Steve McQueen on making five 'necessary, important, and urgent' films
With his Small Axe collection, the Oscar-winner is aiming to showcase "British stories that have never been told."
Steve McQueen never expected to make five feature films at once. “That was odd,” he admits of BBC and Amazon Prime Video’s Small Axe, which was originally conceived as an anthology, only to keep expanding in scope. "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."
McQueen (2014 Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave) says the connective tissue between his collection, set between 1968 and 1985, is “Black Britain” and London’s West Indian community. “These are very much British stories that have never been told,” he says. “Some of these stories have shaped the environment that we live in now. I wanted to tell what was necessary, important, and urgent.”
The most touted piece of Small Axe, Lovers Rock, arrives with the prestige pedigree of an official Cannes Film Festival selection (the 2020 event was ultimately canceled) and Thursday's opening-night slot at this year’s New York Film Festival. It’s also the most ebullient of the bunch, taking place largely over one night in 1980 at a house party filled with music and young love.
“There's a real spiritual release," McQueen says. "The explosion is on the dance floor. Explosions aren't necessarily to do with confrontation; I'm not interested in that. I'm interested in the fulfillment of life, and life is to be exciting when you're falling in love."
He adds of the vibe: "It's a certain period of musical history in this country which I felt had never been given a proper platform. Lover Rock is punk rock. Punk rock and reggae were very aligned to each other at the same time in England. You can think about Bob Marley as the reggae part, and the punk rock part is the whole idea of Sex Pistols, The Clash. There’s a real rebellion in that music and it’s very much unique to the U.K."
While Lovers Rock is more of an ensemble piece, Letitia Wright (Mangrove) and John Boyega (Red, White and Blue) lead separate Small Axe films. In his true story installment, Boyega stars as Leroy Logan, who at a young age saw his father assaulted by two policemen, motivating him to join the Metropolitan Police and change their racist attitudes from within. Coincidentally, Boyega recently made headlines for his powerful anti-racism protest speech in London following the murder of George Floyd.
"I think it was cathartic," McQueen says of the actor's passionate display. "There wasn’t anything strategic about that; he went to Hyde Park, just to be present, because it was the first protest that he had ever been to. And by coincidence someone handed him a mic because the other person hadn’t turned up yet. It was a real emotional, cathartic, and unplanned moment. I think the power and rawness of that, I was extremely impressed and very grateful that happened."
Noting that "America doesn’t have a monopoly on anything, especially not race," many of McQueen's Britain-set films center on protests, the violent treatment of demonstrators, and racism within the police — newly charged subjects now. “It made me feel sad, but as an artist, you make the work you have to make,” McQueen says. “I don’t think there’s ever been a time when these films would not have been relevant.”