As awards season continues full steam ahead, one of the most notable achievements of 2020 continues to be Steve McQueen‘s Small Axe. Ever since its release on streaming and television platforms, this ambitious anthology of five films has stirred up constant debate (i.e. is it film or TV?) and adulation in equal measure. Featuring McQueen’s trademark artistry, these five distinct stories shine a spotlight on Black British life. In particular, the films explore the experiences of Caribbean immigrants of the Windrush generation and their descendants, as they assimilated into London society in the 1960s to 1980s.
Following the success of Small Axe, there will hopefully be a renewed interest in seeing Caribbean culture represented on screen. But you don’t have to wait to satisfy that craving for those melodious accents, toe-tapping music, and vibrant personalities. After watching Small Axe, here are five more Caribbean-centric films that complement the themes explored in McQueen’s work.
Ever since the earliest slave revolts, the act of protest has been embraced by Afro-Caribbean people as a tool against oppression. That rebellious spirit is evident in the true story of Steve McQueen’s Mangrove. It is also the driving force behind Mina Shum’s Ninth Floor. This documentary revisits a seminal point in Canadian history, when protests erupted following complaints from a group of Caribbean students about racial discrimination stemming from a professor at Sir George Williams University in Montreal. Dissatisfied with the university’s handling of the situation, the protesters occupied the computer lab. The event that escalated further over the course of several weeks in early 1969. Emblematic of a larger Black liberation movement throughout the African and Caribbean diaspora, Ninth Floor uses sobering testimonies and archival footage to uncover the ugly truth beneath the prevailing veneer of Canadian racial harmony.
Directed by Todd Kessler
Streaming on Amazon Prime
In Lovers Rock, Steve McQueen takes his Small Axe to the dance floor for a euphoric house party set to the delightful sounds of reggae music. When it comes to partying Caribbean-style, however, it doesn’t get more festive than Trinidad and Tobago’s legendary Carnival celebrations. Set during this season of revelry, Bazodee follows the unlikely romance that develops between an Indo-Trinidadian heiress and an Afro-Trinidadian former musician (played by iconic soca artist Machel Montano) who is attempting another shot at stardom. But there’s a catch – she’s already engaged to be married. As this love triangle plays out, Bazodee sticks to the formula of classic Hollywood love stories. But what makes the film stand out is its integration of Montano’s catalogue of infectious songs remixed with Bollywood flair. This cross-cultural mashup vibrantly rebukes the monolithic notions of Caribbean identity and celebrates the unifying power of music.
Third World Cop
Directed by Chris Browne
Streaming on YouTube
When outspoken Black Lives Matter supporter John Boyega took on the role of a young cop trying to reform the police force in Small Axe‘s Red, White and Blue, the meta-textual resonance made it one of the more memorable films and performances in the anthology. Chris Browne’s Third World Cop, although less explicit about corruption in the criminal justice system, provided similar social commentary while exploring crime in Jamaica as abetted by powerful figures in 1999.
Set in the gangster hotbed of Kingston’s inner city communities, the film stars Paul Campbell as a notorious police officer who is forced to reconsider his trigger-happy methods when he learns of his childhood friend’s involvement in a gun-running scheme. With a low budget aesthetic and catchphrases galore from its badass hero, Third World Cop recalls the guilty pleasures of Blaxploitation tropes from an authentic Jamaican perspective. And the style was embraced by local audiences, as the film became the highest grossing of all time at the Jamaican box office, solidifying the gangster movie as the country’s preeminent filmmaking genre.
In a key scene in Alex Wheatle, the titular protagonist leads a crowd of party-goers in a protest song referencing the 1981 Brixton riot. As they chant about the “riot inna Brixton,” fans of Franco Rosso’s Babylon will surely be reminded of that 1980 cult classic. Set in London’s Brixton community during the same time period, the sound system culture adopted by Alex Wheatle is also at the heart of Rosso’s film, which was largely banned in the UK and USA due to its provocative depiction of racial tensions. Restored and re-released decades later, new generations can now appreciate this still timely slice-of-life film. Babylon is centered on a young DJ and his friends as they prepare for a sound clash. Crafted with humour, heart and impeccable cinematic skill, Babylon is an powerful time capsule of 1970s/1980s London life, where racism and cosmopolitanism coexisted in an ideological tug of war.
Green Days by the River
In Education, the concluding film of Small Axe, McQueen crafts a poignant coming of age tale about a 12-year old boy with learning disabilities who struggles to make it in a system rigged against his success. Eventually, his parents find an alternate route for his development, which affords him the care and attention he needs. Shellie, the protagonist of Michael Mooleedhar’s Green Days by the River, faces a similarly atypical path during his equally formative adolescence in 1950s Trinidad and Tobago.
When his father takes ill, Shellie decides to forego traditional schooling to provide for him and his mother. He works the fields of his neighbour, Mr. Gidharee, an Indian man with a sprawling estate. While the pair strike up a bond, young love also blooms for Shellie. He finds himself torn between his affections for a Black girl named Joan and the mixed race Rosalie, Mr. Gidharee’s daughter. Adapted from the acclaimed novel by Michael Anthony, Green Days by the River reflects on simmering race and class tensions between the Black and Indian populations during the waning days of British rule. Yet Mooleedhar’s direction is never heavy-handed. It maintains a light touch for most of its run time through the youthful innocence of Sudai Tafari’s bright-eyed lead performance, the lush riverside scenery, and an upbeat soundtrack inspired by calypso and traditional Indian music.