A recorded version of the talk I gave for Westminster Libraries on January 13, 2021 at 6.30 pm:
A recorded version of the talk I gave for Westminster Libraries on January 13, 2021 at 6.30 pm:
Small Axe ends with what, based on his 2014 profile in the Guardian, we take to be a tale partially inspired by Steve McQueen’s own childhood. In Education, a young dyslexic boy, Kingsley, is transferred to a school for the “educationally subnormal”, a real practice in the 1970s that disproportionately involved black children. The institution to which he’s sent is barely a school, the children left unsupervised by bored teachers and allowed to run riot – but it’s covertly investigated by a group of activists hoping to fight and end the system.
Mike relates to the film, recognising in Kingsley’s mum the same righteous anger and desire to fight for her son that his own mum showed for him as a youngster, and to its evocation of British school life. (It may be set twenty years prior to his school years, but British kids have had to perform London’s Burning on recorders and tambourines since time immemorial.) The aesthetic evokes the era vividly, the visual quality of the images, the shot selections and editing all perfectly emulating the look of Play for Today, the iconic anthology series. And as with the rest of Small Axe, a concise historical struggle within Britain’s wider racist society is effectively rendered complex…
… up to a point. Though the situation and its effects are complex, the characters are mostly fairly one-note, and the film’s ending is rather pat – even a little phony, though it’s forgivable for this series to want to end on a hopeful note. Still, it’s an intelligent, thoughtful film that fits in perfectly amongst the rest of the series, and as we have throughout, we implore you to watch it all.
An extended discussion of Youssef Chahine’s Alexandria, New York. ‘I love American cinema but America doesn’t love me’. Anyone who loves Chahine’s cinema will find this irresistible. A film made by someone who thinks and knows how to visualise and dramatise. We will see it again. The discussion can be listened to in the player below:
The Variety review Richard mentions can be found here:
There’s also an interesting comment from a 19 year old: Remembering Chahine a Personal Tribute.
Listeners might also be interesting in the clips below which are discussed in the podcast:
2. Watching the Girls Go By (and whose gaze is it?).
A bisexual gaze?
A coming full circle:
New York, New York: An Arab Ending.
Whilst scrambling to collect these clips this morning, Richard and I realised that we were speaking in relation to different prints and his findings might be of interest to some of you. Richard writes:
Very interesting – I’m assuming the 2hr 3 version is an Egyptian edit, and the longer one(2h9m) is the French version. Differences I could find are:
Scene at the dance contest: conversation at the bar is shorter and the presentation of the prize is cut (not clear why this is). Young Yehia walks Ginger home after the dance – their final long kiss is cut.
Scene with the peeping landlady – ends when she appears at Yehia’s door. Entire sequence of him showering in her flat and her joining him is gone. (about 2 minutes cut here)
Later scene where Ginger comes to Yehia’s room and they are interrupted by the landlady – their kiss is cut.
End of this scene where Yehia and Ginger go to bed is also cut.
Sex scene in Yehia’s room when he is planning to leave – opening two minutes of this scene has gone, the shorter cut opens at the end of this sequence with them lying in bed together (so, interestingly, it is still OK to show them in bed) 70s scene with the older Yehia and Ginger in his hotel room – mostly intact but the end of this scene is cut.
The theme of assimilation is given a fascinating twist in Alex Wheatle, the fourth Small Axe film. While Mangrove and Red, White and Blue, in particular, depicted black people’s attempts to assimilate into mainland British culture and life and the racism they faced, the title character here is a young black man brought up in an abusive children’s home, orphaned from his parents, and whose move to Brixton sees him culturally dislocated and having to, in effect, learn to ‘be black’.
Cultural and familial dislocation are connected through Alex. The abandonment by his parents led to his upbringing by the state, amongst white Britons, and when an influential Rastafarian he meets in prison expounds on the importance of education and knowing one’s past, to Alex, he’s speaking just as much about his personal past as about the history of the African disapora. This is the most interesting aspect of Alex Wheatle and we focus on it, but there’s more to discuss, including the continued invocation of music as a kind of life-giving force, how Alex learns to be black and British and the spaces in which that happens, and director Steve McQueen’s expressive formal visual storytelling.
Alex Wheatle elegantly tells a unique and complex story, and we continue to urge you to watch this remarkable series of films in its entirety.
I’m generally a supporter of blind casting — love it in much Shakespeare — but am having trouble with it in Bridgerton. If slavery and colonialism is to a considerable extent what funded this class of people and their lifestyle it seems dodgy to me to cast people of colour as Dukes etc in in the series, somehow making black people not only complicit in but actual beneficiaries of the slavery and oppression of their like.
I did end up watching the whole series and very much enjoyed it in the way that I enjoy the rest of Shondaland. But this aspect remans a niggle and I plan to read Kristen J Warner’s The Cultural Politics of Colorblind TV Casting, which I’ve been told is excellent.
Another Steve McQueen rendition of a true story, Red, White and Blue examines institutional racism in the Metropolitan Police, as did Mangrove – but from the inside. Leroy Logan, a research scientist, applies to the police with the express intention of combating its attitude and behaviour towards black people, in part because of his father’s own abuse at their hands.
The theme of black British identity runs throughout Small Axe, and here it’s intriguingly augmented by imagery of the Queen; we discuss how it can be interpreted, including as a symbol of the common nationality the Windrush generation ostensibly shares with British-born white people, and a painful reminder of the fact that that shared identity is not truly embodied, and also as an icon of the establishment Leroy hopes to disrupt and improve. We also concentrate on Leroy’s relationship with his father, which frames the entire film, and how their attitudes, experiences and understanding of each other intersect.
The joys of being a librarian:
José hasn’t seen a worse film from David Fincher than Mank, a contentious biopic of Herman J. Mankiewicz, the screenwriter whose collaboration with Orson Welles resulted in The Greatest Film of All Time™, Citizen Kane. Mike had rather a good time, despite seeing numerous problems with the film, raising the question: How much background knowledge is the right amount for enjoying Mank?
Mank doesn’t even explain, for instance, that the film Mankiewicz and Welles would create is considered one of history’s greatest, so some knowledge of the subject is clearly necessary; too much, though, and its missed opportunities and purposeful alterations to and adaptations of the facts become evident and impossible to ignore. Mike finds that he’s just ignorant – or is that informed – enough to understand the film’s background and setting without going crazy, as José does, as it clashes with his knowledge of the history.
We discuss Mank‘s obvious inspiration in Pauline Kael’s discredited essay, Raising Kane, which argued that Mankiewicz deserved sole credit for Kane‘s screenplay; its flashback structure that shows us where the screenplay came from and why Mankiewicz is the only person who could have written it; its depiction of Hollywood in the 30s (not to mention Mankiewicz in HIS 30s); the parallels that it draws with Hollywood and, more generally, the state of the world today, and more. Almost every criticism José makes, Mike agrees with – but he cannot and will not deny that he had a good time, finding the film witty and energetic where José felt it musty and lethargic. It’s a poor showing from a filmmaker with a largely exceptional oeuvre – unless you’re in that Goldilocks zone with Mike.
First, crosses. Crosses everywhere. Big and small. This film seems rife with
what appears to be the ultimate Christian symbol. But crosses are ancient
ciphers, they don’t only represent the crucifixion and they don’t only belong
to Christianity. Crosses, crossroads, and crossings, are deeply embedded
in Afro-Atlantic cultures and rituals. (e.g., Robert Johnson, the legendary
blues guitarist is said to have sold his soul to the devil at a crossroad in
return for his otherworldly skill and technique). The various crosses in the
film not only hold the Christian significance of hope and salvation but also
raise questions of oppression and captivity. (As Martha begins her journey
by bus [out of Babylon?] she observes through a window an old black man
carrying a large white cross on his shoulder, a deliberately emblematic
image that seems to stand Kipling on his head “Take up the white man’s
burden”). These various crosses also function as symbolic passages:
passages of belonging and identity, crossings between worlds,
intersections between past and present (the presence of the past), body
and soul, matter and form, the living and the dead. These various crosses
suggest an alternate cosmology along with alternative spheres and forms
of existence. This, we see in the film’s bold exploration of music and dance.
Second, music and dance. Music and dance are fundamental to this film,
and they seem to be scripted into the film in such a way as to highlight a
kind of movement of return, a kind of passage and return to a more original
time and place, a more heightened spiritual realm that remains
nonetheless deeply rooted in the bodily-material sphere (I’m here reminded
of Aimé Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal , a work that
evokes a nostalgia for an imaginary homeland of the spirit). Thus, within
the film’s unflinching carnality we also witness a sublime ascent, a crossing
over that takes place through an abstractive movement away from very
recognizable forms, first in the popular song-form (verse/chorus/bridge),
e.g., (“Kung Fu Fighting” (Carl Douglas) “He’s The Greatest Dancer” (Sister
Sledge), “After Tonight” (Junior English), “Mr. Brown” (Gregory Isaacs),
“Silly Games” (Janet Kay), etc. These are all songs with recognizable lyrics
and strong, recognizable melodies accompanied by recognizable body
movements and dance-floor moves (kung fu postures, disco poses , slow
grinds, etc.). But these soon give way to a second, more stripped back,
instrumental, percussive and rhythmically driven minimalist dub aesthetic.
In this deepening of the Afro-British aesthetic, the music is stripped bare of
words and melody and is held in place in the lower register solely by drum
and bass. (“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter”).
Guitar and horns and keys are interjected percussively and rhythmically,
and like the dancing that now accompanies it, they appear distorted,
floating in sonic, otherworldly fashion. (This is made to happen through
delay, feedback, and reverb, etc.) And so with “Minstrel Pablo” (Augustus
Pablo), we begin the ascension, the crossing over from the material to the
spiritual, the worldly to the ascetic. Couples give way to individuals dancing
by themselves but within a collective. And the dancing is fierce,
transcendent, the mood majestic and eternal. The song now on heavy
rotation is “Kunta Kinte Dub” by The Revolutionaries. (Remember
“Roots”?) To maintain this ecstatic moment, the record is rewound three
times. By the time the music and the dancing crescendo, arms are lifted
and there is a repeated, collectively euphoric shout of “Jah Ras Tafari.”
(The lifting of the arm in this manner is an old Kongo gesture, a way of
touching the most elevated moment of the sun to gather up the energy and
force of the divine. Yet, this ancient Kongo gesture of the dancers is equally
deeply intertwined with the Christian-Hebraic tradition: “Sing unto God, sing
praises to his name: extol him that rideth upon the heavens by his
name JAH, and rejoice before him.” [Psalm 68: 4]).
We’ve just been to “church,” an electronically, sound-system driven version
of a “binghi” (an all-night drumming session) and have witnessed a
collective, spiritual transformation.
As the young protagonist Martha boards the bus to return home, who does
she see? That old man again, and he is reassembling that big old white
cross to lift once more on his shoulder. We’re reentering Babylon, but not
quite the same way as when we left.
Do English people get Preston Sturges? Is his work all it’s cracked up to be? These questions are on the table as we tackle The Palm Beach Story, a film Mike’s twice been encouraged to see by Canadians, and twice found infuriating and tiresome. José’s a fan, and we discuss the differences in our responses to the film, the pleasures that can be found within it, and how Sturges gives comically sensitive voice to the strong, silent American male, with several helpful interjections from Celia, friend of the podcast and the first Canadian who told Mike he just doesn’t get it.
Small Axe continues with Lovers Rock, a stunning musical set in a house party in the 1980s. Hit follows hit on the soundtrack, and José in particular is blown away by how Steve McQueen’s camera observes its euphoric subjects, concentrating on specific body parts, taking as much time as it likes to explore the mood, the resulting experience as sensuous as any we can recall. We discuss the cross-national identity the partygoers occupy, the Christian symbolism conspicuously on display, the open-ended narrative structure, and more, but always returning to the bold and brilliant dancefloor sequences. A masterpiece.
Small Axe, Steve McQueen’s remarkable anthology of five films made for the BBC, begins with Mangrove, a dramatisation of the 1971 trial of the Mangrove Nine, a key event in British history in which the institutional racism of the Metropolitan Police was successfully litigated by members of the black community in Notting Hill. While it is undoubtedly key, it’s an event with which neither Mike nor José is familiar, and the film embodies the BBC’s iconic mission statement of “inform, educate, entertain”, doing all three wonderfully.
We discuss the way in which Mangrove both fits into and demonstrates an evolution of McQueen’s filmmaking – it’s as powerful and subtly impassioned as any of his previous work, but, perhaps owing to the medium for which it is made, unusually accessible, less keen to make the audience seek its depths for itself. The long-term implications of the trial in raising the nation’s consciousness about institutional racism are clear to the characters, and they’re not shy about discussing them, indulging in justified and welcome exposition. Mike discusses the differences between the characters, particularly Frank Crichlow, the owner of the titular restaurant, and Darcus Howe, an intellectual who is introduced to us as such, and how in which they play off each other, and particularly the way in which Howe persuades Crichlow of his central place in the West Indian immigrant community and their fight to address the racism they face from the police. And José picks up on McQueen’s style and visual expressiveness, confidently holding some shots for a long time, and carefully composing others with considerations of framing and colour to create striking imagery.
Mangrove is the first of an extraordinary series of films about black British history and the experience of West Indian immigrants and their children in the 1970s and 80s, and our podcasts on the others will follow. They’re on iPlayer and unmissable.
Chris McNicholl wrote José with the following, which I expect will be of interest:
I just finished listening to your podcast on Small Axe. I enjoyed it very much, and I’m looking forward to rewatching it again in light of some of your observations, especially the image compositions. I’ll make a couple of observations though. I think the young female protagonist somewhere in the film makes a passing reference to Ogun in a discussion with the owner of the restaurant. Well, i think that’s the cultural origin of the film’s title, and not only the Bob Marley song. Ogun in Afro-Caribbean derived religions is the god of iron and metals. A god of war and justice and protector of the community. And along with swords and machetes and other weapons, he is sometimes depicted with a small axe protruding from his head. He is the guy who opens the way by clearing away injustices.
On the subject of Darcus Howe. He is actually C.L. R. James’ nephew. And James lived in Darcus’ basement in Brixton. It’s quite a famous basement, actually. Stuart Hall and Edward Said visited him there and did interviews with him. And I know the government installed one of those Blue Plaques honouring where he lived in South London. Also, do you recall the scene where Darcus is lying on the sofa in the living room reading a text and his wife or girlfriend slaps it out of his hands and says I’ve had enough of these black jacobins, or something to that effect? Well, he is reading James’ famous text on the Haitian revolution, entitled The Black Jacobins. (see the attachment). That text in itself has an interesting history, given that it was first written as a play around 1936 and was staged shortly after in the West End with Paul Robeson playing Toussaint L’Ouverture before James worked it up into a book.
Lastly Roy Stafford has written a really interesting introduction to Small Axe, which you can read here:
and also a really informative piece on Mangrove, which can be accessed here:
A discussion of Silence…on tourne focussing on the many characteristic flourishes we like so much in Chahine’s oeuvre but exploring also why they are less satisfying in this particular work. As we can see from Peter Broadshaw’s review here, the film was well reviewed on its original release but we found it less successfully realised than his other films (and this was also the case upon José’s first viewing and the podcast he did on the film with Egyptian filmmaker Tara Shehata).
We reference the ending in the discussion, particularly that great tracking shot/edit from the filming of the musical number to the rejected gigolo watching the finished version at the cinema, and this can be seen below