EXCLUSIVE: After blazing on the London art scene with work that won him the Turner Prize, Steve McQueen established himself as an important filmmaker who showed the unbreakable spirit of an Irish hunger strike in Hunger, and the horrors of antebellum slavery in 12 Years A Slave. For his latest work, he has turned inward to his own roots growing up in a Black West Indian community in London to cull five distinctively different but connected stories in Small Axe. It is an anthology series that will be seen on BBC and Amazon Prime in late fall. But the first installment, Lovers Rock, was chosen to be the opening night film of the 58th New York Film Festival on Thursday.
NYFF will also show the second and third parts (the order will be switched when they show on TV) of the Small Axe anthology: Mangrove is the tense tale of Frank Crichlow, who opened a restaurant meant to cater to his community. Harassed by racist cops, Crichlow took part in a peaceful protest in 1970 to save the restaurant, only to find he and eight others charged with inciting a riot at a protest. Facing long prison sentences, the defendants represented themselves in a precedent-setting case. The third installment is Red, White and Blue, the story of Leroy Logan, whose decision to join the police and changed from within the department’s institutional racism against Blacks runs afoul of the wishes of his Jamaican father, who is bitter over an unprovoked and brutal beating he suffered at the hands of police. Though the Mangrove protest happened 50 years ago, the racism by cops against Black Londoners seems eerily relevant to today’s unrest in the U.S. and McQueen has dedicated the whole film to George Floyd, whose murder by Minneapolis cops became a catalyst for the Black Lives Matter movement this year. Here, McQueen discusses with Deadline the meaning behind his audacious work and the notion of having a limited TV series serve as the opener for the pandemic-era NYFF, where his Best Picture Oscar winner 12 Years A Slave played years ago.
DEADLINE: I watched the first three of the five films in your Small Axe series, and was very surprised at how you started this exploration of these Londoners of West Indian descent with Lovers Rock. It’s mesmerizing, but not the traditional narrative you might expect from the opener of the New York Film Festival. That traditional narrative structure gives power to the second and third films, Mangrove and Red White and Blue, but Lovers Rock is more a rapturous and visceral celebration of Black joy, culture, beauty, music, and a ritualistic courtship. Why was it important to start the way you did with these blues parties?
STEVE MCQUEEN: There is something familiar but unrecognizable to everyone who was young and who went to parties. There is a universality to it, firstly. But to be specific, the genre of Lovers Rock is a Jamaican strand of reggae, that was popularized in London because of these parties. How do you get these young woman and men to stay? There was a lot of reggae and a lot of dub and in some ways that pushed the girls away a little bit. So what they used to do before lovers rock was to put on a lot of American soul music. And then what happened is it moved into more romantic music and that was lovers rock. And it allowed for this gorgeous exploration of tenderness and vulnerability and affection. It was something that caught on and in London it became this big sound that was recorded in song.
DEADLINE: Why did people go to these parties and not the clubs?
MCQUEEN: They were called blues parties. My mother went to them in the early sixties and they went on in through the eighties. I’m not sure if there is much of it going on now. Clubs were not inviting for black people. Basically, they would not want black people to be in the clubs, and even if there were clubs they could go to, there would be quotas. So, it became, well, we’ll have to make our own clubs. There would be parties where they sold drinks and food, and they accommodated the people. That’s another small aspect of what Small Axe is about. Do it, ourselves. This was to counter an environment where people were not welcome in the clubs because they were Black. It happened all over.
DEADLINE: The blues parties were still a thing when you were coming of age?
MCQUEEN: Yes. I came a little bit after Lovers Rock when we had the Blues. My parents had them as well in the ‘60s, they were like the Irish shebeens, but they were Blues parties. Lovers Rock is based on my Aunt Molly’s story. She wasn’t allowed to go to these parties, but what my uncle would do is he would leave the back door open for her. She would tip toe out on a Saturday night and come back early Sunday morning and wait for the knock on the door. Get ready for church. It’s a Cinderella story, where basically she comes back in the early hours of the morning, when carriages turn into pumpkins and horses turn into mice. I witnessed these stories as a kid. Occasionally I would go to these parties, as a child. But all I remember is being put onto a bed. And waking up, with all these coats on top of me. And I would walk into the room and see what was going on. What was interesting to me is to see how the guys would approach the women. You would always touch the woman on the elbow. And then move your hand down to her hand. It’s very traditional and ritualistic. You’d touch from the elbow to the hand and if she was interested, she would accept it. That was the way, the traditional way of dancing and Lovers Rock was how men and women got together. It was beautiful, just gorgeous to watch.
DEADLINE: You follow with these tense epic period narratives that deal with racism, especially from the police force, toward these Black characters of West Indian descent. Was it important for us to see that these people, even though their speech was accented, basically went through a variation of courtship rituals that everyone else did?
MCQUEEN: Sure. We are like everyone else; you’re young, you’re in love, you go to the party and it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to, and sometimes you don’t get the guy you want. All of those things. There are also other aspects which have to do with being Black and in London, and why these parties had to occur in the way they did. It’s pretty much universal, even though it was specific to London in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.
DEADLINE: It plays out almost like a musical. What spontaneous things presented themselves in the moment, when you let your actors get lost dancing to songs from “Kung Fu Fighting” to “Silly Games,” which seemed a high point in the film?
MCQUEEN: We had an amazing choreographer and people were rehearsing for weeks before we shot all the dancing because it was all time specific in the music they were doing. The actors knew what they could and couldn’t do, because it was time specific. Sometimes, as a director, as an artist, all you have to do is make the environment. What I mean by that is if you make the environment and then just let go…it’s like being a musician. You say, I’ve written this piece of music and you can improvise, within the harmony and the melody. You can’t come out of the harmony and the melody. So for example, when people in Lovers Rock start singing the song Silly Games, that was totally unscripted…I am going to go there and way it was spiritual because that’s what happened. And it took off by itself. Sometimes as a director, and sometimes I hate the term director, because you are there just to help make something happen. How can I say this? You make an environment where things can happen and that is what an artist is. You make a healthy space where people feel they can be themselves, and go for it and feel. It was spiritual and you felt it in the last track that was laid down, Kunta Kinte. You can’t direct that. My direction was to create this environment of safety, of joy. It was…church. That’s what it was. And sometimes what that happens, you just hold the camera and let it happen. It felt spiritual.
DEADLINE: Your films have specific scenes where you are still, with the camera, and you let scenes unfold. There is that memorable long scene in Hunger between Michael Fassbender, emaciated playing Bobby Sands as a priest tries to talk him out of continuing his hunger strike, and there is the disturbing image of Chiwetel Ejiofor playing Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave, hanging from a rope, his feet barely touching ground so he can keep from strangling, while other slaves go about their tasks on the plantation. Do those scenes also happen in the moment, or are they more rigidly structured in your construction?
MCQUEEN: Well, the 17 pages of dialogue in Bobby Sands was all written and planned, but that was all about a John McEnroe – Jimmy Connors tennis match, with different styles. One is a serve and volleyer, the other a baseline player. Two people wanting to win, one with a long game, one a short game. McEnroe had the short game, Connors the long game. The horror of Chiwetel in 12 Years A Slave was about, these things happened, people had these traumas, and it was about how they dealt with it. The idea that someone could be hung, for that amount of time, and the slaves had to go on with their everyday, at the same time they are seeing this horrendous suffering. It felt important to visualize. But getting back to Lovers Rock, this was not about endurance, but rather being in the moment and whatever comes out of that. Things happen. You can’t plan it. It’s a spiritual thing, it’s church, it’s allowing the moment to take over. And that’s beautiful.
DEADLINE: You would have premiered Lovers Rock at Cannes last May had that festival not been canceled. The New York Film Festival is a prestigious place to unveil it, the venue where 12 Years a Slave had its U.S. debut back in 2013 as it moved toward its Best Picture Oscar win. Given your own disruptive entry point to become a film director after distinguishing yourself as a visual artist, what does it mean to open that festival not with an Oscar caliber film but with the first episode of a series that will compete for Emmys next year?
MCQUEEN: I feel very fortunate. I did come from a disruptive situation to become a filmmaker, but what is important is, I love film. And the whole idea of having an audience right now, in the environment we’re living in, makes me feel very honored to be able to open the New York Film Festival with Lovers Rock, a film that is maybe the musical I always wanted to make and now I’ve done it even though at the time of writing it with Courttia Newland, I didn’t realize it was a musical. Again, it just happened. As a filmmaker, as an artist, as far as I’m concerned I don’t want to put a stencil on anything. I want the subject to tell me what it wants, and to take me where it wants. I’m just a facilitator of that and I’m very grateful to have an audience at the New York Film Festival.
DEADLINE: You made an early film called Exodus and with that Bob Marley title in mind, explain what Small Axe means and how that musician has inspired your work?
MCQUEEN: Exodus was more an artwork than a narrative feature, made on Super 8 film. Small Axe is actually a West African proverb, popularized by the Wailers in their first album Burnin.’ It’s one of those things where I just loved the strength of the idea, if you are a small tree you have a small axe but as a collective, we can do anything and everything. Individually, we can only achieve so much but as a collective, we can achieve everything. That has been proven. That’s what it’s about, what we can do as a people and a human race.
DEADLINE; You will show the second and third parts of the Small Axe anthology at NYFF. The second is Mangrove, a tense story of nine people wrongly accused of violent rioting who are put on trial for their lives. I’d never heard of the Mangrove Nine, but while I watched and thought of a comparable film of power about someone wrongly accused, In the Name of the Father came to mind. How did you discover the tale of Mangrove owner Frank Crichlow and his fellow protesters who rebelled against the racist white cops who tried to shut down his restaurant?
MCQUEEN: As a child growing up in London, my parents made me aware of it as a legendary story. It’s very different from In The Name of the Father in that this was a man who opened a small café in Notting Hill. He wasn’t accused of killing several people with a bomb in a pub. What was interesting for me is, here was a gentleman who opens a restaurant, and that becomes a threat. That restaurant was for people in the West Indian community, which was a large community in London at that time, to come and eat and to share. Other people came too, like Mick Jagger and Vanessa Redgrave, black intellectuals. It attracted a certain kind of people. And the powers that be saw this as some kind of threat and they moved to close it down. This café is a hole in the wall and that becomes a threat to the state, and that’s what happened to Frank Crichlow.
DEADLINE: I brought up the other movie because both had this collision between the higher purpose of justice in the British courts vs politics. In the case of the Mangrove Nine, it was this institutionalized racism of police against British black-skinned people with West Indian accents, against the idea that the rule of law had to see that it was about that and not a dangerous rioting uprising. It seemed hard to believe these nine who came up against authority would get a fair shake.
MCQUEEN: Absolutely. You would imagine they would end up in prison. The people, from Darcus Howe to Althea Jones-Lacointe, they were amazing people who were wronged and who battled it. As far as the Mangrove was concerned, Frank Crichlow was not an intellectual or an activist, he was just a guy who wanted to open a café. There were people in that Nine who were not activist, but who wanted the right to be with others in their community, and the hoi polloi who came into that café, too. This was a small hole in the wall café to the highest court in the land, the Old Bailey, which is reserved for the most serious crimes, murder, treason, crimes against the state. That’s what it is for, not for people who are just trying to open a business and share with their community. That’s how far the state went to try and bring them down.
DEADLINE: You grew up in London. How did the storylines and racial prejudices you explored in Mangrove and Red, White and Blue meshed with you own experiences as you walked the streets or walked around. I felt tense watching, with all that has happened recently in the U.S.
MCQUEEN: Yes, but for me it was also important that you saw the joy. In Lovers Rock, the joy in Mangrove. It’s also a celebration, a triumph against all odds. These are films that are commenting on the past, in order to look at the present and how far we’ve come. These films present certain situations, but they are also joyous. For me at least, there’s no point in making something that hasn’t got the element of, where do we go from here. I think that where we are, where we’ve come from, that’s what I want to do. Look at the past, to comment on the present. Sometimes, we wish we had made more progress but it’s undoubted that we have made progress.
DEADLINE: The third film, Red, White and Blue, is about Leroy Logan, a member of the community played by John Boyega who decides to join the police force and change the racism shown by cops from the inside. When you show Leroy’s father being brutalized by two cops for merely challenging their interpretation of how far his truck stuck out in the traffic lane, it brought to mind all the things we in the U.S. are seeing now, on smartphone videos. In your mind, how much have things changed from the period you covered in those films?
MCQUEEN: I think things have changed, and in a very good way. But we have to reflect on the past to see our future. There’s no point in putting blinders on where you see these things happen or think these things don’t go on. These stories have to be seen and spoken about to show how far we’ve come. Not as fast or as far as you would like, but it is important to note we have gotten better. To show where we are and where we want to get to.
DEADLINE: You wrote a powerful piece recently on racism on film and TV sets, from the standpoint of how few faces of color you’ve seen there. The Academy just took steps toward creating barriers for movies to be considered for Oscars where they have to make efforts toward being more inclusive in who we see onscreen and who works behind the camera. Did you feel that movement was enough?
MCQUEEN: A lot of what they did, the ideas, were taken from the BFI plan, and what they want to do. So I knew a lot about that. Me, personally, the Academy is the Academy, but it cannot help a situation which is about education and getting people opportunities. In the UK, we have definitely lost two generations of filmmakers. We have lost a generation of actors, and a generation of filmmakers, editors, costume designers and so forth.
DEADLINE: You mean because people of color had no chance at these jobs?
MCQUEEN: People thought they weren’t welcome in this industry, or it wasn’t made attractive to them. That’s a fact. We’ve lost two generations. In some ways, I suppose that’s why I made five films. They started off as a TV series, but they ended up as films and that was reflective of the ambition I wanted these stories to bring. I was trying to fill a gap as best I could, on films that should have been made but weren’t made and had very much to do with me growing up in London. These are very personal stories about the London I know. The smell, the food, the clothes, the aesthetics, the touch and feel of the time that has unfortunately not been represented because people weren’t given a chance to make these movies.
DEADLINE: NYFF won’t play the final two installments of this anthology, but we will see them on BBC and Amazon in late fall. Alex Wheatle follows the story of a writer who survives the foster care system and finds his place and is then thrown in prison during the 1981 Brixton Uprising, and Education is the story of a family whose daily lives are disrupted when their 12 year old son who is sent to a “special needs” school and the efforts of the women in the West Indian community who take matters into their own hands when they realize this is part of Haringey Councils Educational Segregation Policy from 1971, which shunted aside minority children and limited their potential. Can you tell us a bit about the connective tissue between those last two stories and the first three?
MCQUEEN: Education is a certain kind of journey that was similar to my own in the UK as people who were bused off to these schools to these education abnormal schools. A lot of West Indian people were bused off in the early ‘70s and it’s an examination of that and of a family and these communities which got together to make Saturday Schools. They were these schools where Black people and people from the West Indies created them to help children with extra schooling. It’s deeper than that; these people were not willing to accept what was happening, and how parents congregated and made a power base to stop it from happening. Again, small axe. Alex Wheatle is a coming of age story in Brixton where he discovers West Indian Black life in London in the late ‘70s.
DEADLINE: Given the challenges you went through personally through that system because you were dyslexic, with a teacher you met later on saying how the system didn’t help children …
MCQUEEN: The strange thing was, one of the children who played the main character in Alex Wheatle, the boy’s mother went to my school, coincidentally, and she said she home schooled both of her children because she didn’t want what happened to me to happen to them. It had happened to her as well. That’s how bad it was. But go ahead and finish your question…
DEADLINE: Despite the hardship, you built this career as a Turner Prize-winning bold visual artist that made it possible for you to become an Oscar-winning film director. Where did that confidence in your vision come from? Was there someone influential who recognized potential in you and encouraged it?
MCQUEEN: I am in the position I am in because of the people who came before me in the UK, who had strived and paved the way for me, from Saturday Schools to people encouraging…You don’t get there by yourself, you get there because of people from the past. Hence, Small Axe, that’s what it’s about. I’m only here because of what people before me sacrificed, like Frank Crichlow and Darcus Howe, and so many others, intellectuals, athletes and artists. No one gave me anything aside from the people from the past. I just love art so much, and what art has given me is history, geography, the understanding of where we find ourselves. But what was most important was the people who cleared the path for me and a love from what I do and my search for the truth. That comes from the people I mentioned.
DEADLINE: You talk about the limited opportunities for people who’ve come up in the British film industry, but John Boyega is certainly an exception. Watching him in Red, White and Blue, it’s so different from where he started in Attack the Block or those Star Wars movies.
MCQUEEN: I think people haven’t really seen John. This is a new actor on the scene, as far as I’m concerned. You’ve not seen him as a mature man as you do in this role. Audiences will be able to see a whole new light, a whole new person and a great actor. Same with Shaun Parkes, who plays Frank Crichlow in Mangrove. He is Al Pacino in the early part of Al Pacino’s career. The weight, the dignity and earthiness he brings. Also Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn and Micheal Ward, the leads of Lovers Rock, those two beautiful young people in love. That’s what we need right now, to remember what we used to feel like. I’m going on a bit, but you know what I mean?
DEADLINE: We’ve all been through a version of those clumsy courtship parties…
MCQUEEN: Life is a passage. A lot of people will see Lovers Rock and feel they’ve never seen that version of it before and I love the uniqueness of that. But at the same time, there’s a universality to it and music is such an important source of that. This is a musical. I was looking for a way to make a musical, I’ve spoken before that I always wanted to do one. But I didn’t know how to do it. I couldn’t do what I’d seen before. It feels great to me that we’ve found it here. What’s especially great with Lovers Rock is reggae and dub. This genre grew up with punk. Bob Marley came to London in ’76 or thereabouts and that caused a fusion with The Clash and Rock Against Racism and a love of reggae…a lot of those parties, you’d see punks there. And influence in The Sex Pistols, The Clash. There was a real fusion that took place with reggae and dub. I’m looking for the right word and maybe it’s freedom. You see freedom in that music and in that dance in Lovers Rock, a freedom to express themselves in such a way where they could not in their 9 to 5, or within the structure of the church they were indoctrinated into. Those forms of music and the blues, there was a sexual, a spiritual freedom, a spirituality in moving the body in a way when the music has just taken over and it was safe to express yourself within that form. I felt like I was invited into that at certain points, and that’s what you want to do as a filmmaker and an artist. Create a place where you’re invited.