Strengthening the foundations: against the erasing of memory

So if you are the big tree

We are the small axe

Ready to cut you down (well sharp)

To cut you down

Bob Marley (‘Small Axe’ 1973)

Small Axe (anthology), Steve Mc Queen | 2020 Small Axe (anthology), Steve Mc Queen | 2020

In 2014, Paul Gilroy delivered the Tanner Lectures at Yale University. In his first address, reflecting on the function of humanistic studies, Gilroy took a realistic tone in reflecting on the contrast between the importance, and relative scarcity, of studies devoted to understanding how racism is fundamental to the structuring of our society and how it affects us all and affects our concept of humanity. In his words:

While not fashionable, studying processes of racial hierarchization and inequality provides an important means to expand these enquiries, to locate the boundaries of being human in ways that are as forceful as they are incisive. Consequently, this means refusing to abandon the idea of race and the forms of systematic knowledge that such an idea has provided, to instead embrace and explore them as an opportunity to better know ourselves, and our precious world. (Gilroy 2014: 22)

The events of the past six years have sharpened Gilroy’s observations. At the same time, they have made it increasingly clear that, despite the real progress achieved, attempts to maintain privileges based on structural and systemic inequality, whether in terms of class, gender or race, have become even more obstinate. Attempts that go hand in hand with the futile but devastating efforts to deny history and impose the erasure of memory.

The five-film television series directed by Steve McQueen, Small Axe, was first shown on BBC 1 between 15 November and 13 December 2020 and is available in several countries and in DVD format. It constitutes an important antidote to such memory erasure. By focusing on specific episodes in the life of the Caribbean community in London from the 1960s to the 1980s, the films enable us to learn about many aspects of the past on both a historical and personal level. At the same time, the films also do much to revive the memories of those who lived through the events in question, creating a kind of post-memory for all those who were not only born afterwards, but had no one to break the pact of silence about the lives of black people, their struggles against any and all forms of violence, the not uncommon failures of the educational system that still endure, and the spirit of vitality and creative force of these people. Critical reception of the films, both of each and of the series as a whole, has been overwhelmingly positive. In a year marked by so much devastation, caused by the pandemic, as well as the political turmoil derived from the rapid expansion of reactionary forces everywhere, with their incendiary rhetoric and openly xenophobic and racist attacks, Steve McQueen’s films have offered a ray of hope and a much-needed counterbalance.

In the face of repeated, hostile and openly violent forms of denial and suppression of history, education and memory become fundamental elements of resistance and of creating a truer vision of the past. A vision that can serve not only to prevent a future return of the most harmful and inhumane forms of oppression, but also to ensure that our present can better reflect all parts of society rather than continue to perpetuate exclusion ad infinitum. Thus, education and memory are bulwarks in safeguarding democracy. The fact that democracy, education and resistance are key elements of the five films is no coincidence. In Mangrove, the first film to be released, which recounts the events leading up to the notorious trial of the ‘Mangrove Nine’, and the subsequent total or partial acquittal of the accused, the focus is on the possibility of affirming the rule of law a democratic society, even when it is permeated by systemic racism and inequality. Some observers might draw attention to the legal precedent set when the presiding judge, Edward Clarke, declared that the trial had ‘brought to light evidence of racial hatred’. But the most important element, I suggest, was, together with the dropping of many of the charges and the five total acquittals, the recognition that radical advocacy - in this case, an alliance between two white progressive lawyers, Michael Mansfield and Ian Macdonald, and the defendants, some of whom represented themselves in court - had a chance of success. Ife Thompson, legal affairs expert and activist, explains the importance of the Mangrove restaurant on Verso’s blog: ‘For the Black community in the UK, the creation of places of Black resistance was vital for collective survival.1 Having the possibility of defending their cause in court and, once the process had begun, being able to demonstrate how structural racism works, was also fundamental, not only to survive, but also to reclaim some of the rights so often denied, both as individuals and as citizens. By focusing on that pivotal moment in the struggle for equality, McQueen’s film rekindles supposedly buried memories of struggle and victory that are crucial for the current generation to understand and thus take on as their heritage.

Small Axe constitutes a formidable application of memory and imagination to combat the ongoing, systemic denial of identity that black people still face in their daily lives. The series, both as a whole and in its individual components, offers black people in the UK the chance to see themselves and their history represented on screen in multiple ways, not as extras, but as citizens fully immersed in their communities and the various forms of struggle necessary in a society structured fundamentally on inequality and oppression. It could even be said that McQueen takes Althusser’s (1970) concept of the ideological apparatuses of the state2, and dramatises it, showing how the dominant ideology is reinforced and reproduced through police repression, the prejudices of the law, the failings of the education system, and even the ambivalent function of family structures, which both provide support and nourishment and demand conformism. This can be seen in many moments, for example in the consternation of a father in Red, White, and Blue, who had been beaten in public in a brutal manner by the police, on hearing that his son, a scientific researcher, wishes to abandon his career to join the police and thus try to introduce change from within the institution.  Based on historical events and on the figure of Leroy Logan (John Boyega), the film emphasises the importance of education in trying to bring about change, even if the son’s decision comes up against both the resolute disapproval of his father and the dominant and undisguised racism of his new colleagues.

The key role of education is again brought to the fore in Education, the film that closes the series. The BBC’s short summary reads: ‘[w]hen Kingsley, at age 12, is transferred to a special school, a group of Caribbean women expose a practice of unofficial segregation that prevents many black children from receiving the education they deserve.’  The film is based in part on Steve McQueen’s own experience as a child, having been excluded from mainstream schooling just like many other black children who were then placed in ‘special schools’ for ‘educationally unsuccessful children.’ In an interview with Lola Okolosie, who wrote about the film and the issues it raises in The Observer, McQueen said: ‘Although we were from different backgrounds and races, […] we all knew we were getting screwed’.  Despite being dyslexic, McQueen continues, ‘there was no help at all […] we were left to ourselves, […] there was no interest at all.’ (15 November 2020). But this isn’t quite a historical film, although it is one too. It is, like the rest of the series, a film about the present and not just the UK.  If one had the idea that the education system could not help but change in these fifty years that have passed, at least with regard to racial issues, one need only look at the non-stop protests against current practices of inequality and systemic racism to immediately become disillusioned. Okolosie, a teacher and journalist, gives us a grim sense of context by pointing out that ‘Afro-Caribbean boys are three times more likely to be permanently excluded than others. The problem is even worse if we consider pupils from working-class backgrounds in the aggregate: children entitled to free school meals - both black and white - make up 40 per cent of permanent exclusions3.’ And Okolosie further notes that government statistics indicate the estimate that 4.2 million, or 30%, of all children in the UK live in poverty, an alarming figure that is set to rise further. The report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, published in 2019, leaves no room for doubt: ‘Although the UK is the fifth largest economy in the world, a fifth of its population (14 million people) live in poverty, and 1.5 million of these people suffered deprivation in 2017. The austerity policy introduced in 2010 remains virtually unrelieved, despite tragic social consequences. Nearly 40% of children are expected to be living in poverty by 2021.’

Steve McQueen’s first feature film, Hunger (2008), was awarded the Caméra d’Or at Cannes, among other prizes. His vision of the hunger strike at the Maze penitentiary in Northern Ireland and the death of Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) in 1981 still haunts today. As with that film, the five films that form Small Axe, and which he began preparing as soon as he finished work on Hunger, also have the power to awaken ghosts.  And just as well, because without a confrontation with those spectres still at the centre of our society, there is no possibility of moving forward. Both projects share an emphasis on human courage and resilience, as well as on the strength derived from opposing the injustice of power.

But Small Axe is also an explosion of life in the way it shows us the dynamism of black culture. Whether in the form of the big, intense, almost endless party in Lovers Rock, or in any other of the five films. And it’s not just the music, the dancing, the beauty of young people expressing themselves that the films celebrate, but also the intensity of work, the joy of preparing food together and belonging to a community. Small Axe vigorously denounces the rot at the centre of the system and cuts through it like careworn wood. But it is so much more than that. As Steve McQueen recently said in a conversation with Paul Gilroy at University College London on 26 October 2020: ‘[…] for me, Small Axe was about strengthening the foundations of who we are and where we come from and what we have contributed to this country on so many levels and how we have influenced it on so many levels. Yeah, that’s what Small Axe means to me.’

MEMOIRS is funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Community Framework Programme for Research & Innovation (No. 648624).

MAPS - Post European Memory: a postcolonial cartography is funded by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT - PTDC/LLT-OUT/7036/2020). The projects are based at the Centre for Social Studies (CES) of the University of Coimbra.

  • 1. Ife Thompson. ‘The Mangrove 9 and the Radical Lawyering Tradition’. Verso Blog, 20 November 2020.
  • 2. Louis Althusser. ‘Idéologie et appareils idéologiques d’État’. La Pensée, 151 (1970). Translation by Joaquim José Moura Ramos. Ideology and Ideological Apparatus of the State. Lisbon: Presença, 1974.
  • 3. Lola Okolosie. ‘Discrimination at School: is a Black British History Lesson Repeating Itself?’. The Observer. 15 November 2020.
Translation:  Alicia Gaspar

by Paulo de Medeiros
A ler | 18 February 2021 | British cinema, colonial memory, memoirs, memory, Paul Gilroy, Politics, race, racism, small axe, Steve McQueen