Steve McQueen's Small Axe is essential viewing; it provides a powerful history of racism and the black struggle in Britain, argues Unjum Mirza
Steve McQueen must be applauded for the first-rate achievement that is Small Axe – an anthology of five feature-length films that tell the lives of black people in Britain.
Each film is essential viewing for socialists and each deserves a separate review.
Space merely permits this review a general appreciation with a particular focus on two episodes: Mangrove and Alex Wheatle (the first and fourth in the series respectively). Lovers Rock, Red, White and Blue and Education complete this powerful and unique five-part filming project.
While the idea for Small Axe dates back to 2010 the timing of its release could not have been more apt. The global pandemic, the Social Darwinist “herd immunity” strategy and incredible incompetence of the government have in turn revealed and reinforced the greatest underlying killers of all: pre-existing conditions of racism, inequality and poverty.
What the pandemic revealed the police murder of George Floyd confirmed: racism is rooted in the very system – capitalism – in which we live. The Black Lives Matter global uprising demonstrated that a systematic struggle against the system itself is necessary to overcome racism.
Immediate and present struggles
Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of the 1981 riots. The significance of Small Axe cannot be restricted to historical interest (hugely important though that is). The real significance of Small Axe is in its contribution in understanding the lessons of the past in shaping our immediate and present struggles.
McQueen stated: “When the Cannes Film Festival selected Mangrove and Lovers Rock earlier this year, I dedicated both to George Floyd and all the other Black people that have been murdered, seen or unseen, because of who they are in the US, UK and elsewhere”.
The stories recounted in McQueen’s anthology put the lives, experiences and struggles of black people centre-stage.
Moreover, throughout Small Axe, black people are not reduced to victims but elevated to thinkers; organisers; strategists; fighters; human.
And therein lies the significance of the series title too. McQueen’s anthology takes its title from the proverb included in Bob Marley’s 1973 song Small Axe:
If you are the big tree
We are the small axe
Sharpened to cut you down (well sharp)
Ready to cut you down
The opening film, Mangrove is simply brilliant. It recounts the true story of the Mangrove Nine: Barbara Beese, Rupert Boyce, Frank Crichlow, Rhodan Gordon, Darcus Howe, Anthony Innis, Altheia Jones-LeCointe, Rothwell Kentish and Godfrey Millett.
The opening scenes show Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes) walking through bomb sites in Notting Hill in 1968 past graffiti “Wogs Out” and “Powell for PM” whilst en route to his newly opened Mangrove Café 8 on All Saints Road, W11.
This momentary visual context is of vital importance in understanding the story that McQueen wants to tell.
It was 1968 that Enoch Powell made his racist ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech:
“We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation, to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependents ... It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre.”
He was immediately sacked from the Tory Shadow Cabinet. The damage, however, was extensive. Over 4,000 dockers came out on strike under the slogan “Enoch is right”. Polls indicated some 82% of voters agreeing with his views while 73% were critical of Ted Heath for sacking him.
The Labour Party’s capitulation to racists helped prepare the ground for Powell (and the National Front that had been founded the year before in 1967). In opposition, Labour maintained the myth that they were against racist legislation and opposed the Tory Immigration Bill (1961). During the 1964 election, in one constituency (Smethwick), the slogan among supporters of the Tory candidate was: “If you want a nigger for your neighbour, vote Labour”. The Tories won Smethwick with a 7.2% swing despite a national swing to Labour of 3.5%.
But when Labour was elected to government in 1964, it surrendered and bowed down before the racists renewing the Tory Immigration Act and introducing even tougher controls in 1965.
Action group for the defence of the Mangrove
Returning to the film, the Mangrove specialised in West Indian cuisine attracting many of the Windrush generation who settled in Notting Hill. The Mangrove became a ‘home from home’ for many from the Caribbean community as well as a space for political discussion.
McQueen shows how Crichlow and the Mangrove were subjected to relentless police racism, raids and ruination. In 1970 Community activists and members of the British Black Panthers set up the ‘Action group for the defence of the Mangrove’ and organised a protest. Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) captures the years of frustration, fury and injustice when he tells the crowd:
“It has been some time now that black people have been caught up complaining to police about police; complaining to magistrates about magistrates; complaining to judges about judges. We must become the shepherds of our own destiny”
The protest proceeds. There were some 150 protesters. Historian Paul Field would later reveal that the police mobilised 588 constables, 84 sergeants, 29 inspectors, 4 chief inspectors and a handful of Special Branch detectives to cover the protest. The police instigated a confrontation, fighting broke out and arrests followed. The Mangrove Nine were charged with incitement to riot, affray and assaulting police officers and ordered to appear before the Old Bailey.
At the trial Darcus Howe and Altheia Jones-Lecointe (Letitia Wright) defended themselves and demanded the trial be heard by an all-black jury. It wasn’t granted. But in asking candidates what they understood by the term "black power" they did reject 63 candidate jurors and ensure that two of the twelve jurors were black.
The trial lasted 55 days and defendants were cleared of the main charge: inciting a riot.
Judge Edward Clarke’s closing comments “What this trial has shown is that there is clearly evidence of racial hatred on both sides” marked the first judicial acknowledgement of racism in the Metropolitan Police.
Fifty years later, the Windrush scandal and the “hostile environment” would expose that institutional racism is not merely a problem within the police force but rooted within every institution of the state.
Fast forward to McQueen’s fourth film Alex Wheatle. This shorter instalment (just a little over one hour) is in many ways a story of self-discovery - the true story of the eponymous writer’s formative years.
But it is more than that. Wheatle (played by Asad-Shareef Muhammad as a child and Sheyi Cole as a teenager) was no stranger to the harsh reality of institutions having grown up in the cruel and unloving Social Services foster-care system. Wheatle’s experience of the horror of state institutionalisation continued when he was imprisoned for his role in the Brixton Riots.
Wheatle’s personal experience combined with the struggle against racism and police harassment and the horror of the New Cross Fire in 1981 shaped Wheatle’s outlook and participation in events.
The New Cross fire had a major impact on Wheatle. A birthday party ended in tragedy when a south London house was gutted by fire. Thirteen black partygoers were killed and another 26 suffered serious injuries. The police would not seriously investigate the theory that a racist firebombing was the cause of the fire. Similar attacks had taken place in the recent past. Instead they would blame those who attended the party instead. Meanwhile, the Thatcher government remained silent and the media merely echoed police statements.
1,000 attended a meeting a week after the fire and formed the New Cross Massacre Action Committee, which called a Black People’s Day of Action for Monday 2 March mobilising some 20,000 from south east London across to Hyde Park.
Ten years after Powell’s infamous racist speech, in a 1978 television interview for current affairs programme World in Action, Margaret Thatcher claimed that “people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture”. It was no coincidence that the police operation that sparked the riots in 1981 was named “Operation Swamp”.
The National Front were growing and made some substantial electoral gains in 1976 including in Deptford (neighbouring New Cross, Lewisham) where in a parliamentary by-election in July 1976 (combined with the National Party) they got 44 per cent of the vote.
In 1976 on a radio broadcast, the Labour Home Secretary (Roy Jenkins) suggested the best way to get rid of the National Front was to ignore them!
Bob Mellish, Chief Labour Whip and Bermondsey MP went further and openly attacked immigrants stating “enough is enough” arguing to halt immigration.
It appears the present Labour Party leader Kier Starmer is upholding the tradition in surrendering to racists when he recently remained silent as a caller spouted a white supremacist conspiracy theory “The racial inequality is now against the indigenous people of Britain because we are set to become a minority by 2066”.
The National Front decided to hold a provocative march through the heart of Lewisham in South London in August 1977 – strongly African-Caribbean at the time. The police in Lewisham staged what they called Operation 39 PNH. PNH stood for Police Nigger Hunt.
Young blacks were rounded up in morning raids and arrested on trumped up charges leading to the formation of the Lewisham 21 Defence Committee.
A spontaneous revolt of the local Lewisham community and community activist groups, combined with the revolutionary left (the SWP in particular) and individual members of the Communist and Labour Parties organised and mobilised the anti-fascist opposition to the National Front while the police protected the fascists.
Soon after Rock Against Racism and the Anti Nazi League were founded.
This was (combined with the election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in 1979) the immediate backdrop to the 1981 Riots. The experience of racism, unemployment and police harassment/brutality formed the basis of the uprising amid an economic crisis.
Just before Alex Wheatle’s arrest, he composes the lyrics for a song that captures the essence of the riots perfectly:
There’s an Uprising
There ain’t no work
And we haven’t a shilling
We can’t take no more of this suffering
So we riot inna Brixton
Two sides to a contradiction
In Mangrove, there’s a great scene where Altheia Jones-Lecointe (British Black Panther) is addressing an Asian workforce and explains:
“I’ve been invited to talk to you about your workers’ rights and your power as a collective force… we have discovered and re-discovered the ways in which we can overcome the fragmentation our people have suffered throughout our history and the way is through joining the struggle, being part of an organised struggle for it’s the struggle that makes as whole”.
After the meeting Altheia Jones-Lecointe comments to a smaller group of Asian trade unionists “if colonialism is good for anything it brought us together on the table”.
This is true wider-still. There are always two sides to a contradiction. Capitalism unites as well as divides. The 1981 riots were multi-racial, reflecting growing unemployment among white youth who were also on the receiving end of police harassment.
The very dynamic of capitalism itself forces masses of people to rebel against it, always opening up possibilities for united struggles even when least expected.
CLR James (Derek Griffiths) appears in Steve McQueen’s Mangrove. His magnificent Black Jacobins is cited throughout the series. Alex Wheatle’s cellmate Simeon (Robbie Gee) hands him a copy and explains “if you don't know your past then you won't know your future”. I recommend everyone who hasn’t read the Black Jacobins, read it. For those who have, re-read it.
James was a Trotskyist at the time of writing his masterpiece. His departure from Trotskyism never shook his belief in the self-emancipation of workers at the core of universal human emancipation.
Trotsky described black people in 1930s America as “the most dynamic milieu of the working class”. The experience of racism; working in the lowest-paid jobs; poverty; inequality; unemployment meant black people demonstrated the most revolutionary courage and sacrifice with a capacity for leadership disproportionate to their numbers. The possibilities remain. However, it will demand uniting the fight against racism and against the system that breeds it, providing a leadership for both black and white workers.
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Unjum Mirza is a driver on the London Underground. He is on the Editorial Board of Tunnel Vision, the rank and file bulletin, and is an Aslef union branch chair.
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