Steve McQueen on Small Axe nominations, Black filmmakers needing to 'get into position of real power'
Every year there is plenty to be frustrated or perplexed by when the Golden Globe nominations are announced, but there's always a few selections worth celebrating. And Steve McQueen's Small Axe more than fits that bill.
On Wednesday, BBC and Amazon Prime Video's collection of five films from McQueen, the director and co-writer on all of them, was nominated for both Best Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television and Best Supporting Actor for Red, White and Blue star John Boyega.
EW hopped on the phone with McQueen, who was in the U.K., to discuss Small Axe's big morning and what needs to be done to make sure Black films and filmmakers start to receive the deserved recognition.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Congrats, both on the nominations and not having to wake up early. Being in the U.K., you can probably have a normal morning before the madness.
STEVE MCQUEEN: Absolutely. I'm so sorry you've got to wake up at 5. When I was lucky enough to get a nomination for the Oscars, I remember it was very, very early in the morning, so I appreciate your dedication very much.
There has been such an outpouring of love and support for Small Axe since Lovers Rock and Mangrove made the festival rounds, so what's it like seeing it all culminate here?
It's incredible. It's the series that could. Because it is about these small acts, and needing to have a lot of money, but we had a lot of passion. And it's just one of those things, especially in this time, that we could achieve something in which people really were appreciative about, very emotional about, that they were really taken with. And that we could give these true stories of substance but also give joy. I'm just very encouraged by that, that we could give people some kind of optimism during this time. I think what's wonderful about it is that something so modest in what we tried to do has gotten recognized in this way.
There's been this whole debate about whether these are films or an anthology series, but, when we spoke back in September, you said, "What I loved about this experience was that it shows you can actually push a certain kind of logic. You don't always have to do what has been done before." Do you take extra pride in seeing that out-of-the-box thinking rewarded?
Absolutely. I think audiences deserve the best. They deserve the best from directors and actors, and I think what is interesting about television and streaming is it asks you to do that in a way. Because you're coming into people's homes and because of that they deserve nothing else but the best. How you approach things and the fact that there's no commercial breaks mean that the sky is limit; there's no wrong or right way of doing it, other than it has to achieve a certain kind of recognition from the audience — that's it. So it's up for grabs. And I'm just very happy that these small stories connected with so many people. These stories that weren't about people who were superheroes. It was about a man opening up a restaurant, a man wanting to join the police force, a woman who wanted to make sure her son got a good education, people who wanted to have a house party. It was those things, which were actually monumental, even though on paper they seem so simple.
Will Small Axe now forever change how you approach new projects? Like it will probably be hard to just go back to the traditional model.
I think I learn from any film I've ever done. They were all stepping stones, and what I learned within Small Axe is that, and I think I learned this even from the first movie, is the appreciation for the crew and the cast. From the catering, from the grips, from the hair and makeup, from the actors. I don't mean to be corny but it's because it's about us as a collective. If you appreciate everyone on that set, no matter how apparently important or non-important they are, it always helps how the environment of the set comes together and how much you achieve. Because people feed off each other. We, the crew, are family and we can do so much when we appreciate each other. If it sounds corny, again, I apologize, but that is what I've learned. And I'm reaping the benefits of that.
In Red, White and Blue, playing Leroy Logan, a young man who joins the police force in hopes of making change from the inside, it felt like John really went to places he never had before, mostly because he hadn't had the opportunities with his previous roles. So, as his director and friend, what's it like to see his performance celebrated in this way?
It's wonderful, because especially for where he was at at that time. With the whole Star Wars thing, and his whole commitment to this role. As an artist, you have many sort of obstacles and things that come into your path that you have to navigate, and the way John did it with such dignity and class and commitment and passion, I'm just so happy that he's been recognized in this way. It's just a wonderful thing. And for other actors to recognize that you just be true to yourself and hopefully things will come your way.
This was such a great year for film, and specifically films from Black filmmakers and Black casts, whether it be Da 5 Bloods, One Night in Miami, or Judas and the Black Messiah. And yet, all of those were kept out of the Best Picture - Drama field, while Spike Lee and Da 5 Bloods was completely shut out this morning. What is your reaction to that?
Well, it's a surprise. But this just shows that until we get into the position of real power, it will keep on happening. And that's it. I think it's a case of getting in a situation were we start owning stuff. This is the ethos of Small Axe. If you are the big tree, we are the small axe. And Small Axe is about making it ourselves, about owning it ourselves, about self-determination. So until we get to that point these things will keep on happening.