they're getting together. They're looking at it. They're laughing. They're crying. They're embracing. And actually, afterwards, what I'm hearing is that people are sort of opening up and talking about their experiences of living in London during that period to their kids. And kids are asking questions - their grandchildren - and then having - talking about some of the experiences they had, having them. And so I'm very excited about that and, you know, what sort of - what can come from that. You know, that's what art can do sometimes.

MARTIN: Can I ask you about that, though? You grew up in Britain, and - but your parents, I believe, are from Trinidad and Grenada. Is this something that was discussed when you were growing up? I mean, obviously...

MCQUEEN: No.

MARTIN: ...People have had these experiences. These are very - you know, some of these experiences were very searing and traumatic. But, you know, people deal with these things in different ways. I mean, some people feel like they want to protect the next generation from these memories, and others share them. What - do you mind if I ask you, was this something that was talked about, the kinds of situations that you show in this series?

MCQUEEN: No, because people were dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. Look; for years, the West Indian community were complaining about the police - for years. And for years, people were saying, we have the best police force in the world in the U.K. But for years - back then, we're complaining. It's only now that the general public understand what the West Indian community was talking about as far as the police are concerned. So it's taken that amount of time.

But also, within that time, people from the West Indian community were just - they were dealing with it, in a way, with silence because no one was hearing them.

MARTIN: Well, how do you feel now that you have - that you've put this story out, which is in some ways so personal and yet so universal in others? How does it feel?

MCQUEEN: Heavy. Heavy. It feels heavy. It feels - I don't even know how to feel. It feels - you know, it's cathartic because the main thing I feel is the beautiful thing about how people are talking about it in regards to them and their lives and where they are now and how far we've come, but very much how far we need to go.

So for me, it's quite very emotional because I remember we had a screening at the London Film Festival, and my mother was there, and my aunt was there, and my sister was there. And my father passed away about, oh, 14 years ago. But at one point, my sister said - she was watching, I think, "Mangrove." She said at some point, she wanted to scream at the screen. She wanted to just shout at the screen. And it was one of those things of maybe recognition. So it's one of those things where it's just very - I thought it was heavy.

MARTIN: Well, the work is beautiful. That is one thing to celebrate. It's exquisite.

MCQUEEN: You know, no. Don't get me wrong. I'm...

MARTIN: I hear you.

MCQUEEN: I really am happy. But at the same time, there's a seriousness about the situation where it's about passing on the baton. That's what it's about. It's about encouraging the next generation of people. We are here to clear the path for the up-and-coming generation. And I think what they - what those young people did on the streets, marching around the world after the unfortunate death - well, murder - of George Floyd was tremendous. It was just tremendous. It gave me so much heart.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for talking with us. Before I let you go, the title, "Small Axe" - will you tell us what that's about?

MCQUEEN: That came from a Wailers tune. Of course, "Small Axe" is on the "Burnin'" album, and I love that song. And it's sort of - it's an African proverb, but the Wailers, with Bob Marley, popularized with that song. And it's just - I just love it, that, you know, us as a community, us together, we could do anything. We could shift anything.

MARTIN: And the proverb being, if you are...

MCQUEEN: (Singing) If you are the big tree...

(LAUGHTER)

MCQUEEN: (Singing) We are the small axe...

MARTIN: All right.

MCQUEEN: (Singing) ...Sharpened to chop you down.

(LAUGHTER)

MCQUEEN: (Singing) Ready to chop you down - that's what it's about. That's what it's about. As a collective, we are strong.

MARTIN: That was Steve McQueen. He is the director and co-writer of the "Small Axe" anthology. It's a series of five standalone films being released weekly on Amazon Prime, and three of them are available now.

Steve McQueen, thank you so much for joining us. It's been a delight.

MCQUEEN: My absolute pleasure. Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SMALL AXE")

BOB MARLEY AND THE WAILERS: (Singing) If you are the big tree, we are the small axe, sharpened to cut you down, ready to cut you down. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.