NEW YORK – For Steve McQueen, bringing back the London of his childhood began with remembering the scents of his youth.
In “Small Axe,” McQueen’s ambitious five-film anthology about London’s West Indian community, the “12 Years a Slave” director resurrects the British capital in the decades before its multicultural present, tracing the Caribbean immigrant experience through the racism of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s in order to illuminate the injustices of today. It’s a cycle, operatic in scope, with movements of resistance, oppression, protest, family and celebration. But its textures are precise and, often, personal.
The second of the five films, the rapturous “Lovers Rock,” captures a 1980 Blues Party — underground, improvised dance parties with thumping dub reggae held in homes since nightclubs were typically closed to nonwhites. McQueen, 51, was too young for those parties. But he remembers how, during sleepovers at his grandmother's, his uncle would leave a back door unlocked so his aunt Molly could sneak out to them.
“Through smell, so much memory came back to me. Obviously, I was of a certain age,” says McQueen. “I’d end up sleeping in a bed with coats piled on top of me when I woke up.”
The first film of “Small Axe,” “Mangrove,” begins streaming on Amazon Prime Video on Friday. (It has already begun airing on the BBC in Britain.) Several of the films had been set to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival but they instead first unspooled virtually and at drive-ins during the New York Film Festival where they were received with raves. McQueen began working on the anthology 11 years ago, before the best picture-winning “12 Years a Slave," initially imagining it as a TV series.
“I didn’t know exactly what it was going to be and, to be honest, I don’t think I had the maturity or at that time the strength to look at myself or that world. It was so close to me. It was a part of me,” McQueen said in a recent interview by phone from London. “It was trying to understand who and what I am and where I come from.”
McQueen, born in West London to Grenadian and Trinidadian parents, has previously made films about Irish protest (“Hunger”), sex addiction in New York (“Shame”) and an all-female heist in Chicago ( “Widows” ). But “Small Axe” is his first production in his native Britain. The project swelled, he says, because in looking for a story about the Black experience in London, he found a multitude. The terrain, overlooked by history books and popular culture alike, was rich. The films, themselves, became a collective; the title references a West African proverb popularized by Bob Marley: “If you are the big tree/ We are the small axe/ Ready to cut you down.”
Taken together, “Small Axe” stitches together a little-known history, both intimate and sweeping, that had previously lingered on the margins and in family folklore. Shaun Parkes, who plays Frank Crichlow in “Mangrove,” first heard about his character while working ten years ago with Crichlow’s daughter, Lenora, an actor. The film dramatizes the police harassment of the Mangrove, a Caribbean restaurant owned by Crichlow in London’s Notting Hill district and an epicenter for the Black community in the late ’60s. A string of incidents led to a trial resulting in the first judicial acknowledgement of institutional racism in the police force.