NEW YORK – In a movie year mostly lacking big, ambitious releases, Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” anthology is an unqualified main event. While many other filmmakers are on hold, the “12 Years a Slave” director has raced to finish not one but five new films.
The movies, spanning 1968 to 1985, are each individual stories about the West Indian community in London. They are testimonies of resistance. Each tale resurrects a chapter of recent history to illuminate the daily oppressions of institutional racism and the struggles against it — in courtrooms, in all-white police precincts, in segregated schools.
“These are stories that have made my life possible as an artist, as a British Black man,” McQueen, who was born in West London to Grenadian parents, said in an interview from London. “You look back to look forward, and also to judge how far we’ve come.”
The scope of McQueen’s achievement has been gradually coming into focus during the New York Film Festival. By Saturday, three of the films will have bowed (two had been set to premiere at the canceled Cannes Film Festival). All will play on the BBC and Amazon in November. For the filmmaker of “Hunger,” “Shame” and “Widows,” “Small Axe” is a shattering masterwork — a compendium, both damning and celebratory, of Black resilience.
The format — isolated films that are most powerful as a collective — is itself symbolic. The title comes from a West African proverb popularized by Bob Marley: “If you are a big tree, we are a small axe.”
“It’s a story about why we are here. It’s not just about the past but the present,” says McQueen. “People’s sacrifices, people’s determination — that’s why these films are important. They reshaped the landscape of the United Kingdom. They paved the foundation for multicultural London society.”
The films will run in a different order in November, but McQueen began by premiering “Lovers Rock” as the festival’s opening night gala. The only fictional tale of the bunch, it brings to vivid, pulsating life a blues party from 1980, when young London Black people found refuge, and love, at house parties. The movie — joyous and sensual — is wall-to-wall reggae bliss.
Still, in this, the brightest of the five acts, there are reminders of the cruelties lurking outside.