Steve McQueen’s five-film opus Small Axe concludes with Friday’s release of Education, the story of a boy named Kingsley (Kenyah Sandy), whose difficulty with reading has him reassigned to a school for the “educationally subnormal” — a.k.a. students for whom the British school system has abandoned all hope. Education completes a quintet of remarkable stories set between 1968 and 1984, some rooted in fact, others inspired by the experiences of the 12 Years a Slave director’s mother and other Englanders of West Indian descent.
The first installment, Mangrove, centers a courtroom clash between London authorities and a group of protestors against police harassment and brutality in and around the West Indian restaurant that gives the film its title. Lovers Rock, named for the reggae grooves that infuse its soundtrack, is an immersive portrait of a joyous night at a house party. Red, White & Blue stars John Boyega as Leroy Logan, who joined the London police force in hopes of helping to reform it. And Alex Wheatle traces the early life and legal struggles of Wheatle (Sheyi Cole) years before he became a successful young-adult author.
The films pulse with music, and energy, and life. The sequence in Lovers Rock where the Janet Kay song “Silly Games” cuts out, only for the jubilant partygoers to keep singing it a cappella for several more minutes, is a high point — as buoyant a moment as this hellacious year could possibly have granted us. But all of the films feature remarkable moments and performances throughout.
McQueen spoke with Rolling Stone about the origins of Small Axe, the complicated process of making the whole project, and why, even though he considers them films, he wanted these works to be available on television.
[This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]
What was the genesis for telling these five specific stories?
It started many years ago. It was one of those things where I wanted to see these movies. I wanted to see stories that weren’t available. And I thought, Well, I’ll have to make them. I wanted to tell these stories so that my mother could access them, and that was part of putting it on the BBC.
So, I thought I would follow a family from ’68 to ’84, that was always my trajectory. And I just got more into it. I started a writers room, and I was auditioning writers I wanted to work with. It started off as one thing and ended up as another thing. When I started to do the research, these true stories kept coming to the surface. The majority of these are true stories: Mangrove, Red, White & Blue, and Alex Wheatle. Alex Wheatle is someone I met in the writers room. He didn’t want to write it, because he was too close to it. A lot of things happened organically.
There were two things I wanted: I definitely wanted one about Mangrove and definitely one about lovers rock. That was it. And in my research, I came across the other stories. And when I finished, I came up with the idea of Education, which was a way of putting in my own journey within the context of these educationally subnormal schools.
Mangrove takes place over a decent stretch of time, where Lovers Rock takes place over a single night, and Red, White & Blue only tells us the beginning of Leroy’s story with the police force. How did you decide how much of each story you wanted to tell within these films?
I followed what was interesting. Structure and plot and times. Like with Leroy Logan, I wanted to start with the beginning — of where he was, and how he got into the police force, his trials and tribulations because his father had been badly beaten by the police — and to give it enough time and space to penetrate. And therefore [it’s] over 82 minutes. That first third of his career was the place I wanted to go in. The other two-thirds, you could talk about [his co-founding] the Black Police Association and a criminal case he was involved in, as well as towards the end, when he had an unfortunate end to his police career. For me, it was all about the horror of being bright-eyed and having optimism, and as he goes into it, he finds out some things aren’t so bright. And with Lover’s Rock, it’s a fairy tale. It’s a novella.
Now that they’re all out, people can potentially watch in whatever order they want, but they were released and will be listed in a specific order. Does it matter to you in what order people watch them?
Yes. Mangrove had to be first, then Lovers Rock. I wanted the optimism of Education [at the end]. I grew up with albums, so it’s important for me to place what’s first, second, and third. Of course, in this new day and age, people can choose what I want to watch, how I want to watch, when I want to watch, regardless of that. But it was very important to curate them in this manner. Strangely enough, that was the order in which we shot them.
In the later films, I was very conscious of reflections of moments from the earlier films. In Alex Wheatle, for instance, there’s a house party, but it feels different from the one in Lovers Rock. And when Alex Wheatle gets to the Brixton riot, we see cops in riot gear like we saw Leroy train to use in Red, White & Blue. How conscious were you of people seeing the linkages between these stories, in this order?
Very much so. You see how the police train how to deal with berskerkers, or how to use the riot shields. It’s as if you see behind the shield and then in front of the shield, you see cause and effect, both sides, but in different parts of the anthology. I wanted to do that. And also to deal with The Black Jacobins and whatnot, to see C.L.R. James as a man, as a person, in Mangrove, and then see how his book influences Alex Wheatle.
The music is obviously a huge part of this. What was the process like of picking these songs, and how much fun did you have doing that?
It was great. It was organic. It was really pleasurable. You live with music all your life, and then you get a chance paint in it, with your images. So that was quite pleasurable. In Lovers Rock, I knew “Silly Games” was going to be there, that came up in the script. But also I needed to have the “Kunta Kinte” dub. It was like a dog whistle going off in my head, that first note. It had that effect on everyone. It was a real pleasure, going back to reggae and Blondie, and everything.
Some of these films are playing a bit with genre, like the courtroom scenes in Mangrove or Leroy chasing the criminal through the warehouse in Red, White & Blue. How much do you feel like familiar tropes change simply by changing the types of characters at the center of the story?
I didn’t know I was doing that, to be honest with you. In Mangrove, what happens is, once those nine are in the dock, the gallery turns into a congregation. The stand turns into a pulpit. Blackness lands in the Old Bailey [courthouse], and it changes the atmosphere into a church. It changes it into a place of righteousness, not law. That transmits the whole of that environment. It’s a very formal environment, courts. You’re allowed to speak only when told, you have to say, “Your Honor,” it’s a very formal ritual. But what happens within that space, it’s transformed into a church. Hallelujah!
Did you find yourself trying to shoot each film differently, or did they all feel of a piece to you in terms of technique?
It’s horses for courses. A different approach to each individual film. It was about what the pieces needed, what the story needed. For me, Mangrove needed that sort of scale, which was 35 millimeter. Lovers Rock needed to be in that constant flow, so that was digital. Education was like a very gritty sort of British drama, in a way. I remember tuning into the BBC on a Thursday night for a series called Play for Today, shot in 16 millimeter. It was gritty but it kind of stuck to you; it had this weight, a sort of amateurness to it, which I loved. It brought you first to the characters somehow. You could pull away the facade and get closer to the characters. So it was great.
Lovers Rock is so immersive, especially the dance scenes. How do you film something like “Silly Games” in a way that makes the viewer feel like they’re at the house party with everyone else, without the camera seeming to intrude on what the actors and extras are doing?
It’s all about the artists, all about the acting, allowing them to just be in that space. They saw themselves all over the place. It’s a rarity for British actors for [there to be] a lot of black actors, a black director, a black DP. There was a real comfortability to find things. These are great artists, because they knew the limitations of the time period and the mannerisms and so forth. So they can lose themselves within that structure and space. I write the harmony and the melody, and within the harmony and melody, they can do whatever the hell they want, so long as they stay with the harmony and melody. They were allowed to get lost.
There was definitely a sense of spirituality in that room. It was about harnessing it and letting it grow and wrangling it. How do I do that? A lot of sweat and tears.
When the music of “Silly Games” cuts out and the actors keep singing the song, for a wonderfully long amount of time, what was your reaction? How did that feel to you?
Great. It wasn’t planned, but I was hoping it would happen. Again, these things happen, but you must allow that to happen. I didn’t know how far they were going to go with it, where they would end up with it, but when people are in the moment, you don’t disturb. You just hope they’re going to get there. All that a cappella was totally them. It’s not about fucking with it. It’s about allowing it to grow and take shape.
That is the scene that’s been talked about the most since these films started being released. Did you understand at the time you were shooting it that, even within the context of this large and impressive project, this was a special moment?
Eh… You know, no, I’ll be honest. No. Because… why? I don’t know. It wasn’t… Filming a special moment, I suppose with “Silly Games” and “Kunta Kinte Dub,” when people let go, it goes out into the environment, it goes beyond the frame. I imagine it’s the surprise, where people are involved in it, so it leaks out of the frame.
Education also has a scene where we hear an entire song, but it’s deliberately not fun, when the teacher torments all the kids with his acoustic version of “House of the Rising Sun.” Why that song?
That happened with me!
Oh my god.
The teacher brought in his guitar, and he started to strum. We’re this captive audience. That was it. But it’s interesting, about that sequence. Because it’s funny, and then it gets irritating, and then you get bored. You have to go through boredom to get to the other side of it, and then you get to something else. And then there’s another understanding of it. So it had to play out that way, in real time.
You mentioned before that the Lovers Rock actors understood the mannerisms of the time. In general, how much education was required for the actors in all these films to understand what it was to be in this moment from the late Sixties through the early Eighties?
A lot of their parents came from that time. A lot of their parents came from the sound system era. That’s what was liberating for the actors: They could play themselves. A lot of them had parents who went to these things, who participated, so they could bring something to the piece, which I could never do. And that’s what it’s about: a certain kind of blackness, and everyone had an aspect of that blackness. That was a beautiful thing about it.
The films are about, as you say, a certain kind of blackness, and a very tumultuous and difficult time in England for that culture. How much of that do you see reflected now, in England and the world at large, through this tough year?
I think obviously, in America, with George Floyd, it’s been very reflective of where we are, how far we’ve come, where we are now, and how far we need to go. I almost see these things as science-fiction pictures, because they tell us how far we need to go. It tells us more about the future than the past.
And the whole project ends on our glimpse of the planets and stars over the Education end credits.
It puts everything in perspective. That’s the thing about humanity: empathy, who are we, what are we, what have we become? And it told us, in some ways, “Come on, this is ridiculous. Within the the universe, what is this?” It’s one of those things which I wanted to end the anthology with. That was the perspective I had to have — my goodness, thinking about the environment and all those issues that are going on right now, and how stupid all this stuff is.
Finally, you’ve been adamant that these are films, not television. Amazon is submitting these to the Emmys as a limited series. What kind of conversations did you have with them about it?
There’s nothing to talk about, really. These films were made for television. They can be projected in cinema, but Small Axe was all about the generosity and accessibility to these films. From the beginning, I wanted these films to be accessible to my mother, I wanted them on the BBC. It was always going to be on TV, the five films. But at the same time, they premiered in the cinema. There’s no absolutes anymore. There shouldn’t be. Because it’s about how people want to see things. That’s about it.