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John Boyega’s Small Axe film is just one part of a greater experiment

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A look at the five films that Steve McQueen directed for Amazon

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john boyega in red, white and blue Photo: Amazon Studios

Each of the five feature-length films in Steve McQueen’s Amazon Prime anthology series Small Axe features a different set of characters and a different plot. They’re even set in different genres, from a courtroom drama to an experimental musical.

But if any one of these movies could be described as the project’s centerpiece, it would be the third installment, Red, White and Blue. The gritty cop story stars Star Wars’ John Boyega as Leroy Logan, a real-life London police officer who tried to work from the inside against generations of racially biased policing in the U.K..

Police officers feature prominently in several of the Small Axe films, which are set in different eras, around a part of London populated by immigrants from the West Indies. One of the series’ recurring themes is the ways the law enforcement rank-and-file threaten the area’s sense of community — often, they harass darker-skinned citizens as a matter of policy, apparently believing they make the city safer by making racial and ethnic minorities feel unwelcome. In Red, White and Blue, one of those minorities is Logan’s father Ken (Steve Toussaint), who gets arrested for arguing about a bogus parking violation, right around the time that Leroy is choosing to give up a promising forensic science career to enter the police training program.

Logan joins up with good intentions, thinking he can improve the quality of life for his family and friends by serving as a kind of liaison: becoming the face of Black immigrants to the cops, and the face of the cops to his neighbors. But while the politicians at the upper levels of the force are thrilled with their new hire, the boys on the beat are either dismissive or outright rude to him. Worse, when he tries to talk to folks on his block while wearing his uniform, they shun him.

John Boyega sits in his car in Small Axe: Red, White and Blue Photo: Will Robson-Scott / Amazon Prime Video

McQueen (who directed every episode of Small Axe, and co-wrote them with Courrtia Newland and Alastair Siddons) knows this world well, having grown up in West London as the descendant of immigrants from Grenada and Trinidad. Born in 1969, McQueen had firsthand experience of a lot of what he puts into this show, from the exuberant early-1980s house party that anchors the second movie, Lovers Rock, to the semi-autobiographical story of the final film, Education, about a kid slotted into a special-needs program by school administrators who assume he has a developmental disorder. The movies range in length from just over an hour to just over two hours, and are set across two different decades.

The anthology’s first film, Mangrove, is mostly set in 1971, and tells the story of “the Mangrove Nine,” a group of Black activists arrested for inciting a riot, collared by policemen who regularly harassed the customers at a popular Notting Hill hangout for artists and aspiring politicians. In the subsequent trial, the defendants’ unwillingness to be contrite or even cooperative rattled the judge, pushing him to acknowledge some of the racial biases in the criminal justice system.

Mangrove sets the tone for Small Axe, which in the similar fourth movie, Alex Wheatle, examines how the title character, an accomplished author, was shaped by the 1981 Brixton Uprising: a violent clash between the cops and the hundreds of African-Caribbean Londoners who were protesting police brutality. Even the purely joyous Lovers Rock, which mostly consists of people dancing and flirting, includes a scene where a passing police car briefly shatters the carefree mood.

Red, White and Blue really puts the policing issue front and center, though, and it directly raises questions about whether assimilating into a new country requires immigrants to accept the worst prejudices against themselves, acquiesce to a disdainful authority, and change who they are. It isn’t the best of the Small Axe movies — Lovers Rock takes the prize there, with Mangrove close behind. But it is the one that delves deepest into how cultures can bend to each other over time, in ways both fruitful and regrettable. This idea is evident even in the movie’s smaller details, like a passive-aggressive argument at the Logan dinner table over whether sugar is a proper ingredient in jerk chicken, or in a subplot about one of Leroy’s friends winning over white audiences with his reggae music.

Boyega gives one of the best performances of his young career in Red, White and Blue, playing a man who stays committed to what he feels is a righteous cause, even as his peers scrawl racial slurs on his locker and fail to back him up when he’s under fire. As with some of Boyega’s best-known roles — like Finn in the third Star Wars trilogy, Melvin in Detroit, and Moses in Attack the Block — a lot of the character is developed through his face, and the way he tries to remain stoic and resolute, even as his eyes reveal more anxiety and anger.

McQueen’s previous films include 2008’s Hunger, 2011’s Shame, 2013’s Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave, and 2018’s Widows. Prior to Hunger, he was known as an avant-garde filmmaker and visual artist, and while his narrative films and Small Axe episodes are much more mainstream, they’re still filled with moments where McQueen indulges in his fascination with the abstract and the expressionistic. He starts a shot in Mangrove on a disorienting assemblage of feet below a table, before moving the camera up to show the people they’re attached to. He shows Leroy hugging his dad in a moving moment of reconciliation, but he shoots it at a distance, through a car windshield, while a soulful rendition of “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?” plays on the radio. Practically all of Lovers Rock consists of music and bodies in motion, photographed up close. Alex Wheatle and Education feature long stretches with very little dialogue, where the main characters just absorb the wonders and horrors of the world around them.

All of this matters, because while Small Axe is in some ways incredibly ambitious — presenting some of the history of Black culture and politics in London, spread across two decades — it’s ultimately more intimate than grandiose. A good point of comparison for Small Axe is August Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle” of plays, which cover a century of African-American life, in the form of 10 small-scaled stories about people just trying to navigate everyday complications and compromises. (One of those plays, Fences, was made into a very good film by director/star Denzel Washington; another, the marvelous Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, debuts on Netflix in December, and features the final screen performance of Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman.)

That’s why it’s worth noting what McQueen and his co-writers have opted to omit from these films. Red, White and Blue ends with Logan at a low ebb, mired in doubt; the story doesn’t encompass the real-life Logan’s later work with the UK’s National Black Police Association. The trial scenes in Mangrove focus almost entirely on the defendants’ actions and reactions, and leave the Crown’s case mostly off screen. In Education, the kid who’s meant to represent McQueen’s younger self doesn’t become an internationally acclaimed artist at the end, but he does meet a teacher who gets him excited about African history.

In other words, these aren’t five movies about sweeping social change — even when they’re about people who fought openly and hard for just that. Instead they’re about the small triumphs, the small setbacks, and the small choices that sometimes have lasting impact, beyond what we can see right now.

Mangrove, Lovers Rock, and Red, White and Blue are streaming on Amazon Prime Video now. Alex Wheatle debuts on Dec. 11, and Education launches on Dec. 18.