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Steve McQueen: The Television Auteur

Across his anthology series "Small Axe" and three-part documentary "Uprising," McQueen presents a hybrid model of television storytelling.
Johannes Black
For many, the entrance of Steve McQueen into television was expected—his mercurial career has encompassed video-art installations, music videos, shorts and award-winning feature films. Before the critical success of Small Axe (2020) and Uprising (2021), twin anthology series that navigate the lives and passions of London’s Caribbean and West Indian communities, McQueen had already directed the pilot episode of HBO’s TV series Codes of Conduct (2016, since axed), and his fourth feature, Widows (2018), smartly transplanted Lynda La Plante’s 1980s mini-drama into present-day Chicago.
McQueen is one of many working directors—David Fincher, Jane Campion, and Andrea Arnold, of recent years—whose careers have migrated from cinema to small-screen television. Switch between your streaming channels, and the volume of director-driven programs is extensive—and growing. In the past, the director-led format of television was far less common and expected, with the groundbreaking prestige series of Rainer Fassbinder (Berlin Alexanderplatz, Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day), Krzysztof Kieślowski (Dekalog), and David Lynch (Twin Peaks) proving anomalies to mainstream TV. McQueen is now another name in a growing list of directors, writers and producers whose ideas and creative freedoms are more readily accommodated by the television market, with content-providers BBC and Amazon Studios laying down new opportunities for Black British storytelling.
First premiering at the Cannes and London Film Festivals, and later arriving on BBC platforms, the Small Axe anthology treads a thin line between “cinema” and “television,” welcoming the separate elements that both offer. Small Axe has been promoted and applauded as anthology television and as a sequence of stand-alone films—no single definition is shared by critics or awards bodies.
McQueen has openly dismissed this complication:
“I don’t care! That’s for critics to talk about. […] I think these kind of conversations are about the limits of people’s imagination of what can be what. If the situation is not pushed then it becomes stagnant.”1
However, this is no old conversation. The hybrid storytelling of Small Axe deliberately plays to cinema and living-room audiences. Take, in particular, the opening episode “Mangrove” which contrasts electric, visceral combat with scenes of closeted courtroom drama. The medium of this episode is purposely ill-defined: “Mangrove” uses a 2.35.1 widescreen format—normally reserved for cinema releases—and runs over 120 minutes, despite its primary distribution on daytime television. With “Lovers Rock” (the second episode) and “Alex Wheatle” (the fourth), McQueen once again brushes away the conventions of primetime drama by finely intertwining art with history, sidling between genres and aesthetic choices.“Mangrove,” especially, demonstrates a louder, more liberated McQueen—one whose creative and political freedoms have further to tread, and more time to settle, charging his television with even greater import. Comparably, his three-part docuseries Uprising—investigating the deaths of 13 young Black people in the 439 New Cross house fire—complicates its medium by including the subtitle: “A Steve McQueen Film.” To view these series is to engage with McQueen’s hybrid televisual aesthetic, and consider how we, the audience, might receive and consume the conventions of his art.
Lovers Rock
The BBC describe the Small Axe anthology quintet as “love letters to black resilience and triumph”1—something which McQueen had planned on crafting for years, but “needed the time and the maturity to get a grip on.”3 “Mangrove”—the longest, meatiest, and most vehement of the five—brings the 1971 trial of the Mangrove Nine into clear focus: the true story of the West-Indian men and women from Notting Hill, London whose peaceful protests led to an unjust charge of incitement to riot. Elegantly passing from sweeping, street-side celebration to the high-stakes chamber drama of the courtroom, the episode resonates with Kathryn Bigelow’s recent period showdown Detroit (2017), whose balancing of large and small spaces also informs the spectacle of the racial drama. “Lovers Rock” is the only semi-fictional chapter of Small Axe—borrowed from McQueen’s childhood memories—finding a sacred time and place of nocturnal, youthful passions. In “Red, White and Blue” and “Alex Wheatle,” the political and personal again intersect, following the lone and fraught journeys of Black British men (Leroy Logan and Alex Wheatle, respectively). “Education,” the final chapter, is based on McQueen’s own experiences of the 1970s British School System, closing the anthology with a profound and understated coming of age.
In “Lovers Rock,” the dimensions of television are complicated beyond recognition. It is 1980s West London, and two friends secretly meet under a railway, having both escaped their homes to attend a local house party in Ladbroke Grove—for Black Londoners not allowed access to white nightclubs, these parties were the alternative. The euphoria and anticipation of the pair soon evaporate into the foggy spaces of the townhouse, where steaming dishes, intoxicants, and sexual passions fuel the atmosphere of each scene. These encounters, accompanied by the sounds of lover’s rock, reggae, and soul, by traditions and ritual, offer both a historical document and non-narrative, impressionistic musical. The spectacle of “Lovers Rock” comes from this formlessness: the narrative and plot are overwhelmed by the cinematic atmosphere (quite literally, characters are lost in cigarette fumes and corridors), with the dramatization of the party decentering, and blurring, the format of the episode itself.
For McQueen, the personal and political have always shared close quarters in his art. His commemorative project “Queen and Country”—commissioned by the Manchester International Festival and Imperial War Museum, after he visited Iraq in 2006—collected the portraits of deceased British soldiers into 155 sheets of stamps. Elsewhere, the characters of his films are subjects of similar political crisis, bruised internally, and coming apart at the seams. His debut feature, Hunger (2008), bristles with contempt for the British presence in Northern Ireland, with IRA soldier Bobby Sands (played by Michael Fassbinder) emaciating himself in protest, spreading feces like paint over his cell walls. Shame (2011), his second, might be the only outlier—cold, metallic, and deliberately unemotional. New York is the background for sexual addiction, with big-name executive Brandon Sullivan (Fassbinder again) toppling under the weight of family trauma and his own desires. And with 12 Years a Slave (2013), arguably his magnum opus, McQueen’s personal politics found their greatest outlet in an adaption of Solomon Northup’s real-life slave memoir, directing the story with viscerality and intense feeling. For McQueen, “the story’s not just an African-American story. It’s a universal story. It’s a world story,” and by showing Northup’s journey from New York violinist to plantation slave—one that was buried, and unheard of, for many years—that story is given further reach. His most recent feature, the heist ensemble Widows, smartly escaped the trappings of its pulp genre, delivering a nuanced commentary on social inequities, violence and racial politics. The personal and the political are twin strands that interweave throughout his cinema, and later come to occupy his television aesthetic.
In Uprising, McQueen’s expository TV-documentary contextualizes the narratives of Small Axe — in many ways, providing a televisual companion piece. Each series amplifies the other, and if Small Axe were to be viewed in isolation from Uprising, the narratives of “Lovers Rock” and “Alex Wheatle” would arguably be less complete. The rhapsodic blues party in “Lovers Rock”—where young lovers dance, unheeded, into the following day—finds sharp contrast with the New Cross party, holding a mirror to the tragedy and suggesting: “what could that night have been?” If “Lovers Rock” provides an alternate, reimagined history, Uprising exposes the reality. McQueen also interviews George Rhoden in Uprising, one of very few Black British Met officers working in that period, whose controversial employment in the force unmoored him from family and colleagues, similar to Logan Leroy in “Red, White and Blue.” Another interviewee is Alex Wheatle, the eponymous subject of the fourth episode of Small Axe, whose vibrant early life is presented in dialogue with the aftermath of the New Cross fire and the Brixton riots that ensued.
Each episode of Uprising is provocatively subtitled “A Steve McQueen Film,” not a television episode, and while missing the cinematic elements of Small Axe, they nevertheless present a vivid, grand polemic that elevates the series above most TV documentaries. Testimonials from survivors and archive footage reconstruct the beginning, middle and aftermath of the tragedy, and how the police and judicial investigations failed to reach any conclusion on the events of the night—initially accusing the party-goes of beginning it themselves, and later unable to confirm the fire as a racially motivated attack. Like “Mangrove” and “Education” in Small Axe, Uprising builds a collective portrait of Black British lives unable to achieve closure for the injustices of their past. And while Uprising is first a solemn, factual confirmation of the Small Axe anthology, its cinematic qualities and political import also serve to educate and inform a wider television audience of this footnoted history.
Steve McQueen recently executive-produced three new documentaries on Amazon Prime—his own Uprising, George Amponsah’s Black Power: A British Story of Resistance (2021),and Lyttanya Shannon’s Subnormal: A British Scandal (2021)—with each TV documentary presenting an articulate coda to Small Axe. For McQueen, “these […] documentaries show us of how far we still have to travel for liberty and justice,” despite finding greater coverage for their subject and shining harsher lights on history.4 It is worth noting that Small Axe is also a live, organic anthology, unconfined by its five-episode format, with plans to expand and broaden outward—McQueen has stated there are more stories to be told. From cinema to television to projects that go between, McQueen continues to provoke, inspire and complicate, and with his hybrid model for television, he extends the reach and depiction of Black British lives
1. McQueen, Steve. Interview. By Donald Clarke. 27 Feb 2021.
2. BBC iPlayer.
3. Haynes, Suyin. “‘It’s changing because we make a change.’ Steve McQueen on Laying Down a Path for Black British Creators”. Time, 3 December 2020.
4. BBC Media Centre. “BBC announces two new documentaries - Black Power and Subnormal”. BBC, 29 January 2021.


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