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White Empathy Falls Short: Steve McQueen's 'Small Axe' Series Reviewed

Updated: Jan 24, 2021

by Jessie Florence Jones

“This film is not here to explain itself to a white audience. They are deliberately excluded, placed into the position of the police, and the judges, and implicated in the systemic racism the film details”
Still: 'Mangrove' (2020: dir: Steve McQueen)

Art encourages empathy. This is a fairly well established, perhaps even banal, reading of the role that creativity can have. The radical power of art to depict somebody’s experience and give insight into the life of an “other”, bridges over an alienated gap between peoples.

James Baldwin elucidated this time and again in interviews:

James Baldwin

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive”

Of course, pointing out art’s capacity to traverse not only geographical distances but disturb chronology, is a deeply embedded notion. While Baldwin chose to focus on books, it can also be applied to film: here specifically, to Steve McQueen’s new series of five films under the collective title Small Axe.

Codes, Imagery and Uncanniness

The title, ‘Small Axe’, originates in an African proverb: ‘if you are the big tree, we are the small axe’, popularised by Bob Marley’s song of the same title.

Five films in total, including three that were premiered earlier this year at the 58th New York Film Festival, each film is separate but unified with its counterparts. Though standalone pieces of film, the title unifies them to an overarching ethos. These are individual stories, different perspectives, but that power balance is harshly revealed throughout: the stability of systemic, ideological racism is slowly chipped away throughout each film.

The first instalment is Mangrove, the title of both the name of the restaurant which features - the hub of Notting Hill West Indian community in the late 1960s - and the Mangrove nine, the nine people who were associated with the restaurant and historical police brutality.

The film acts as a profound indictment of both the police force and the legal system. This is a feat that could have easily been achieved with dialogue, but the true mastery of this film is the subtlety with which white audience members are confronted with the deep rottenness of this brutality, its subtler micro-aggressions, and their complicity within it.

Much like the proverb from which McQueen derives his title, there are codes, imagery, and uncanniness, that are deliberately left unexplained to audience members who don’t belong to the culture or the history being depicted.


Returning to the notion of art and empathy, this film achieves with great subtlety a lightness of touch and an unnerving feeling, which contribute as much to the message of the film as do the more explicit illustrations of racism.

There is the cacophony of a scene in which a raid takes place. Full of sound, bodies filling the screen, the claustrophobia of these shots and the violence of them, it is followed by a silent close up of a toppled colander. The colander continues to rock from side to side, slowing but never settling.

The metaphorical power of this shot goes beyond just unrest; the colander filters, water falls through its holes, escaping through the gaps, an alternative to the romanticised image of the ‘melting pot’. Things haven’t melted and blended in this film; they are separate, the material thought to be waste, in excess, falling through the gaps.

Here, all of the insidious metaphors used, to this day, surrounding immigration - ‘pouring in’, ‘overflowing’ - are turned on their head. It is in scenes such as this, sometimes completely soundless, that create a disturbing mood. Shots linger for a few seconds longer than is comfortable, perspectives are forced through a different uncomfortable, claustrophobic angle.

A white audience is shown the perspective of the West Indian community in Notting Hill in the 1960s. The police brutality. The psychogeographical significance of certain streets, certain corners, the danger certain places pose. These things are shown explicitly. There has been no attempt to sanitize the variety of West Indian accents to make them more palatable or to appease white audience members.

Still: Mangrove (2020: dir: Steve McQueen)

However, the most intelligent thing about this film comes at the start of the protest. Leighton Rhett “Darcus” Howe , shouts “hands off Black people!” atop a car. You view this not through the eyes of the protesters, but through the observation slit in the police van, the shot framed by the top of police hats, Darcus in the background, his voice having to travel past these ideological viewpoints before it can be heard by the audience. It is a limited view. The suggestion here is that a narrative of resistance has consistently, historically, come filtered through the racist institutions that resist and prevent this activism.

The Problem with Empathy

This film is not a lesson for white people, an educational tool on how not to be racist, nor should it be viewed as one. White cultural consumers often expect this of Black and indigenous filmmakers. This film is not here to explain itself to a white audience. They are deliberately excluded, placed into the position of the police, and the judges, and implicated in the systemic racism the film details.

This is where empathy falls short in a culture that relies so heavily on preceding love and compassion with rationale and understanding. We understand one another’s pain, or try to, before we offer our support. An overreliance upon empathy can lead to the demand for Black and indigenous stories to be ones which explain themselves. If this is what is expected, a prepackaged and easy-to-digest story of a community, of an individual’s racialised experience, then it stifles the creativity of huge swathes of people and contributes to more subtle and insidious racist mythology.


Jessie Florence Jones is an academic and creative writer researching 20th and 21st century American literature. She currently lives in Liverpool


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