Steve McQueen explores love and community in ‘Small Axe’

Director Steve McQueen talks to actor John Boyega standing next to a car.
Director Steve McQueen, left, and John Boyega as Leroy Logan on the set of “Red, White and Blue,” part of the “Small Axe” anthology series.
(Will Robson-Scott / Amazon Prime Video)

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen and welcome to the newsletter companion to “The Envelope: The Podcast,” where my cohost, Yvonne Villarreal, and I bring you highlights from each week’s episode.

The Golden Globes were this past Sunday, on the heels of the Times’ recent reporting on the questionable ethics of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., which gives out the awards, as well as the makeup of the group itself, which has long had no Black members.

While those revelations certainly cast a pall over the evening — with hosts Amy Poehler and Tina Fey and representatives of the HFPA all addressing the situation directly — as Greg Braxton noted, only a few of the night’s winners spoke on the issue. After the show, Time’s Up released a statement denouncing the HFPA’s response.

In a powerful speech accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Award, Jane Fonda said, “There’s a story we’ve been afraid to see and hear about ourselves in this industry. The story about which voices we respect and elevate and which we tune out. It’s about who’s offered a seat at the table and who was kept out of the rooms where decisions are made. So that’s all of us, including all the groups who decide who gets hired and what gets made and who wins awards.

“Let’s all of us make an effort to expand that tent, so that everyone rises and everyone’s story has a chance to be seen and heard.”


Where we normally have Times awards columnist Glenn Whipp on the podcast for a quick update, this week he joined us for a longer conversation about the ceremony and its controversies.

This week I also spoke to Steve McQueen, director, co-writer and producer of “Small Axe,” an anthology of five films set amidst London’s West Indian community in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. (Actor John Boyega won a Globe on Sunday for his performance in the entry titled “Red, White and Blue.” While the BBC and Amazon project was collectively named the best film of 2020 by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, it is competing for television and not film awards.)

The “Small Axe” films are not directly interconnected but they all touch on systemic discrimination and also foreground moments of joy alongside pain and struggle.

Micheal Ward and Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn in a crowded room
Micheal Ward as Franklyn, center left, and Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn as Martha, in purple, in “Lovers Rock.”
(Parisa Taghizedeh / Amazon Prime Video.)

In our conversation, McQueen said, “For me, these films are about love. That’s what this is about — it’s us. I think when we come together, we can achieve any- and everything and it’s about love, isn’t it? I know it sounds corny, I apologize, but that hopefulness through adversity is about love.”

Times TV critic Lorraine Ali recently wrote about the anthology, noting, “The intimate ‘Small Axe’ weaves their stories around the empire’s history of racism, the rigors of assimilation and the conflict that arises between immigrant parents and their English-born kids. The personal is political when discrimination means these sympathetic figures are brutalized by police, shunned by prospective employers and labeled ‘low intelligence’ by a biased school system.”

Ali added, “What sets ‘Small Axe’ apart is its ability to mine humanity and empathy from the smallest details: There’s the graceful swirl of smoke off the hand-rolled cigarette of a troubled soul. Or the bamboo-patterned wallpaper in a Caribbean family’s residence, juxtaposed with the cold British weather outside as if to suggest how far they are from the place they once called home.”

Thanks for reading/listening/subscribing. We have more conversations to come in the weeks leading up to the Oscars, including talks with Shaka King for “Judas and the Black Messiah,” Garrett Bradley for “Time” and Thomas Vinterberg and Mads Mikkelsen for “Another Round.”

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