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With the five films that make up his Small Axe anthology (Mangrove; Lovers Rock; Red, White and Blue; Alex Wheatle; and Education), director Steve McQueen offers a richly evocative panorama of West Indian life in London from the 1960s through the ’80s—a time defined for the community by the terror of police violence, the empowering awakening of political consciousness, and the ecstatic escape of a vibrant reggae scene. Ranging in tone from the tenderly impressionistic to the devastatingly clear-eyed, these powerfully performed portraits of Black resistance, joy, creativity, and collective action—all sumptuously shot by Shabier Kirchner—form a revolutionary counterhistory of mid-twentieth-century Britain at a transformational moment.
The Criterion Collection presents Small Axe on Blu-ray, a series of five films directed by Steve McQueen: Mangrove, in the aspect ratio of 2.35; Lovers Rock, in 1.78:1; Red, White and Blue in 1.85:1; Alex Wheatle, in 2.00:1; and Education, in 1.66:1. The three films have been given 1080p/24hz high-definition encodes and are presented across the first two dual-layer discs of this three-disc set.
Each film was shot differently by McQueen and director of photography Shabier Kirchner, with Mangrove and Red, White and Blue on 35mm (the masters sourced from 2K scans), Education in 16mm, and the other two in 4K digital. Despite the differences, they all come out looking about the same, which is to say they all look excellent.
The three movies shot on film probably look best, delivering better details and handling shadows more purely. Blacks can lean towards a murky gray across all five films, but delineation in the shadows is better in the film-sourced material, with a broader range. I also found details a bit sharper, especially in longer shots. I was concerned about compression since Criterion decided to pack more on each disc (over three hours). Still, things look reasonably well in this area: outside of a handful of slightly blocky moments in darker shots, the encode handles each film’s grain structure admirably, even Education’s, which features a heavier level of grain compared to the other two. All three also retain a nice film-like look.
The other two films have that smoother digital look, but the details are still sharp and clean most of the time. Of the two, Alex Wheatle has something closer to a “film” look and handles the finer details a little better, even if macroblocking can be more apparent here and there. Blacks across both movies end up being a little weaker compared to the other two, but I can’t say they ever came out looking crushed. The darker interiors around the party in Lovers Rock still look sharp and crisp.
In the end, all five films look great, the digital presentations doing a superb job capturing each one’s unique qualities.
All five films come with 5.1 surround soundtracks presented in DTS-HD MA. The mixes for each film end up being surprisingly active, from subtle effects in the background settings to crowds gathering and chanting. The music is the most vital element, though, with Lovers Rock being the true stand-out in this area. That film—featuring a house party hosted by a DJ—has a few set pieces around partygoers dancing to a few Reggae songs, loud with a beautiful, deep bass placing the viewer squarely in the center of the action.
The features end up being slim when it comes to the series of films specifically. However, the set does feature a significant bonus in the inclusion of McQueen’s and James Rogan’s 3-part documentary, Uprising, presented on the third dual-layer disc of the set (it has even been given its own individual cover in this digipak release). In total, it runs for about 186 minutes. Over its three episodes, it covers the events in 1981 that led up to the Brixton riots, tracing things back to police harassment within the West Indian community through the rise of the National Front and the New Cross fire (which took the lives of 13 young black people), leading to protests and face-offs with police that further escalated tensions, culminating in the riots. It’s clear that this period and the events depicted served as the primary inspiration for all of the stories in Small Axe, even if the circumstances are not directly depicted within them (Alex Wheatle is the only story even to reference them). Through interviews with residents from the area (Alex Wheatle included), witnesses, victims of the fire, and even former police constables and government officials (and plenty of BBC news footage), the documentary paints a vivid picture of the time and place, capturing the tensions and viewpoints held by both the West Indian community and the police. It also does its best at offering as complete a recounting of the night of the fire as possible while digging deep into several key events leading up to the riots.
It's a wonderfully assembled documentary, and it’s excellent that Criterion has included it here just for that reason, but it also provides further perspective on the films in this set. In interviews elsewhere in this release, McQueen mentions he did not want to do a direct fictionalization of these events when he did the Small Axe films. Still, with the provided context of the documentary, you can see clearly how those events of 1981 directly influenced all of these films, whether in their depiction of the treatment by police or of the community, including the weekend parties.
Specific to the films, there are only a handful of features. There is a new interview between Steve McQueen and Professor Paul Gilroy (found under the Supplements section for Mangrove), the latter of whom acted as a consultant, with a runtime of around 29 minutes. The two talk about the origins of the project (which was apparently in the works for a decade or so by the sounds of it) and where McQueen found inspiration for the individual stories (Wheatle worked as a writer, and McQueen was so enamored with his story that he decided one of the films should be about him). They also talk about specific incidents and representations in the films, like McQueen assuring that that horrific rendition of The Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” in Education is something that really did happen, and then Gilroy explaining why a musician like Jim Reeves would be popular within the community. They even talk about the significance of how it aired on BBC.
It's a good summary of the series, but I was hoping for more around each film, and sadly, the release falls short in that area. There is at least one solid supplement that ends up being more specific to Lovers Rocks (and is found under the film’s respective Supplements menu), and that’s through audio excerpts from a 2022 episode of Mike D.’s Podcast The Echo Chamber covering the music from Small Axe and featuring interviews with McQueen and music producer Dennis Bovell. The three discuss Reggae music and its appearance in the series (with Jim Reeves also getting another mention) and the significance of Bob Marley’s song “Small Axe.” But a good chunk of the discussion focuses on the music in Lovers Rock, especially Janet Kay’s “Silly Games.” Bovell has first-hand stories about that album, and Mike D. even shares how Reggae influenced his work.
And then that’s pretty much it outside of each film receiving a trailer (except for Lovers Rock for some reason) and short behind-the-scenes featurettes, running between 3 and 5 minutes each. These prove to be at least somewhat interesting and feature interviews with McQueen, producer Tracey Scoffield and then members of the cast and crew. Unfortunately, they feel to be more along the lines of promotional featurettes than much else (created by the BBC), though the one for Education proves to be a bit more interesting, maybe because it was assembled by Criterion. In this one, McQueen shares how the incidents in the film were partially inspired by his own. Wheatle also appears in this material, but I was a bit surprised Criterion didn’t get a new interview with him. I was also surprised by the lack of anything around the look of the films, whether it be from McQueen or Kirchner, and the lack of anything academic (outside of Ashley Clark’s lengthy essay on the films found in the included booklet), whether it be about the series or the incidents that inspired them. There’s a lot that could have been explored around the films as a whole or individually, and disappointingly none of that is here.
The presentations and the inclusion of McQueen's Uprising make this release easy to recommend. Still, I'd be lying if I didn't say the sparse selection of supplements proves incredibly underwhelming.