What can you even call a “movie” at the end of 2020? Is it a roughly two-hour filmed narrative consumed in a theater built expressly for said purpose? That was true for much of the 20th century, not so much for the last decade, and definitely off the table this year. And how is a “movie” different from a “show”? It’s getting harder to tell. The seven episodes of “The Queen’s Gambit” signal that it’s a TV series, but if you watch it in one or two gulps, as many have, does that make it an extra-long movie?
I ask because Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” project is debuting on Amazon Prime, further blurring boundaries that the streaming revolution has done much to erode. “Small Axe” consists of five distinct feature-length films, each focusing on an aspect of Britain’s West Indian community in the 1960s through the 1980s and each of which could conceivably have been sent out to the world as a stand-alone piece of cinema. Instead, McQueen (”12 Years a Slave”) and Amazon are calling this a “collection” and releasing one film a week from Nov. 20 through Dec. 18. So “Small Axe” is a series, right? A series of movies. It gets confusing.
What isn’t at issue is the quality of the project. I’ve seen the first three “Small Axe” films — the final two have yet to be made available for review — and they are very, very good. One of them, “Lovers Rock,” will almost certainly be in my 2020 Top Ten, and it includes a sequence that is my single favorite movie moment of the year. McQueen, the British artist and director who won a best picture Oscar with “Slave” (2013) and arguably paved the way for a new wave of Black moviemaking, is of Grenadian and Trinidadian descent and grew up in London’s Caribbean community; the “Small Axe” project — the title is taken from a Bob Marley song that promises “if you are the big tree/we are the small axe” — has been in the works for over a decade. McQueen has called it “the hardest thing I ever did,” in part because a person often has to grow up a while before being able to look back with clarity.
One of the aims of “Small Axe” is to call attention to the parts of modern British history they don’t teach in the textbooks. “Mangrove,” the first of the films to become available, dramatizes the 1970 trial of the Mangrove 9, in which the defendants — accused of inciting a riot after protesting relentless police harassment of the Mangrove restaurant, a meeting place in the West Indian district of Notting Hill — broke protocol by defending themselves in court over 55 days of contentious proceedings.
The film casts Letitia Wright, Princess Shuri of “Black Panther,” as Althea Jones-LeCointe and Malachi Kirby (“Black Mirror”) as Darcus Howe, two of the most passionately vocal of the nine, but “Mangrove” generously gives us the entire neighborhood, including Mangrove owner Frank Crichlow, who in Shaun Parkes’s affecting performance moves from exhausted victimization to defiant resistance.
“Red, White, and Blue,” which debuts on Amazon Prime Dec. 4, stars John Boyega (Finn from the most recent “Star Wars” trilogy) as Leroy Logan, who gave up a career as a cancer researcher to join London’s Metropolitan Police in 1983, despite his father being brutally beaten by two officers. Or did he join because of that incident, to try and change the institution from within? Stark, simple, and powerful, the film shows how Logan found himself in an impossible position, reviled by racist police colleagues and scorned as a traitor by his community. (He stayed at it nevertheless and retired in 2013 as a superintendent after 30 years on the force.)
Debuting on Nov. 27, between “Mangrove” and “Red, White, and Blue,” is a respite from the intensity: “Lovers Rock,” a deceptively simple account of a house party in West London over the course of one night in 1980. We see the DJs set up the sound system, watch the girlfriends put on their make-up and shimmy into their best dresses, witness the flirtations and couplings and uncouplings of the first few dances. All the “Small Axe” soundtracks are deep dives into classic period pop, reggae, dub, and lovers rock itself, but this one goes above and beyond; it’s not officially available but a critic colleague has reverse-engineered a Spotify playlist that I’m currently addicted to.
Eventually two characters rise out of the evening’s many miniature dramas: Martha (Amarah Jae St.-Aubyn) and Franklyn (Micheal Ward), who talk and dance their way toward something that, as dawn rolls around, might even be the real thing. “Lovers Rock” is a heady snapshot of a community and a people making their home in an often-hostile land, and it builds to the scene mentioned above. Janet Kay’s 1979 single “Silly Games” brings everyone together for a hip-swaying slow dance in a packed living room and then, as the music fades out, the dancing just keeps going, dresses swishing, feet gently stomping the beat, and everyone’s voice joined together to sing the song all over again, as if to hold on to the moment forever. It’s a sudden, ecstatic communal hymn. We’re in church.
And why not? In a year marked by enforced divisions and isolation, this celebratory moment is enough to fire up one’s hope for humanity; you don’t watch the scene so much as sink into its arms with relief. How perfect is it that one of the dancers — the older fellow grooving in the corner — is Dennis Bovell, the writer of “Silly Games”? Movie, collection of movies, TV miniseries, call it what you will: “Small Axe” is a gift to the people with whom Steve McQueen grew up, to their history, to himself, and to us.