Most anthology film and TV series don’t demand to be viewed in any particular way. You can watch as many episodes of Black Mirror as you like, or as few, in any order at all, and the same thing goes for The Twilight Zone, whether you’re talking original, 1980s, or Jordan Peele. You could ostensibly say the same thing about Steve McQueen’s Small Axe, an anthology film series which is presented as five “episodes” on Amazon, but there’s a logic to the order they’re in: Mangrove, Lovers Rock, Red, White and Blue, Alex Wheatle, and Education. Though each film could easily stand on its own, they inform each other in ways big and small, and fit into a larger arc.
All five films center on the lives of West Indian immigrants in 1960s and ’70s London, giving them a sense of continuity even though none of the characters or plots overlap. Small Axe’s opener, Mangrove, focuses on the 1971 trial of the Mangrove Nine, a group of black activists who were tried for inciting a riot after protesting the police targeting of the titular Caribbean restaurant in Notting Hill. Police violence and the seemingly insurmountable degree of racial bias in the judicial system is front and center, so when the sound of police sirens cuts through the music in Lovers Rock, which takes place at a reggae house party, it immediately sets off alarm bells. But in the case of Lovers Rock, the sirens are sounds played by the party’s DJs.
Lovers Rock almost serves as an emotional relief after the heaviness of Mangrove. Unlike the other four films, which span months if not years, it takes place over the course of a single night, and invites the viewer to share in a hidden pocket of joy and escape from the rest of the world. That escape isn’t perfect—when Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) tries to follow a friend who’s left the party, she’s immediately harassed by a group of white men, and some of the men at the party are predators—but it’s a space for Black people, made by Black people.
From that starting point, Red, White and Blue, Alex Wheatle, and Education feed into each other, beginning, in Red, White and Blue, with the expectations placed on Black children and youths. The third film stars John Boyega as Leroy Logan, a real figure who joined the London Metropolitan Police in the hopes of reforming it from within. The lead-in of Mangrove and Lovers Rock make it abundantly clear just how difficult a decision this is, not just in terms of the harassment that Leroy faces from his colleagues but with regard to judgment from within his own community. In Mangrove and Lovers Rock, community comes before all else, and is the glue holding people together. Leroy, in the quest to better the world for his community, risks giving it all up.
Alex Wheatle and Education, meanwhile, expand upon the ideas planted by Red, White and Blue’s first sequence, in which Leroy’s father tells him not to be a “roughneck”—as Leroy later puts it, “You wanted us more British than the British.” Alex Wheatle (Asad-Shareef Muhammad as a child, Sheyi Cole as a young man), who we see being brought up in a mostly white foster home, is relatively disconnected from the part of his identity that Leroy’s father is implicitly encouraging him to hide. When he finally does come into the orbit of other Black British people, they’re baffled by him—by his posh accent, by the way he dresses, by his insistence that he’s not Jamaican. However, they (mostly) embrace him, helping him to grow into his own and figure out who he is.
Education—not from the school system, but about one’s community, culture, and collective history—is the key to Wheatle’s awakening. And McQueen tackles the school system in Education, telling the story of a young boy, Kingsley (Kenyah Sandy), whose difficulty in learning how to read lands him in a “special” school. As his mother soon learns, the system has been rigged, with West Indian children being designated as “educationally sub-normal” and essentially left to rot in these so-called special schools with teachers who don’t even show up to class.
Luckily, the film has a relatively happy ending, as Kingsley’s mother takes the advice from the Black activists she meets and enrolls Kingsley in a weekend program run by a Black teacher, who, through telling the stories of Black historical figures and creating a supportive environment, manages to inspire Kingsley. It’s not a total panacea—the educational system still requires significant reform—but it’s a step in the right direction, made possible by the community.
Though they may be telling disparate stories on the surface, all five films in Small Axe are connected not only by the time and place of their subjects but of the sense of community emphasized in each. They come together as parts of a larger tapestry, using mood, subject matter, and music to lead from one movie to the next. Though there’s no one right way to watch Small Axe, the order they’re presented in has a flow to it that feels deliberate. Like an album, its tracks can be played on their own, or even shuffled, but there’s a cohesiveness to playing it from top to bottom that can’t be matched.