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For Steve McQueen, creating Small Axe — his landmark BBC/Amazon five-part anthology film series set within London’s West Indian community between the 1960s and 1980s — came from a burning desire to put important stories on screen that simply hadn’t been there before.
“It was a want, a must and a need,” he says as part of a Q&A with THR Presents, powered by Vision Media. “Things which I had wanted to see on TV, on the big screen, hadn’t been. It was an attempt to fix the cannon of cinema, fix the narrative, and things [that] have been missing from that narrative. And it was about looking back at a time, and looking at where we’ve come to and where we’ve come from.”
Speaking alongside his associate producer and lead researcher Helen Bart, production designer Helen Scott and costume designer on the Lovers Rock and Alex Wheatle segments, Jacqueline Durran, McQueen noted that Small Axe was 11 years in the making, having been discussed as an idea shortly after his first feature, Hunger. But back then, he admits, he simply wasn’t ready to embark on the journey.
“It was having to mature, having to have a certain kind of weaponry to deal with all this stuff, and I didn’t have it then,” he says. “During that time I had to get myself ready, I had to prepare myself, because I didn’t have the skills that I do now.”
Bart, a former West Indian BBC news journalist recruited to the Small Axe team in 2014 (shortly after McQueen had become an Oscar winner thanks to 12 Years a Slave), conducted more than 120 interviews to uncover stories for the series, and says that having McQueen’s name attached definitely helped attract many willing participants.
“I think the fact that Steve has had an extremely high profile and Black people, certainly in London, we’re incredibly proud of him and what he had done, what he’d achieved, [meant that] people were willing to talk to me,” she says.
Of the five features, the one with the most historical importance is undoubtedly Mangrove, telling the story of a group of British Black activists put on trial for inciting a riot at a 1970 protest, sparked by repeated police targeting of the famed Caribbean restaurant, The Mangrove. All were acquitted of the most serious charges, while the trial went down in history as the first admission by British authorities of racial prejudice within the Metropolitan Police.
For Scott, re-creating the Mangrove restaurant — which closed in 1992 — came from digging deep into research and speaking to people who knew the neighborhood at the time. “I think what we created was a sort of plausible version and had an authentic feel that wasn’t strictly accurate,” she says, “but had all the right visual clues.”
However, McQueen notes the set was accurate enough that one day a man who had lived in the area in the early 1970s passed by and got confused, saying that he “thought he’d gone back in time.”
On Lovers Rock, the only fictional feature of the five and set at a house party in the early ’80s, Durran says the central theme of the partygoers’ outfits came from a particular photo they found of a group of women in dresses of a different style to the usual “sound system look” regularly interpreted on screen.
“That was the look of the period and sums up so much about what was happening at those parties and how women wanted to present themselves,” she says. “It was such a rich image and rich look that it was decided then and there that was the direction we need to go.”
This edition of THR Presents was brought to you by Amazon Studios.
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