by Ben Soton
Small Axe (2020). TV mini-series of five 60-minute episodes on BBC1, Sundays at 9pm; currently also available on BBC iPlayer. Series Director: Steve McQueen.
Small Axe, BBC1’s latest Sunday night drama, is a series of feature-length stories covering the struggles of the West Indian community in Britain. Obviously, a response to this summer’s Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, I can already hear those of a racist persuasion crying about the BBC getting on the bandwagon. This should be seen in a positive light however, namely would these programmes have been made had it not been for this year’s wave of protest?
The work of director Steve McQueen, the drama covers issues from police harassment to the West Indian music scene. The series successfully depicts the period from the 1960s to the 1980s, which is gradually fading from memory. The drama does not pull any punches about the West Indian community, in particular the issue of domestic violence towards women and the use of soft drugs.
Episode I, Mangrove, covers the issue of police harassment of the black community. This episode centred around the Mangrove Restaurant in Notting Hill, which was subject to continuous police harassment by the Metropolitan Police. The restaurant was regularly raided on spurious grounds and issued with fines for minor infractions. Fed up with continuous harassment, members of Notting Hill’s black community marched on Notting Hill police station to protest. Those later arrested with riot and affray later became known as the Mangrove Nine.
Episode II, Lovers Rock, depicts the story of a young black woman caught between white racists and over amorous men from her own community. This episode largely focusses on the West Indian music scene. With an almost entirely black cast, it depicts the tensions within as well as the customs of that community.
Episode III, Red, White and Blue, on the other hand, covers the experience of a young black man who joins the Metropolitan Police.
This series of films, along with the BLM protests, comes at a time when many of the gains made by the anti-racist campaigners are, albeit indirectly, coming under attack. This includes the Windrush scandal as well as the hostile environment created toward migrants with its inevitable effect on more established ethnic communities. It was not so long ago however, when the UK was the only state in Europe where an Interior Minister, in the name of Home Secretary Amber Rudd, was forced to resign for racist behaviour. Meanwhile, when far-right activists descended on London to defend (boarded up) statues one of their number was caught urinating on a memorial to a dead police officer. It’s not all doom and gloom but time to remain vigilant.