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Steve McQueen finds the heroes next door in ‘Small Axe’ anthology

Director Steve McQueen
Director Steve McQueen prepares so well before shooting that he says of filming in the moment, “We know what’s going to happen. But how is it going to happen? That’s the magic of it.”
(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

Steve McQueen began his filmmaking career with movies about an Irish Republican Army militant starving himself to death (“Hunger”); sexual addiction (“Shame”); and the curse of American slavery (the Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave”). Someone advised him to be careful and make something more commercial. His reply: Absolutely not.

“I tried my best to fail in that regard,” McQueen says from his Amsterdam home. “But I didn’t. And if I had, I wouldn’t have cared.”

That uncompromising attitude has fueled McQueen’s career and his life. The New York Post ran a story about him with the headline: “Steve McQueen knows he’s not very friendly.” McQueen doesn’t dispute it even though he possesses a generosity of spirit and a love for people that can be found in his work, most notably the five movies that make up the “Small Axe” film anthology, an examination of London’s West Indian community from the mid-1960s to the ‘80s. Released on Amazon Prime and shown on the BBC in England, the series offers an unforgettable tapestry of culture and history, strong enough to become the first anthology to win the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.'s best picture prize.

A couple of other things become clear about McQueen over two lengthy Zoom conversations. He loves to laugh. And he’s loath to curse. More often than not, he checks the obscenity and redirects it. On the rare occasion it slips out, he covers his mouth with his hand. When I note this, telling him I find it interesting that one of the world’s boldest filmmakers becomes a little flustered when he drops an F-bomb, there’s a long silence as he considers his behavior.

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“Interesting. That’s a good one,” McQueen says. “I want to be polite. I think that’s my mother in me. My mother wouldn’t appreciate it. And you should be able to tell the truth without swearing.”

McQueen’s mother is in “Small Axe” in a fashion as the exhausted working-class woman worrying over her son’s future in “Education.” So is McQueen’s aunt, who used to attend the kinds of sensual house parties seen in the gorgeous, euphoric “Lovers Rock.” His dad’s there too, in the spirit of the fathers trying to meet their sons across generational divides in “Red, White and Blue” and “Education.” They’re exalted, as are the scores of everyday people fighting to better their communities across “Small Axe.”

Kenyah Sandy as a young Kingsley Smith "Education."
(Will Robson-Scott/Amazon Prime Video)

“I love that I know my mother was a hero,” McQueen says. “I know my aunt. I know my father. I know heroes. I can tell you the names of heroes. And they don’t wear capes. And a thousand people don’t follow them to see them speak. But without them, I would not be possible.”

Growing up, did you recognize your mother was a hero?

Of course not. [Laughs] I had an inkling, but you never know how much they’re doing for you until you get older. I think back on how little money we had and how much stuff we got. How did that happen? My mother worked two jobs to put clothes on our backs. My father was a builder. We were a real immigrant family in that regard.

The situation in “Education” doesn’t precisely mirror your own life, but you weren’t one of the students mapped for success. Could you feel that?

Absolutely. I had a working-class background, and I had dyslexia. So they just throw you in one corner, and that’s it. But I had the ability to draw, and art was my ticket to freedom. Art was my salvation.

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The immigrant fathers we see in “Small Axe” want their sons to learn a trade. Did your father support your decision to pursue the arts?

The arts weren’t in his stratosphere. My father had a better relationship with my cousins than me because they were mechanics, builders. I was none of that. I was like the weird son. Maybe not weird. But he wondered what I was doing. “You should learn a trade. Have that in your back pocket.” And he also understood the world we lived in.

Let me tell you a story. My father used to pick oranges in Florida. They’d get all these men in the West Indies in the late 1950s to go to the orange groves. There was a camp, and you weren’t allowed to leave. One night these two guys said to my father, “Let’s go into town for a drink.” They walked into a bar, like the swing doors open in a saloon, I suppose. And people’s mouths open as these three Black men walk to the counter for a drink.

As they get to the counter, one of the Jamaican guys says to the bartender, “Can I have a drink, please?” And the bartender said, “We don’t serve the N-word.” “OK, then we will serve ourselves.” And the guy picked up the bottle and smashed it over the bartender’s head and ran out. And they ran and ran. There were dogs behind them. My dad hid in a ditch and he heard two loud bangs. He stayed in that ditch. Hours later, he goes back to the camp. He never saw those two other guys again. Never.

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John Boyega as Leroy Logan in " Red, White and Blue."
(S Goodwin/Amazon Prime Video)

And that is something my father told me toward the end of his life. And I realized, “My dad’s living with this. And he’s living with other things, so of course he’s cautious about me. He’s afraid for me.” With that experience in your life, it colors everything.

Is that the source of those tender father-son scenes in “Small Axe,” particularly in “Red, White and Blue” where we see Leroy Logan’s dad embrace him from afar while Al Green’s version of “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” plays?

That scene was not written like that. I don’t think it was even in the script. But I thought, “Let’s have this intimacy.” And we allow them that intimacy by staying in the car and seeing it from afar.

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You know, my father was a big guy. You don’t do that, embrace, especially in West Indian parenting. It’s quite Victorian in a way. My dad only told me he loved me once, and that was in a fight. [Laughs] I screamed at him, “I love you,” and he screamed it at me. So the only time we actually said we loved each other was in a fight. [Laughs] Using the heart as ammo. I love it.

Are you able to be more vulnerable with your two children?

I hope so. Talk about using it as ammo, I’m machine-gunning love. I’m just rattling off that word. They’re like,
“Yeah, I know, I know. You told me.”

How often do you improvise scenes like that one in “Red, White and Blue”?

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I come to the set sometimes and don’t know what scene we’re going to do. And that’s not arrogance or thinking I’m going to wing it. It’s just that I know the script so well that when I come to the set, I want to surprise myself. To under prepare sometimes is to prepare. What I mean is that I prepare so far in advance, it’s like an Olympic athlete. You’ve got four years to prep for the 100 meters. That’s what I do. I work a lot on it beforehand and then at a certain point, I just leave it. Then, on the day, I can play.

Is that what you mean when you say that you’re not interested in what happens, but what occurs? How do you define the difference?

We know what’s going to happen. But how is it going to happen? That’s the magic of it.

Shaniqua Okwok and Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn dance in "Lovers Rock."
(Parisa Taghizedeh / Amazon Prime Video.)

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So the party in “Lovers Rock,” the rapturous 10 minutes of swaying and singing Janet Kay’s “Silly Games,” that’s what you mean by letting something occur?

Ten minutes of love and togetherness. You prepare, prepare, prepare. Then, as a director, you can be very lucky and the performers invite you in. And that happened all the way through “Small Axe.”

It happens later on in “Lovers Rock” when the men gather on the dance floor and stomp and flail to the dub track “Kunta Kinte.” Why do you think that scene received so little attention compared with “Silly Games”?

People don’t know what to make of it. I know what it is. It’s from the inside out, not the other way around.

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It feels like a cleansing.

Cleansing. Freedom. Spirituality. It was a ritual. People see things like that in a gospel church when the Holy Spirit hits them or whatever. For Black people at that time, those parties, that space was their church and it was surrounded by alligators and crocodiles, the police and the wider society outside, which wasn’t rooting for them. But that space on a Saturday night? That was theirs and the music and the sound did that.

When I first heard “Kunta Kinte,” it was like a dog whistle going off. I wanted to break stuff. Music is the most revolutionary thing one can do in a way. It’s a thing that pierces through anyone’s armor. Twelve f— notes and three minutes change your life.

Letitia Wright in "Mangrove" part of the "Small Axe" series directed by Steve McQueen.
Letitia Wright in “Mangrove” part of the “Small Axe” series directed by Steve McQueen.
(Des Willie/Amazon Prime Video)

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What 12 notes and three minutes changed your life?

Good bloody question! Oh, my God. “Blue in Green.” No. It’s got to be a pop record. You’re terrible. [Long pause. McQueen opens Spotify on his phone.] As a young person, it was the Specials’ “Too Much Too Young.” I remember that on “Top of the Pops” as a kid. It was ska. It was punk. It was the way they looked, the band jumping around. It was tough. It was direct. That’s what I liked.

British punk or British rock at that time was always political and passionate. You know how young people are. They’re so much about justice, about right and wrong. There’s no ambiguity. As you get older, there are ambiguities that come along. When you’re young, there’s wrong and right. That’s it. I love that. I would love to make a love story about young kids. That’s the best time, isn’t it? When you’re young and in love and can physically run as long and as fast as you like. There’s something incredible about that.

You could live vicariously through the characters. Because we can’t run that fast anymore.

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[Laughs] No we bloody can’t! I was daydreaming the other day. “Remember when we used to run around all the time?” Now it’s “oh” and “ouch.” But I can listen to the Specials and remember.


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