Welcome to the first edition of CATCHING UP, my new column here at Cinepunx and hopefully the beginning of a long line of columns. CATCHING UP is a column born out of an experience I have found to be more common than I think any of us would like: not having the time to do the things we want to do and regretting it. As someone who is currently writing about film, taking a break from writing can impact not only my confidence about my ability to write, but also my feeling that my reflections are relevant. If one is invested in writing about film, often the latest releases, both theatrical and home video, feel like the most relevant and vital thing to cover. I often start a project and if I do not finish it in a reasonable amount of time, I simply put it away, because it feels as if the moment has passed. This feeling — that I have missed my opportunity — is likely made up, but I feel it all the same. Though it is an imagined barrier, it is no less effective.
CATCHING UP as a column is also a bit of contrivance, but one which I hope frees me in a number of ways and connects with a number of senses of the term. I am, of course, catching up on my writing and on all those films I missed covering. Whether it’s a recent theatrical release, a festival screener, or a classic piece of cinema I simply never had the chance to discuss before, I am catching up with the discourse on these things. I am also catching up with you, the Cinepunx audience. Yes, as a host on three of our podcasts, I am perhaps a bit over exposed, but I am hoping this writing will allow for a more diverse exploration of not only film, but also the ideas and concepts that matter broadly. I also feel like I am catching up with our mission: to conquer the world, of course. Cinepunx started as a single podcast, but our expansion has continually been to offer something worthwhile across the cultural landscape. A voice for hope, a platform for a variety of voices, a space to cry out and be vulnerable, and an effort to live into a just and creative world. I hope this column is part of my ongoing effort to catch up to that dream.
For this first installment of the series, I wanted to write about a moment in culture that I am catching up with, and hopefully this writing will be an opportunity for many of you to catch up with it as well. SMALL AXE is a series of films which, because of their home on Amazon, have been treated by many as simply episodes of a TV show or miniseries. Directed and co-written by Steve McQueen, a director I deeply admire, I am inclined to take up arms in a sense in defense of these pieces as cinema. However, cooler minds might point out that the distinction is perhaps not as relevant as we make it out to be. So, perhaps this is my writing about cinema or television, but during a pandemic, let’s just say these stories are spectacular. McQueen tells five stories set in different eras of Britain’s past, exploring a variety of themes and experiences of the black diaspora in that country. Each of these narratives have linking ideas, resonating against each other like harmonious notes, but they are also different stories with amazingly realized characters. The diversity of the experience of this region of that diaspora is on display here, as well as the historical particularity in each of these stories, which range from purely fictional to inspired by real events.
This angle — the connection of some of the stories to something that “happened” in the reductive sense — was, perhaps, part of the dismissal in some corners of these towering achievements. Historical drama can be tiresome, and often the slightly fictionalized version of a story can lack the teeth of the real thing. These films, though, are not all historical; more importantly, each is imbued with the textures of humanity. They breathe and cry and dance and rage, and while all of them carry enough of the DNA of the others to feel real in a deeper sense than historical, they each feel like they can stand on their own as well.
Mangrove is perhaps the most traditional narrative of the quintet, focusing on the struggle of a community for justice under police oppression. Its version of a courtroom drama was so exciting to me, so visceral and essential, that it managed to enliven that setting which I normally find interminably dull. Lovers Rock is in my experience the most acclaimed, and for good reason. While it seemingly tells a very basic and contained story of a party in a 1980s West London community, it somehow manages to touch a universal experience of joy and passion. The idea that black narratives should celebrate joy as much as pain and struggle has been in the discourse a ton lately, and somehow this one party encapsulates all those concerns in a unique way. Perhaps the most artistic and technical of the installments, it is without a doubt my favorite, despite lacking in direct references to politics or even the ever present C.L.R. James! Red White and Blue tells the story of one black man joining the police force in an effort to bring change from the inside, while Alex Wheatle tells the biographical narrative of children’s writer Alex Wheatle and his time in Brixton and in prison. Both films expand the narrative across time to deepen the story of the black diaspora in England and give us a variety of perspectives and experiences. They are less attractive to me than Lover’s Rock, if only because they tell a story along a more familiar narrative structure, but each is powerful and challenging in their own ways, and like the whole series, they manage to address some very familiar struggles from new and fresh angles.
The triumph of SMALL AXE might very well be the ways it manages to bring nuance and detail to very familiar stories, while also avoiding cliché. There is both that which feels very familiar here, but also striking surprises and new opportunities to learn about the liberation struggle internationally. They are human and social, particular and universal, a reminder that politics and theory are at essence about people, with all their flaws and beauty.
The final installment in the series of films is called Education. It is the coming-of-age narrative of a young, 12 year-old boy named Kingsley. The story is about his experience in school, but it is more about the system that assumes students like him are not worth trying to help. In Kingsley’s case, it is clear that his race combined with his performance allow the system to write him off and warehouse him. However, the film shows how the system does this to a variety of students, assuming that whether they have severe learning issues or simply do not conform to the customs of the school, the duty and obligation to educate them should be taken as lightly as possible. Kingsley cannot read, but it is clear that no one has ever really tried to help him to read, either. The scandal here, then, is two fold; one is perhaps more insidious than the other, but both are worth exploring, I think. They both feel familiar to me in a way that I found haunting as a viewer.
The most obvious, of course, is white supremacy. Kingsley is a black student without exceeding financial means, and his parents are busy and unable to give him extra attention to help him succeed as a student. The school of course assumes that his success is unnecessary, for him or for the world. Understand that important wrinkle to this injustice. The school is making two assumptions here, and by school, I really mean the wider education system, which is designed to ignore and dehumanize Kingsley. One, of course, is that Kingsley doesn’t need the abilities and skills of other students because he is Black, and in fact if he were to have these abilities, it might upset the order of the white supremacist system in which he lives. That is not all, though; the education system claims to exist for the betterment of students, but we all know it also exists as a form of social control. Students are conditioned and perhaps formed into the kind of citizens (consumers) the state needs to thrive. The system assumes that a black student like Kingsley doesn’t need these skills, but also that system does not need Kingsley either. The future might hold all manner of innovations and contributions from a child as gifted and compassionate as Kingsley, but because Kingsley is black, the system is uninterested; not just in his betterment, but in his conditioning. This might seem obvious, but it does matter as a distinct point. Why? It erases the idea that capitalism, specifically a capitalist white supremacy, is still, at its heart, self-interested. A system which instrumentalizes talented people for profit and gain could be said to be self-interested, but one which eliminates humans of all kinds before they even have a chance based upon race is clearly ideologically evil at its core.
The second issue might be harder to see, but is just as present and just as familiar. The system singles out Kingsley for his acting out because it is designed to marginalize black folks as well as other POC. However, Kingsley is not the only student the system is failing. When Kingsley is relegated to this alternative school only to discover it is less of a school and more of a warehouse for troublesome youth, we realize how often the forced educational system is simply unwilling or unable (or both) to help students with different learning needs. These students are likely also less privileged and have parents who do not have the time or resources or skills to invest in their students’ educational well being. To be blunt, though, why should they? The system of forced education is for everyone, and in fact demands everyone’s participation. As such, it must meet the variety of needs students present, and the ways that, in this narrative, it is unwilling to do so felt all too familiar. I can think of too many students, including for a time myself, who were left behind because a school simply did not know what to do with them, let alone how to help them.
Though I am not black nor in the British education system, there was something about Education that spoke deeply to my own experience. That feeling of failure, the deep insecurity, and the idea that parents and students cannot trust each other because the system breeds dishonesty and distance between them. Kingsley’s parents could be helped in understanding his needs and contributing to him learning to read, but the school is not part of that. Instead, his family feels attacked at either end, fear becoming the motivating factor in their interactions. That anxiety and fear around school, and around my own abilities therein, rang so true to me it hurt. I felt those same fears all over again, and wondered at the delicate and insightful way McQueen is able to help us see the entire family’s response to this situation. This might be suprising for some, as I now have multiple advanced degrees, but for a long time, school was torture for me. Just failure after failure, all manner of behavioral problems and acting out, as well as bullying and racism. At one point, my grade school sought approval from my mother to have me spend half the week in remedial programs for math and the other half in advanced programs for reading; this would have limited my everyday classroom time to a few hours a week. They were amazed when my mom refused, demanding they allow me some time to just be a student with my peers. The feeling that gave me, that I didn’t belong for two reasons at once, stuck with me. My educational experience does not compare with Kingsley, who is truly abandoned, yet I think I am not alone in being able to think of many contemporaries who were similarly given up on. Some of them beat the odds and found ways to thrive later in life, some of them struggled to find a place, and some are quite frankly dead.
Education manages to lead us into a community’s struggle for respect, for equal opportunity, and to help each other in a world that doesn’t care. At the same time, it reminds us that this system is designed to leave some behind, regardless of the ideologies that fuel those decisions. White supremacy is one ruling ideology, but classism is another, as is a kind of social Darwinism that believes the fates of these individuals are their own faults, despite every aspect of their experience being controlled. This structure, call it what you will, wants to have that control while abdicating all responsibility. It is, at its essence, dehumanizing. This film shows us how that dehumanizing system has been and likely continues to be deployed under white supremacy and anti-blackness to destroy black folks.
This vital film is more than this message; it has some of the strongest and most interesting performances I have seen in recent memory. The pacing is amazing, and the script really feels real and compelling. The art of it all works and demands respect, as do the films of the whole series. SMALL AXE is in some ways a small work, in its being on TV first, coming in a variety of forms, and featuring only a few big names in the market. However, it is well-sharp to cut down the big tree, and given the chance, it will make you sharp as well. These films tell a story and point the viewer toward a unique and under-represented history. They also remind you of the tree that needs felling where you are, or maybe that is just me. Education was not my favorite of these films, but it was the sharpest for me. It created a space that allowed me to reflect on the ways this system of education had failed me and my contemporaries, and left some dealing with that aftermath for their entire lives.
The SMALL AXE series is currently available on Amazon Prime and has been screening theatrically in limited runs across the country. These films are well worth your time, and in fact I think they demand your attention.