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Big Tree, Small Axe

On Film / The Daily — Jun 5, 2020
Letitia Wright in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe (2020)

Steve McQueen has dedicated the five films in his anthology series Small Axe “to George Floyd and all the other black people that have been murdered, seen or unseen, because of who they are.” The title of the series is taken from an African proverb popularized by Bob Marley in his 1973 song of the same name: “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe.”

The Cannes Film Festival has selected two of the five stand-alone stories rooted in London’s West Indian community for its seventy-third edition. Lovers Rock is a fictional tale set at a blues party in the early 1980s, and Mangrove is based on the actual 1970 trial of nine black activists accused of inciting violence at a demonstration. “After fifty-five days at the Old Bailey,” wrote Robin Bunce and Paul Field in the Guardian in 2010, “the Mangrove Nine were acquitted and forced the first judicial acknowledgment that there was ‘evidence of racial hatred’ in the Metropolitan police.”

The lineup that Cannes president Pierre Lescure and artistic director Thierry Frémaux presented in Paris on Wednesday evening is undoubtedly quite different from the one that would have rolled out along the Croisette had the show gone on in May. Several high-profile projects such as Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta have opted to hold out for premieres later this year or even at Cannes’ 2021 edition. This clears the way for fresh talent. Of the fifty-six films now bearing the Cannes 2020 label, fifteen are debut features and fourteen come from filmmakers who have never before been invited to the festival. For an excellent overview of this year’s official selection, turn to Justin Chang in the Los Angeles Times.

Here’s a sampling of what’s been on our minds during this tumultuous and emotionally wrenching week:

  • Spike Lee was to have presided over the jury in Cannes, and he still plans to do so next year. “One of the biggest criticisms of Do the Right Thing was that I did not provide the answer to racism at the end of the movie,” Lee tells the Los Angeles TimesJosh Rottenberg. “And here we are in modern-day America, pandemic America, and cities are up in flames.” With Lee’s Da 5 Bloods set to premiere on Netflix on June 12, the New York TimesA. O. Scott offers a primer on “an imposing and eclectic body of work” with “nine recommendations for essential Spike Lee viewing experiences.” In the Guardian, Arifa Akbar adds a tenth, Lee’s 2018 adaptation of Antoinette Nwandu’s play Pass Over, written in response to the shooting of Trayvon Martin. It’s a film whose “awful eloquence serves equally as a reminder of injustices at the hands of the police and of besieged black American masculinity.”

  • Filmmaker and critic Kent Jones has recently revisited Robert Drew’s 1963 documentary Crisis, “a remarkable work, on multiple levels” that tracks the Kennedy administration’s efforts to defuse a potentially explosive situation brought about when Alabama governor George Wallace refused to allow two black students to attend the University of Alabama. Ultimately, the administration’s solution was “quite brilliant—they really did outsmart Wallace.” Jones then notes in his short piece for the Film Foundation that years later, having survived an assassination attempt that nevertheless confined him to a wheelchair, Wallace “was wheeled into Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery,” where he read a statement asking for forgiveness. “In 1982, when he was re-elected for a fourth term as governor, he won ninety percent of the African-American vote . . . Wallace took two courses of action that would appear to seem terrifying, even impossible to many people right now. He apologized, and he changed.”

  • In his ongoing series at the Ringer on the evolution of American cinema in light of succeeding administrations, from Kennedy’s through Trump’s, Adam Nayman has now arrived at Richard Nixon’s just as comparisons are being drawn between the current unrest and the watershed year Nixon was elected, 1968: “The white-hot polarities percolating throughout the United States—the heated struggle over desegregation, deepening stratifications of wealth, social movements oriented against and in defense of some vaguely defined but unmistakable status quo—were in the process of boiling over, and while Planet of the Apes’ box office dominance over 2001 had more to do with its giddy premise and A-list leading man than any kind of zeitgeist-surfing savvy, its superficially escapist pleasures came with a reality check: Why look to the stars when things are so thoroughly fucked on the ground?”

  • Sarah Maldoror worked as an assistant to Gillo Pontecorvo on The Battle of Algiers (1966) and to William Klein on The Pan-African Festival of Algiers (1969) before making her first feature, Guns for Banta, in Guinea-Bissau in 1970. Though she was born in France and made several documentaries for French television, Maldoror will be remembered “as the mother of African cinema,” writes Celluloid Liberation Front for the Los Angeles Review of Books. “The Parisian banlieue or the Angolan maquis were in her mind and films, part of the same front against European colonialism and its neoliberal permutations. Instead of retreating into the safe haven of nostalgia, she kept fighting in a world heading in the opposite direction she and her comrades had fought for.”

  • Finally for now, a few suggestions for home viewing. On the Criterion Channel, we’re making work by such filmmakers as Oscar Micheaux, Maya Angelou, Julie Dash, William Greaves, Kathleen Collins, Cheryl Dunye, Charles Burnett, Khalik Allah, and Leilah Weinraub freely available to everyone, including nonsubscribers. Film at Lincoln Center has posted a collection of dialogues conducted with Spike Lee, Ava DuVernay, Steve McQueen, Barry Jenkins, Dee Rees, Yance Ford, and other filmmakers. On Monday and Tuesday, Jamie Stuart went out into the streets of Los Angeles and captured scenes of protesters marching past shuttered movie theaters; to be continued . . . is a disconcerting snapshot of this moment. And D Magazine’s Peter Simek introduces Ya’Ke Smith’s urgent and arresting nine-minute film, Dear Bruh: A Eulogy. A Baptism. A Call to Action.

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