‘Small Axe,’ ‘Mahalia’ Showcase Real-Life Black Individuals’ Achievements Amidst Oppression

When Steve McQueen was curating the narratives for his Amazon Prime Video anthology “Small Axe,” the year 1968 felt like the best place to start.

This was because it was a year of mass strikes in France, a year in which Conservative politician Enoch Powell made his infamous “rivers of blood” speech and a year in which Frank Crichlow (played by Shaun Parkes in the “Mangrove” installment) named his restaurant and fought to keep its doors open in the face of repeated police raids.

“Small Axe” is one of several among this year’s limited series and TV movie contenders, including Lifetime’s “Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia Jackson” which tell full, nuanced stories of Black people achieving their goals, despite facing oppression from racist institutions.

McQueen describes having “a must, a need, a want” to put the acts of “Small Axe” on screen, and to show working-class Black men and women who were “laying down their roots” in London.

“We were choosing stories which were about a significant time and showing what people were doing in that specific time,” McQueen says. “The Mangrove was this gathering of hoi polloi, intellectuals and working-class people, and that was seen as a threat. It was a home away from home for many West Indians and a hip joint for many people at that time, but the whole idea of information being exchanged and people talking about real issues was a threat to the establishment and therefore it was targeted.”

With “Lovers Rock,” the second film in his series, McQueen says he wanted to show the kind of house party where young Black people could be “free for a moment and relate to each other.”

“That film was about spirituality, a young people’s church. If Black young people didn’t have those spaces, there would have been a psychosis,” McQueen says. “People needed to find out their full potential in a space with likeminded people, in a space where they could invent their own music, invent their own language.”

In making the recent Lifetime film about legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson (played by Danielle Brooks), Todd Kreidler says he and director Kenny Leon wanted to show how, in addition to her trailblazing success as a recording artist, a significant part of Jackson’s legacy remains in the “small storefront churches” where she felt most at home.

“Malcolm X wrote about Mahalia and said that he admired her for, even at the height of her career, going back to these churches where she’d built her career,” Kreidler says. “He called them her filling station. That’s where we end the film, in the community that loved her first.”

From his extensive research, Kreidler says the aspect of Jackson that stood out most was her desire to educate.

“She wanted to build an inter-denominational temple that was open to all races and all religions,” he says. “She tried several times to go back to school, but she never got a formal education and I think she always felt less than because of that. I heard that echo in interviews and biographies.”

McQueen’s films speak to both a need for a similar general education, which many Black immigrant children in Britain were deprived of, as shown in the final chapter of “Small Axe,” as well as an education in the past of Black communities in order to understand the context we find ourselves in today.

“’Small Axe’ is based in the past, but it’s very much about the present. It’s about speaking about what’s happening now; these are period pieces, but at the same time these stories could have happened yesterday, just in a different time and space,” McQueen says. “If anything, it’s a rallying call for now. It’s in the title really. If we come together, we can achieve anything.”

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