The poet Linton Kwesi Johnson calls the first two generations of Caribbean people in postwar Britain the ‘heroic’ generation and the ‘rebel’ generation. The Windrush generation, who arrived between 1948 and 1962, when the Commonwealth Immigrants Act came into force, were ‘heroes’ who, though not politically passive, were forced to cultivate resilience in the face of violence and hostility. Their children were the ‘rebels’, as Johnson explained in a 2017 reading, who ‘refused to put up with the things [their] parents reluctantly tolerated’. Mostly born in Britain, they instigated urban uprisings, anti-racist politics and had an electrifying musical counterculture.
Moments of intergenerational tension crossed over into the emerging black cinema scene. Horace Ove’s Pressure (1975), the first feature-length film by a black British director, follows an English-born school-leaver who rejects his parents’ faith in quiet diligence and joins a black power group. In Franco Rosso’s Babylon (1980), a father can’t wait to kick his dreadlocked interloper of a son out of the house. Steve McQueen’s film series Small Axe, broadcast on the BBC in November and December, complicates and enriches this schema. In the third episode, ‘Red, White and Blue’, Leroy Logan applies to join the Met: he wants to combat police racism from the inside. His father is outraged. ‘What did you expect?’ Leroy tells him. ‘You made us feel we could be part of everything. You wanted us to be more British than the British!’
Leroy comes top of his trainee class, quoting Robert Peel’s philosophy of policing to his teachers. His superiors ask him to be the face of a recruitment campaign. But when he is dispatched to his own North London neighbourhood he is forced to confront the reality of his institutional role. On his first day on the beat, the senior officer in the station pointedly refers to the ‘jungle’ out there; later, a series of racist attacks on South Asian shops is dismissed as ‘petty vandalism’. Leroy’s white colleagues harass him and sabotage his work. Chasing a suspect through a warehouse – a nerve-wracking set piece – he calls for back-up but receives none, with perilous consequences. There is to be no victory over the system. But there is a resolution: the episode ends with Leroy and his father having a drink and reflecting on the uneven nature of progress.
The five episodes of Small Axe dramatise struggles like these among London’s West Indian community. The afterlife of the Black Lives Matter uprisings and the films’ release during the second Covid-19 lockdown in England made the series feel like a national event. Small Axe has been described as a ‘corrective’ to England’s cultural confusion and historical ignorance, to the Powellite politics of the government and its reluctance to consider migrant communities in anything other than instrumental terms. ‘Red, White and Blue’ is based on the life of a real person, Leroy Logan, the first chair of the National Black Police Association, who recently published a memoir, Closing Ranks: My Life as a Cop (SPCK, £14.99). In the fourth film in the series, McQueen adapts the story of Alex Wheatle, the London-born author of Brixton Rock, who was raised in a foster home in Surrey and socialised, Pygmalion-style, in the vernacular codes and cultural practices of late 1970s Brixton. Wheatle was jailed for taking part in the 1981 riots; when his Rastafarian cellmate lent him a copy of C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins, it ‘changed everything’.
But it’s ‘Mangrove’, the first and longest episode, that works hardest to recover real events. The film takes its title from a Notting Hill restaurant, opened in 1968 by Frank Crichlow. The Mangrove became a centre of black activist and intellectual life – and a target of police aggression: it was raided a dozen times in less than two years. PC Frank Pulley claimed there were drugs on the premises, though none were ever found. Anger at the harassment forged a cross-generational political community. The British Black Panthers, notably Altheia Jones-LeCointe and Darcus Howe, organised a demonstration against police harassment at the Mangrove on 9 August 1970. More than a hundred protesters marched through the area chanting ‘Black power! People power!’ They met a phalanx of officers outside Notting Dale police station, and continued up past Portnall Road. Conflict ensued. The verdict of the press was unanimous. ‘Seventeen Police Injured in Mob Attack’, the Daily Mirror announced the following morning. The Daily Mail: ‘Police Hurt by Black Power Mob’.
‘For some time now,’ Howe told the crowd, ‘black people have been caught up in complaining to police about police, complaining to magistrates about magistrates, complaining to judges about judges … We have become the shepherds of our destiny today.’ This was what frightened the authorities, who charged the organisers with dozens of crimes, including incitement to riot and affray. Marylebone Magistrates’ Court threw out the riot charge, but it was reinstated by the director of public prosecutions, Norman Skelhorn. The Mangrove Nine were subjected to a 55-day trial at the Old Bailey. Howe and Jones-LeCointe chose to represent themselves in order to cross-examine the police. How could Pulley and his colleagues all witness the same incident, they asked, when the observation aperture in the police van was only designed for one person? Could Pulley account for the fact that the six-foot fence Howe allegedly jumped over backed onto railings? All nine defendants were acquitted of the main charges. The judge determined that there was ‘evidence of racial hatred on both sides’, the first such acknowledgment of racism in the Met.
British viewers are more likely to be familiar with the legal plight of the American activist Angela Davis than with what happened in Notting Hill the same year. This may be the reason McQueen, who developed the series over many years, wanted it to be shown on the BBC. Small Axe has a Reithian spirit. The two best episodes, however, ‘Lovers Rock’ and ‘Education’ (written with Courttia Newland and Alastair Siddons respectively), aren’t driven by real events or by the life stories of individuals; they move gracefully, unencumbered by exposition.
‘Education’ is the story of a 12-year-old boy, Kingsley, and the community-funded supplementary school that gave him his first real opportunity to learn. The black education movement in Britain began in the mid-1960s, as parents noticed how many of their children were being removed from mainstream schools and sent to institutions for the ‘educationally subnormal’, or ESNs. In his 1971 pamphlet ‘How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Subnormal’, Bernard Coard, later the deputy prime minister of Grenada, noted that prejudice and lack of ambition from school authorities were conspiring to create a permanent black underclass. Kingsley isn’t much naughtier than his classmates, but he incites a peculiar brutality from his teachers. They don’t wonder why he freezes when asked to read aloud from Of Mice and Men (he can’t read); instead, they see an alien presence to be excised from the community.
Kingsley scores badly on an IQ test and is sent to an ESN school where the children are expected to accomplish little. On one of the few occasions a teacher is present, he sits practising the guitar, playing ‘House of the Rising Sun’ to a dozing classroom. Kingsley’s parents are too busy working to ask many questions about their son’s education; community activists alert them to the school’s neglect. Kingsley’s mother is given a copy of Coard’s pamphlet and reads about the cultural biases of IQ tests; she goes to a meeting where parents describe their children as being ‘failed’ by the system. The school authorities ‘never assumed’, the chair says, ‘that the same spread of intelligence, professional careers, white collar jobs, blue collar jobs, that you have in this country, we would have had where we came from’. Kingsley begins attending a supplementary school class on Saturday mornings. He learns to read; the closing credits roll to the sound of his voice reading from Kings and Queens of Africa for Children.
‘Lovers Rock’ begins like an ethnographic study: we enter a tall Victorian house on Ladbroke Road where heavy carpets are rolled up, food is stewing in steel pots and a Jamaican-style sound system, lumbered out of a van, is being wired into place. As the sun sets, a ‘blues party’ begins – these were gatherings held in private homes and community centres to allow black people to dance and socialise away from the racialised gaze. Martha, the central character, has sneaked out of her parents’ house for the evening, throwing her shoes out ahead of her to prevent them getting scuffed as she climbs down the drainpipe. She meets her friend Patty, and they take the bus from Ealing to Notting Hill. McQueen follows them through the course of the night, but his attention is promiscuous – he can’t help lingering on the dancefloor. The huge speakers, booming out deep bass frequencies in reggae and dub, are the sort that make the ground vibrate. Paul Gilroy, an adviser on the series, says that these soundsystems give the listener an ‘ontological shake’. The dancers in ‘Lovers Rock’ appear to lose themselves late in the night when the Revolutionaries’ ‘Kunta Kinte Dub’ is played, with its commanding, propulsive rhythm. (You can hear it in the carnival scene in Menelik Shabazz’s 1981 Burning an Illusion, the first British film with a black female lead.) On the dancefloor, McQueen suggests, the roles given to people in the outside world can fall away. No ‘coloureds’ or ‘blacks’, no heroes or rebels. Even the wallpaper sweats.
When the DJ puts on ‘Silly Games’, the 1979 hit single by Janet Kay, the room fills with dancing couples in a remarkable ten-minute sequence. As the song finishes, they sing the lyrics a cappella, measuring the silences between verses with nothing but the sound of stepping feet. Dennis Bovell, the producer of ‘Silly Games’ and one of the inventors of Lovers Rock, makes an anachronistic cameo. Like the Kensington tower block under construction in the background of ‘Mangrove’, this scene directs our attention to the fractious, restless present in which Small Axe is being watched. It’s playfully artificial, a stylised re-enactment which reverberates from a house party in 1980 to the events of 2020.