Director McQueen Turns Lens Inward

Director Steve McQueen

By Ron Wynn

NASHVILLE, TN — Steve McQueen has made history while arousing emotions and audience response in such past films as “12 Years a Slave” and “Widows.” He won an Oscar for the former in 2013, becoming the first Black director of an Academy Award winning film. But one thing that McQueen, who grew up in West London and whose parents are Grenadian and Trinidadian, had never previously done was turn his cameras inward and explore life in the world where he was born and raised.

But that’s now changed with the debut of his anthology series “Small Axe.” The highly anticipated, ambitious work is debuting nationwide on Amazon Prime and the BBC in McQueen’s homeland. The five film series exploring various events and lifestyles among the Black population in Britain debuts Friday.

“I needed to understand myself, where I came from,” McQueen told the New York Times in explaining why it took so long for him to spotlight the community of his birth. “Sometimes, you’ve got to have a certain maturity, and I wouldn’t have had that 10, 15 years ago.”

“Small Axe’s” five films are set between the late ‘60s and mid-’80s. They are different lengths, with the longest being 128 minutes and the shortest 70. McQueen directed and co-wrote all five episodes. Courttia Newland co-wrote two and Alastair Siddons co-wrote three.

“To get my foot in the door, it started off as a sort of episodic situation,” McQueen continued.  “But then I realized they had to be individual films because there’s too much interesting material.”

He utilized different formats for the series, and the content ranges from a courtroom drama that’s fact based to one that’s semi-autobiographical and another that’s more a celebratory/party profile. McQueen is also quite pleased that the series will be shown in Britain on BBC One. “It was important for me that these films were broadcast on the BBC, because it has accessibility to everyone in the country,” he said. “These are national histories.”

McQueen also cites key Caribbean figures who’ve greatly influenced him. “Stokely Carmichael, from Trinidad, coined the phrase ‘Black Power.’ Look at Marcus Garvey. Malcolm X’s mother was from Grenada. C.L.R. James,” he said. “This is nothing new, people from the West Indies and our influence. That’s where we come from: rebel country.”

McQueen resides in Amsterdam now, but making the series reminds him of home. 

“I just cried the other day thinking of my father,” McQueen concluded. “My father is not here to see this — a lot of West Indian men of that generation lived and died without having that acknowledgment. And it’s heavy still.”