Following the lukewarm reception to Widows, filmmaker Steve McQueen turned to something much more personal, political and powerful with his Small Axe film series released in 2020. The five films in the series, plus the essential three-part documentary directed by McQueen and James Rogan about the tragic 1981 New Cross house fire, are presented on Blu-ray in a collector’s set from Criterion. The new 2K masters show off the mix of different shooting formats and styles used by McQueen well, and while the supplements package is a bit spare, McQueen’s full storytelling powers are on display here and make this release Recommended!
The journey to make Small Axe started back in 2010 and took years for Steve McQueen to fully realize his massive achievement. According to multiple interviews, McQueen initially wanted to make a series dedicated to following one family from London’s West Indian community throughout the years. But then, he decided to open the scope up to more collaboration, offering seats for writers he wanted to work with, including Courttia Newland and Alastair Siddons. It was in that writers’ room that he decided exactly which stories he wanted to tell about the experience of being Black in Britain, and four out of the five were based on hard-hitting true stories.
The five films in the Small Axe series – Mangrove, Lovers Rock, Red, White and Blue, Alex Wheatle, and Education – were all warmly received upon release back in 2020, but being that they dropped right in the middle of awards season, some further time and reflection were needed to really realize just how expansive McQueen’s canvas is here. Moments of fiery political furor are bolstered by gentle, loving depictions of characters simply trying to negotiate with their respective realities to survive, both emotionally and physically.
One might think the story of The Mangrove Nine, who clashed with police in 1970, would be enough for an audience to understand just how unjust things were in Britain, but McQueen pushes deeper for an intimate look at a community still being built and up against incredible racial violence. Their lives are what we should care about when watching the film, and thus the characterizations, situations, and plots are intricately detailed without being fussy. You look at something as sensuous as Lovers Rock after the earthy, understated Mangrove and it feels like a world continuing to be colored in, filled with beauty and pain that sidesteps being singular for something that’s emotionally expansive. And cinematographer Shabier Kirchner’s work in handling different shooting formats and even aesthetic styles can’t be understated either. The collaboration between Kirchner and McQueen is in itself its own story that develops over the five films.
What struck me hardest on going through this series again was just how much each physical space that these characters occupy is directly connected to the emotional underpinnings. Think of Frank Critchlow’s bar in Mangrove, prideful in so many ways, yet stymied by the racist society in which it sits. I think of the court sequences, with all of Britain’s pomp and circumstance feeling especially egregious and aggressive to Black people trying to prove their worth to oppressors. In short, this is just a massive work that bears reflection and direct attention to how characters interact with their environment.
If you couldn’t tell by now, I love all of the films in this series, with my favorite of the bunch being Lovers Rock. Despite critical acclaim across the globe upon its release, I sometimes feel that Small Axe went unseen by many because of its length and the lack of theatrical exhibition, but it’ll always be here lying in wait for people to discover its immersive canvas of Black struggles in Britain.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-rays
Small Axe is presented in a three-disc Blu-ray collector’s set from Criterion with a slipbox containing two different digipacks inside. One digipack is reserved for the two BD50 discs for the five films in the series and the accompanying booklet, and the other digipack is reserved for a BD50 disc of Uprising, the documentary that McQueen and James Rogan made about the 1981 New Cross house fire. All discs fire up to standard menu screens with options to play the films, set up subtitles and explore special features.
One major complaint I had about Small Axe back in 2020 is that I didn’t think Amazon’s streaming compression did the series any favors, especially considering the use of different film stocks depending on the production. Luckily for all of us, I was proved correct and the new 2K masters produced for each film offer a nice upgrade over what you can watch on Amazon currently. One reservation I will bring up about this new set is that there’s only two BD50 discs for all five films in the series, with Mangrove and Lovers Rock on one disc and the rest on the other, and as such the bitrates are a bit more modest than usual. Image quality is strong across, despite some infrequent macroblocking seen here and there.
Mangrove and Red, White and Blue were both shot on 35mm and their presentations are sourced from new 2K scans of the negatives. The uptick in shadow definition and black levels in those films makes this purchase worth it for fans of the series, though some blocky qualities in the blacks can creep their way in here and there. Needless to say, the range of color available here is much better than what’s available on streaming, with those hushed brown tones in Mangrove gaining great depth compared to its streaming counterpart.
All in all, the five films look great with their respective 1080p, MPEG-4 encodes and only slight compression issues pop up here and there.
A real nice surprise in this set are the 5.1 surround soundtracks for each film. Each track is presented as DTS-HD MA and they’re all very active across all channels. In particular, I found Lovers Rock to be a lot more expansive in its soundscape than what’s available on streaming, with those big musical sequences delighting in notes like hushed breath between lovers and much deeper bass levels. Mica Levi’s score for both Mangrove and Lovers Rock is given a bigger soundscape to revel in, and the same applies to that absolute banger soundtrack of reggae hits in Lovers Rock. Dialogue is handled nicely and the sources are all in terrific condition.
The inclusion of Steve McQueen and Alex Rogan’s Education is worth the purchase alone, but it’s a bit disappointing to see this set not have much of a supplements package otherwise. Before going into the other features, it’s worth noting once again just how essential the included documentary is, as it shows exactly how McQueen got inspired for the Small Axe series and his tireless work in getting everything historically right. The documentary uses various footage sources, including old BBC footage and new interviews with people affected by police harassment within the West Indian community, to cover the events leading up to the 1981 New Cross house fire.
The new interview with Steve McQueen and professor Paul Gilroy is a nice addition and showcases once again just how deep McQueen went into history with Small Axe. Each film also has some behind-the-scenes featurettes that look previously produced during the series’ awards campaign.
Disc 1: Mangrove & Lovers Rock
Disc 2: Red, White and Blue, Alex Wheatle & Education
Disc 3: Uprising
The Small Axe series is an expansive and quietly triumphant work from filmmaker Steve McQueen, as it details the real-life atrocities suffered by Black people in Britain at the behest of a racist police force and government. The Criterion Collection adds the five-film series to their offerings with a three-disc Blu-ray release that boasts new 2K masters of all the films and a decent supplements package to enjoy. Consider this release Recommended!