Director Steve McQueen won a Best Picture Oscar for 12 Years a Slave, was nominated for Best Director and has an impressive filmography that includes such acclaimed independently made movies as Hunger and Shame, as well as big studio projects such as Widows. Yet perhaps his most ambitious project, Small Axe, is also his most personal as he explained during the Amazon Prime Video portion of Deadline’s Contenders Television awards-season event.
Even though some groups like the Los Angeles Film Critics Association named Small Axe as its Best Picture during Oscar season, and even though two of the five films that make up the unique project were selected as part of the 2020 Cannes Film Festival official selection (the festival itself was canceled due to the pandemic), McQueen insists Small Axe was always designed for television. Thus it has now become one of Amazon’s leading contenders in this year’s Emmy race in the Limited Series and Movie categories.
The title Small Axe comes from the African proverb “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe” and is comprised of five separate films (Mangrove, Lovers Rock, Red White and Blue, Alex Wheatle and Education) set in England during the time period between the 1960s and ’80s, telling personal stories from London’s West Indian community, lives that prevail despite wide-ranging discrimination and racism.
McQueen feels the TV medium was the right place to get these stories out and he did all five for a total budget of $23 million (roughly the cost of one 12 Years a Slave). “It became a master want and a need, and it was also about my mother because I wanted my mum to sort of switch the television on and see these stories, these stories that she could relate to, that she knew, but hadn’t been sort of visualized yet,” he told me. “And also, for the Black community in UK to have some kind of relationship with these characters, and the attempt — I mean, it was a weird attempt in some ways — was to sort of make these five episodes, films, if you will, to sort of fill the can of British cinema because these narratives were completely missing.”
McQueen felt strongly about creating a bigger tent to see these stories that would be familiar to any and everyone who’s a Black person living in the West whether it’s North American or northern Europe, a recurring narrative. “I think you kind of go where the audience is, and I think that’s what this was about, the best thing about my mother and wanting to sort of have these episodes, these films, if you will, go through the bloodstream of the country and the world. And the emotion that I sort of, and I say that they sort of had when those episodes came out on television every night, every week, because we released them once a week, was tremendous,” he said.
“You know, I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve premiered movies in Cannes, Toronto, Telluride, Venice, et cetera, you know, very privileged. But to release this in that way and come into people’s homes, I think it was that fact that I was invited into people’s homes and the emotion and the response that occurred was just quite overwhelming, really.”
Check out the conversation in the video above.