Reviews of today's British telly for Americans

Category: U.K./U.S. Co-production

Here’s what Americans need to know about the Black British film series Small Axe (McQueen, 2020)

TITLE: Small Axe, a series of five films including Mangrove, Lovers Rock, Red, White and Blue, Alex Wheatle and Education

GENRE: Historical drama

STARRING: A wealth of Black British acting talent, including Letitia Wright (despite her wackass anti-vaxxer bullshit), John Boyega, Sheyi Cole, Kenyah Sandy, Tamara Lawrence, Josette Simon


YEAR: 2020

RATING: Small Axe overall – 📢📢📢 out of 5 / Mangrove – 📢📢 / Lovers Rock – 📢📢 / Red, White and Blue – 📢📢📢 / Alex Wheatle – 📢📢📢📢 and Education – 📢📢📢📢📢

WHERE CAN I SEE IT? Amazon Video

Filmmaker Steven McQueen’s film series Small Axe is a long-overdue dramatic representation of the Black British experience from the 1960s to the 1980s.

To consider this an historical drama is apt for the circumstances in which Black British identity came of age en masse. Lots of people will point out, correctly, that there has always been a Black presence in Britain — free and enslaved. That to think Black Britons arrived on the Windrush and not before, ignores the Black presence in the historical, literary and archival records. It’s that kind of short-sightedness that allows government officials to carry out a large-scale witch-hunt to expel Black Britons who lived in the country for decades and served in the military service, staffing hospitals and other essential worker fields.

So that’s the first thing to understand when interpreting McQueen’s films: the Black British lens and experience of racism isn’t the same as the American context.

Yeah, white supremacy travels and asserts itself in nefarious ways, but, imo, a key distinction is citizenship. In the time period Small Axe covers Britons came from the West Indies (just think about that appellation: “west indies,” west of what and whom?) recruited by the British government to rebuild the country after Hitler’s forces decimated it. Appealing to good will and promising opportunity, Black Britons came to the UK as Commonwealth citizens. That’s a very different status and entitlement to rights than the equality of rights that Black Americans are still fighting to achieve today.

Going to Britain?, BBC Caribbean Service, Andrew Salkey Archive Dep 10310. Box 17, British Library

Here are a few other things to keep in mind for watching the Small Axe films.

Music’s a huge part of this series of films so might as well go all in with this playlist.

Language: lol, just turn on the subtitles. I already use subtitles even if I’m watching a U.S.-made, English language film. Subtitles will help you immensely with the patois. Lots of definitions allude to patois a “lowly,” which ignores the richness and innovation of languages that mix and meld with another language. For example, you’ll hear kids referred to frequently as “pickney.” I love it because it sounds accusatory, usually along the line of, “Whose pickney dem?” In McQueen’s Education film, which is the best one for it’s clarity, depth and impeccable acting, you will definitely have moments watching and asking, “Whoa, whose pickney these?” as the main character, Kingsley, struggles against larger power structures to have his learning needs met and not relegated to what the English educational authority dared call, “sub-normal.”

Also, get used to the “tooth suck” right now as a form expressing disgust. Weirdly, in the longest film, Mangrove, the emotive sucking of teeth is captioned as “[indistinct noise]” and it’s so much more than that. It definitely feels like, through the rest of the films, this particular emotional nuance if played up, so just prepare yourself.

Instead of reviews of each film, here are my general impression of each because it’s a lot of screen time. If you don’t want to invest several hours, here’s what I recommend viewing:

  • Education was the best of the films. The acting was superb and I thought it captured the complications of both white supremacist educational systems that were invested in tracking West Indian students into “special schools” and parents in denial about their children’s learning outcomes in the face of having sacrificed so much. Believing in the myths of the British Empire and Commonwealth have detrimental effects, but there are some amazing uplift in how the film rethinks what education means in a Black-centered c0ntext.
You do. Yes, do you want to learn about Claudia Jones. Go do a search NOW.
  • It was incredibly savvy for McQueen to focus a film on Alex Wheatle. Wheatle grew up, as the British say, “in care,” but whew, it’s not the kind of care anyone should be subjected to. Wheatle was brutalized in foster care, which eventually leads to a prison sentence after the 1981 Brixton riots. His is a great story of finding community and identity through music, sound systems, fashion, and language, but also the lure of the streets is strong. I’m keen to read Wheatle’s young adult and children’s books now.
  • Undoubtedly, I liked Red, White and Blue because John Boyega was in it with his fine self. But it’s also an important story about the experience of one of the first Black police officers to join the Metropolitan Police (“the Met”). Across the films there’s a lot of cop violence, which I found triggering in a “fuck these fucking cops” way. That’s the vibe for most of Mangrove, so to arrive at a different, if the same, experience of a Black man integrating a racist institution at that particular moment in history — the rise of neoliberalism and Thatcher’s England — is a story that I’m going to reflect on for a long time. It manages to intimately ask big questions about personal responsibility, collectivity, allegiance and complicity.
  • Lovers Rock and Mangrove were my least favorite of the five films. They were ordered as the first two, so I’m glad I didn’t let them stop me from pushing through. Mangrove felt like history homework and, in the interest of being an auteur, McQueen does some repetitive shots and dialogue that had me groaning and impatient. And Lover Rock, set in a house party, was beautiful to behold in costuming, lighting, etc., but there’s some interminable singing that, combined with Mangrove, was like, “Krikey, I get it, I get it! Even in our most abject moments and struggle, Black folx like to sing.” I hate musicals, though, so take that critique for what you will. Lovers Rock was like watching Insecure without a clear story arc.

I’m a completist, but I wish I’d gone ahead and read reviews of all of the films in Small Axe and saved myself some viewing time. Nonetheless, Small Axe was way overdue for the canon of how Black Britons built England and have persevered. ✊🏾🇬🇧

TV Review: Black Earth Rising (2017, BBC2 & Netflix)

black woman with great cheek bones looking skyward

TITLE: Black Earth Rising

GENRE: Drama/Thriller

STARRING: Michaela Coel, John Goodman (!), Lucian Msamati, Tyrone Huggins, Harriet Walter (basically a ton of amazing actors you’ll recognize)


YEAR: 2017

RATING: 🤷🏾‍♀️ (punting on a rating for reasons discussed)

WHERE CAN I SEE IT? Available to stream on Netflix starting 25 January 2019

I’m not so hot on political thrillers, hence, the 🤷🏾‍♀️ rating. But I am hot on Michaela Coel and I’m excited to see her getting to do a dramatic role. We knew she could do slapstick (see this blog’s first review ever for Chewing Gum), but she’s riveting in Black Earth Rising. She’s a soulmate to Meredith Grey and Christina Yang: dark and twisty.

Is that adequate attention to Michaela Coel’s acting so that it doesn’t seem like I’m objectifying her before I start going on about her cheek bones, amazing lips and skin I’d probably sell my non-existent first born for?

We’re introduced to Coel’s character, legal investigator Kate Ashby, in her therapist’s office. For someone who’s attempted to kill herself, Kate’s deadpanning her way through a quizzing by her therapist quite winningly. Kate’s survived the genocide in Rwanda and since been adopted by Eve. Eve is a British, international lawyer charged with prosecuting a militia leader for war crimes committed during the genocide for the International Criminal Court.

two women angrily face off

Eve: “What doesn’t kill us…” Kate: “…waits for another chance.”


TITLE: McMafia
GENRE: … suspense? thriller? Inscrutable hodgepodge of boring?
STARRING: David Strathairn, James Norton

YEAR: 2017
RATING: One of these 🛏 because you’re gonna wanna catch a lot of these 💤 if you watch McMafia.

WHERE CAN I SEE IT? If you insist, AMC and the new subscription channel, AMC Premier

Here’s a good tip for this BBC/AMC co-production: skip it. For serious, don’t even bother. McMafia is slow-moving, but not a slow burn.

It’s leading man, James Norton…what to say about James? “Wooden” is a recurring theme in reviews of his McMafia performance. I hesitate to call it a performance but I know it is because I’ve seen him be an exceptionally creepy and annoying psychopath in the crime drama Happy Valley (watch season one). He’s won awards for that turn and also nabbed himself a BAFTA Award for play a smoldering holy man/detective in Grantchester. But I’m not sure what he’s doing in McMafia besides clearly waiting for his next line like they were hard to memorize.

I’m a banker not a gangster.

James Norton put himself to sleep with his performance in McMafia. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, DO NOT WAKE HIM.

Taboo (BBC One and FX)

TITLE: Taboo
GENRE: Drama
STARRING: White Idris (aka Tom Hardy), Lucian Msamati, Oona Chaplin, David Hayman
YEAR: 2017
RATING: Five out of five wet wipes (you’re gonna need wipes if you watch this. Regency London, even the rich places, looks filthy.)

Every week when watching Taboo, after emerging from my White Idris-induced daze, I’d think, “I really have to recommend this show to people because it is craaaaaazy.”

But it’s also also overly complicated and obtuse. That’s why I waited until it was over to review it. Now, if you’re a  completists, you can binge-watch it. But Taboo is “sick with pneumonia” binge-watch material. Or “stuck inside during a hurricane or blizzard” binge-watch worthy. Taboo’s convoluted plot makes one easily distracted by the staging, the deliberate filth…or Twitter. And, yet, at the end, I actually stood up and cheered, which I’ve not done since Craster got merc’d in Game of Thrones. 

TV Review: The Family (ABC), Thirteen (BBC One/BBC America) and The Missing (BBC One)

TITLE: The FamilyThirteenThe Missing

GENRE: Thriller, Family Drama

STARRING: The Family – Joan Allen, that one chick from The Newsroom with the weird face; Thirteen – Aneurin Barnard is someone you will want to know because he and his dark curls were dreamy; The Missing – David Morrissey’s Walking Dead pedigree tricked me into watching this and now I’m mad because it was boring af.

NETWORK / COUNTRY: The Family – ABC / USA), Thirteen – BBC One, BBC America / UK, The Missing – BBC One / UK

YEAR: 2016

RATING: The Family – a reserved 4 out of 5 missing kid flyers, Thirteen – five out of five, The Missing – 2 sleepy eyes trying to stay open to watch it.

WHERE CAN I SEE IT? The Missing is still boring the knickers off folks on BBC iPlayer at this writing, Thirteen is on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and something called Vudu. The Family is available on iTunes, Google Play, and Playstation.

Okay, so this is a weird bit of televisual group-think for a TV show premise: what if a missing kid CAME BACK after several years? Three production companies sold this idea to networks, two in the U.K. and one in the states (so far).

Sometimes people with kids tell me they can’t watch stories in which kids are in danger and in peril. I totally get that. Sometimes I can’t either and I don’t have kids. But what if they kid comes back? Joy! Jubilation! Not.So.Fast say these three shows.

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