The Criterion Voyages (Spine #1177): SMALL AXE -- Five Essential Films From a Master
By Sean Boelman
This month, Steve McQueen’s five-film anthology Small Axe joins the filmmaker’s Hunger in the Criterion Collection. Although it is another case of a widely-available film (or, in this case, films) joining the fray, these five movies are more than important enough in their representation and storytelling to earn their place.
Mangrove is considered to be the most acclaimed of the five films, having earned the anthology its only Emmy nomination. It’s a powerful, if somewhat simple courtroom drama that is buoyed by fantastic performances and an urgent message. Even though the film is set over 50 years ago, it still feels relevant today.
Another one of the more widely acclaimed entries in the anthology is Lovers Rock, which is set in the West Indies house party scene in London. It’s a hangout film with a reggae soundtrack that is truly unparalleled, and this film is good enough alone to be worth adding the set to your Criterion shelf.
In addition to Lovers Rock, the only other film in the anthology following fictional characters is Education. However, even though the story itself is fictionalized, the topic and themes are very much real issues, and McQueen dissects them in a way that feels familiar, yet still harrowingly effective.
Red, White and Blue boasts a commanding lead performance from John Boyega, who is absolutely riveting as a police officer who attempts to challenge the system in ways that begin to fundamentally affect his outlook. It’s arguably the most challenging of the five films in the anthology, and one not to miss.
Alex Wheatle is arguably the most conventional film of the bunch, but even it is quite good thanks to McQueen’s deft directorial hand. It’s also worth noting that the real-life Wheatle played a large role in consulting on the film, ensuring that there is a level of accuracy and realism to the storytelling.
The set’s bonus features are somewhat underwhelming, with the only new addition being a conversation between McQueen and professor Paul Gilroy, who served as a consultant on the anthology. The rest of the bonus materials are recycled from what was available on Prime Video, as well as the documentary Uprising directed by McQueen and James Rogan.
It’s also a bit disappointing that they decided only to go with 2K masters of the films, rather than 4K masters, as the quality won’t differ that much from what you could already watch streaming the films on Prime Video. Still, getting the opportunity to own these excellent pieces of cinema by an absolute master.
Although the Criterion Collection set for Small Axe does leave something to be desired in terms of its offerings, the importance of the films themselves is too undeniable not to add this to your collection. If nothing else, it’s great to have these works available on physical media for the first time.
The Criterion Collection edition of Small Axe is available beginning April 25.
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