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'Small Axe' Series Offers A Look At Lives Of West Indian Immigrants In London

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

British director Steve McQueen, best-known for his Oscar-winning film "12 Years A Slave," has a new project. It's called "Small Axe," and it's a five-part look at West Indian immigrants living in London. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says this collection of films, the first of which debuts on Amazon Prime Video today, is a massive cross-cultural achievement.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: "Mangrove," the first film in Steve McQueen's "Small Axe" collection, presents a curious question. When is a restaurant more than just a restaurant? When it's a community institution.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SMALL AXE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) This really my home from home now, and everybody in the community say that they need this place, too. This make me happy.

DEGGANS: That's a regular customer of the Mangrove, a Caribbean restaurant in London's Notting Hill neighborhood in 1968. The owner, Frank Crichlow, played by Shaun Parkes, was an immigrant from Trinidad who opened the restaurant to serve West Indian food and wound up creating a haven for Black immigrants unwelcome in white-owned establishments. But there was one problem - unwanted attention from the police.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SMALL AXE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Are you serving drinks without a license?

SHAUN PARKES: (As Frank Crichlow) We're drinking blasted tea.

UNIDENTFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) You're breaking the law of this country.

PARKES: (As Frank Crichlow) I opened this place for people to come and go, no matter who they are.

UNIDENTFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) That's all well and good. You see; you people - you come over here with your bright clothes. You sleep with our women, make like you're a big shot. It isn't happening - not on my watch.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASS SHATTERING)

DEGGANS: McQueen, the first Black filmmaker to win an Oscar for Best Picture as the director of "12 Years A Slave," co-wrote the script for "Mangrove." It tells the real-life story of the trial which ensued after Crichlow and local activists protested repeated police raids designed to shut the place down. It also expertly sets up themes explored in the rest of the "Small Axe" films - the struggle by Black immigrants and their children against police brutality, their fight against white British racism, the tension between adapting to a new home and holding on to a bit of the old one.

The second film, dropping next Friday, is "Lovers Rock." The third, "Red, White And Blue," features "Star Wars" co-star John Boyega as a young Black man who drops a career as a scientist to become a police officer even after his father is unfairly beaten by white officers and confronts him over his choice.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SMALL AXE")

STEVE TOUSSAINT: (As Ken Logan) You were supposed to take what you learned and show (unintelligible) a different way.

JOHN BOYEGA: (As Leroy Logan) Isn't that what you taught us? Isn't that what you drilled into us? Study every hour, godsend (ph). Don't leave the house or mix with the Black kids. You made us feel like we could be a part of everything. You wanted us more British than the British. At least this way, Dad, I can change things. Dad, seriously, what do you think I am?

TOUSSAINT: (As Ken Logan) I really don't know.

DEGGANS: These films are an immersive, emotional experience. In "Mangrove," you laugh one moment as the Mangrove's patrons spill out of the restaurant into an impromptu street party, and you're angry the next as white police officers play cards to decide who will yank a random Black person off the street for an unprovoked beating. McQueen casts well, also enlisting Letitia Wright, who plays Wakandan scientist Shuri in the "Avengers" movies. But here, she plays a young member of the Black Panthers focused on protecting the Mangrove.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SMALL AXE")

LETITIA WRIGHT: (As Altheia Jones) The Mangrove is now a focal point for Black people to come and sit, talk and exchange views. That is a rare and precious gift.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Damn right. And that Betty make the best roti.

DEGGANS: The title "Small Axe" comes from an African proverb. If you are the big tree, we are the small axe. These films live up to that sentiment, chopping away at ignorance and indifference to the Black immigrant experience in Britain in a compelling and exhilarating way. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIBIO SONG, "A TOUT A L'HEURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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