Essays · Movies

Filmmaker of the Year (2020): Steve McQueen

The director’s ‘Small Axe’ anthology challenged film’s definition by exploring deeply personal stories in a radically varied and cinematic manner.
Filmmaker Of The Year Steve Mcqueen 2020
By  · Published on December 28th, 2020

This article is part of our 2020 RewindFollow along as we explore the best and most interesting movies, shows, performances, and more from this very strange year. In this entry, we explain why Steve McQueen is our pick for 2020 Filmmaker of the Year.

The war to define cinema raged furiously in 2020. With most theaters shuttered or sparsely populated throughout the year and big studio releases dumped off the calendar or onto VOD, the small screen became our most trusted entertainment delivery system. Christopher Nolan might be disappointed by his new overlords, but Steve McQueen is too busy revolutionizing narrative to fret designation.

Are his Small Axe stories streaming on Amazon Prime five thematically-linked films or five thematically-linked episodes?

Ask Google, and an infinite playlist of think-pieces will assault you. The LA Film Critics just named all five their Best Picture of the Year. Meanwhile, Amazon submitted Small Axe to the Emmys, and the five tales continue to pop up on one Best of TV list after another. Not ours, mind you, but more on that in a minute.

Merriam-Webster defines cinema as “a motion picture.” Click on “motion picture,” and the definition evolves into “a series of pictures projected on a screen in rapid succession with objects shown in successive positions slightly changed so as to produce the optical effect of a continuous picture in which the objects move.” What kind of screen? Big or small? It doesn’t matter.

Still iffy? Projection? Is that your hangup? You’re a stubborn one. Let’s ask Steve McQueen himself.

When Rolling Stone lobbed the question at McQueen, the director answered bluntly:

“There’s nothing to talk about, really. These films were made for television. They can be projected in cinema, but Small Axe was all about the generosity and accessibility to these films. From the beginning, I wanted these films to be accessible to my mother. I wanted them on the BBC. It was always going to be on TV, the five films. But at the same time, they premiered in the cinema. There’s no absolutes anymore. There shouldn’t be. Because it’s about how people want to see things. That’s about it.”

Cinema, theater, TV, whatever.

With each passing year, the question of what is and is not cinema becomes less relevant. The stories are what matter. How you prefer to intake them is a personal choice and no real worry of mine. Frankly, I hope we argue these points for the rest of my life because that will mean movie houses will remain for the rest of my life. There’s nothing like sitting in a large room in the dark with other people and letting a big bright wall wash over you.

The theatrical experience is and has been, for decades now, temporary. As McQueen states, Small Axe was always going to be on TV. All your favorite movies make their final destination on the boob tube, and often, even the tallest of tentpoles like Star Wars or Avengers: Endgame make the majority of their audience introductions while confined in a box in somebody’s living room.

The pictures move. They’re films.

Steve McQueen is our Filmmaker of the Year because he delivered five incredible singular stories that interlock to reveal a universe of human experience. Small Axe can be devoured in five bites over five months or five years, and each one will taste delicious. Individually, they leave a satisfying aftertaste worthy of contemplation.

Small Axe can also be gobbled as one feast, each entrée responding to the previous flavor as well as hinting at a future spoonful. The spread salutes the West Indian community of London from the 1960s to the 1980s. It’s an eclectic collection of personalities who bash against an English system of racism and discrimination—one act of defiance bolstering the next.

The title refers to a lyric from Bob Marley’s 1973 song of the same name, “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe.” Giants are built to fall. All it takes is one tiny sliver of stone directed at the appropriate fleshy weak-spot.

The films spring from a variety of true-life stories. Mangrove, the first segment, recalls the Mangrove Nine trial in 1971 (and viciously unmasks The Trial of the Chicago 7‘s Oscar-baity disappointment). Lovers Rock is a moody, hypnotic romance that bubbles out of the reggae house party scene. Red, White and Blue stars John Boyega as Leroy Logan, the Black Police Association’s founding officer. Alex Wheatle depicts how the titular novelist rose from being a ward of the state to a critical participant in the Brixton Uprising. Education, the final installment, champions the hungry mind of a twelve-year-old boy as he’s persistently attacked by doubting, hateful teachers.

As previously stated, a single film consumed on its own will leave the viewer feeling one particular way. Mangrove boils blood. Lovers Rock soothes and electrifies. Alex Wheatle emblazons human will. In total, Small Axe howls in celebration of an indestructible culture and seethes against the white institution carefully curated to contain it. McQueen accomplishes this storytelling ferocity without falling into a muddy mess of sameness.

No Small Axe installment resembles the other. McQueen and his cinematographer, Shabier Kirchner, differentiate the films’ visual aesthetic and language by bouncing around different cameras and lenses. McQueen wanted an untethered approach for Mangrove, allowing the actors to lead the camera to where it needed to be. Shooting in Techniscope 35mm gave him a chance to over and under process the film, presenting a tactile and raw image. It’s not quite a home movie, but there is a fly-on-the-wall sensation to the frame.

With Lovers Rock, McQueen wanted the ability to wade into the central house party’s thumping rhythm, but he needed some exceptionally long takes as well. Digital was the only option, and with the Arri Alexa, Kirchner need not worry about constant lighting adjustments. Point and shoot; a reality restrained.

Red, White and Blue was a run and gun production. McQueen sought to remove style as much as possible; nothing could get in the way of John Boyega’s performance. Shooting 3-perf 35mm offers an immaculate image, freeing the audience to think of nothing else but what’s happening on Boyega’s face.

The biopic Alex Wheatle jams a life into a runtime of a little more than an hour. McQueen wanted to pull back-and-forth with John Boyega in Red, White and Blue, but he desired Alex Wheatle‘s frame to live on Sheyi Cole’s close-up. The large-format Sony Venice camera gifts an astonishing field-of-view where even a close-up can also hold massive chunks of background.

Education takes the visual authenticity sensed in Mangrove and realized its documentary vibe via 16mm. Watching Kenyah Sandy hurtled through an uncaring school system feels like experiencing some brutal television expose. McQueen drags us into a human-interest story and shames our leering by preying on it.

Small Axe is the wildest and most assured swing yet from Steve McQueen as a filmmaker. Think of the production as his Magnolia or Nashville, a parade of humanity tumbling down the same streets but missing each other due to the barrier of time. Their intersection occurs in the telling and our witness.

As a child of Caribbean parents, McQueen injects his memories and his family’s sagas into every installment. He made these films for his mum to watch on TV, after all. These are his stories and their stories, too often denied entry by corporate interests who imagine they understand mainstream appeal.

The absurdity being that the very nature of telling welcomes empathy. By drilling down into specificity, McQueen uncovers universality. What suits don’t know, cinemaniacs crave.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)