In November 2020, director Steve McQueen premiered Small Axe, a chronicle of the African Liberation Movement in England. Small Axe marks the 50th anniversary of the Mangrove Nine case and the 40th anniversary of the January 1981 New Cross Fire and the April 1981 African Working Class rebellion in Brixton, London.
All five episodes of Small Axe exposed the violent and dehumanizing brutality of colonial oppression that Africans endured in England.
McQueen is a skilled filmmaker. Small Axe profiles the radical formation of African identity, community building and the struggle for dignity. McQueen does an excellent job outlining the problems that Africans in England faced but does not point the way forward.
African Internationalism, the Uhuru Movement, and the African Socialist International offers the solutions to contradictions of African life in Small Axe.
Small Axe of resistance
Small Axe is a triple entendre. Recalling the West Indian accent, the title underscores the artistic form of the series: five small acts. In theater, there are three types of plays: one-acts; three-acts; and five-acts.
Small Axe most obviously references “Small Axe” by Bob Marley and the Wailers. “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe, sharpened to cut you down (well sharp), ready to cut you down,” Bob Marley sings on the song. “Small Axe” is about African anti-colonial struggle.
Small Axe is about resistance. Small acts of resistance.
Colonial oppression in Small Axe
The case of the Mangrove Nine and their defense of the Mangrove restaurant, a popular social space in Notting Hill is the opening story. The Mangrove Nine successfully defended themselves in court against London cops and the British state. Altheia Jones-LeCointe, Frank Crichlow, Barbara Beese and Darcus Howe and other key figures in this episode were associated with the British Black Panther Movement and later formed the Race Today Collective. Howe was the nephew of black racial thinker CLR James.
The second film, “Lovers Rock,” named after a romantic reggae genre, the episode tells a fictional love story largely set at a West London house party in 1980.
The house party serves as a temporary fortress to anti-African oppression but culture and “black joy” do not overturn the colonial contradictions Africans endure. Homelessness, poverty, white nationalist violence and British religious imperialism are all in the backdrop. The hardcore “Kunta Kinte Dub” dance scene was arguably the most captivating of the episode with its embrace of African working class character.
The third episode, “Red, White, and Blue,” chronicled Leroy Logan’s integration of the London police after his father is beaten by London cops.The film ended with Logan humiliated and none of his objectives achieved. White cops did not respect him and Africans did not trust him.
The fourth episode is the true story of Alex Wheatle, an African youth who moved to Brixton after living in a white foster home. In Brixton, Alex was immersed in African working class culture. He ran with a posse and a reggae sound system, endured abject poverty, police terror and white nationalist mob violence. Summing up the previous stories, this episode climaxed with the January 1981 New Cross Fire where white nationalists set a house party ablaze killing 13 young Africans.
In April 1981, Brixton and other African communities in London rose up in rebellion against the colonial occupation of their communities by the police. Imprisoned as a result of the rebellion, Alex Wheatle was politicized in prison by a rasta who introduced him to Black Jacobins by CLR James.
Upon release from prison, Wheatle committed himself to finding family and becoming an author.
“Education” profiled a young African Kingsley Smith, deemed “educationally subnormal” by the colonial education system and sent to a school that is better described as a warehouse. African parents and the community organized in resistance, and also created their own Saturday schools as a contending force to colonial education.
Kingsley and the other children learned their glorious history as African people and not simply British imperial subjects.
Steve McQueen and the limits of the Race Today Collective
In the early 1980s, Chairman Omali Yeshitela became very familiar with African revolutionary politics in England as he toured Europe building the African Socialist International (ASI). Chairman Omali Yeshitela and the African People’s Socialist Party (APSP) convened the first ASI meeting in London on March 24, 1984.
The October 1985 article “Why They Rebel” in The Spear, analyzed African resistance in England and offers an honest criticism of the Race Today Collective, who with CLR James are an obvious influence on McQueen.
The article criticizes the Race Today Collective as having been “radicalized by their rejection by British society.”
“The Race Today Collective is quite capable of seeing the totally abject conditions of the African population, but their petty bourgeois ‘integrationist’ aspirations prevent them from reaching a revolutionary conclusion,” it argues.
Likewise, Steve McQueen shows the horrors of colonial domination but then what?
Characters in Small Axe strived to become lawyers, police officers, and authors. Despite the multiple references to James’s Black Jacobins, McQueen’s characters fall prey to the Europhilia that doomed Toussaint L’Ouverture.
McQueen showed the problems, the Uhuru Movement has the answers
To solve the problems McQueen identified in Small Axe, we must build the Uhuru Movement and ASI in England.
Point 13 of the African People’s Socialist Party Platform notes that “virtually every hardship imposed on black people” is the result of colonial domination: education, healthcare, housing, and food and clothing.
Points six and seven demand the release of Africans from colonial prisons and amnesty to political prisoners. Point eight identifies the police as a standing colonial army in the African community and demands their withdrawal.
The Revolutionary National Democratic Program (RNDP) demands free, compulsory and comprehensive education for African people, African community control of police and African community control of housing, and for African revolutionary culture workers.
Join the ASI, APSP, and InPDUM to build Black Power in London.
Demand African Community Control of Education!
Demand Africa Community Control of the Police!
Grow InPDUM in England and Worldwide!
Grow the African Socialist International!