Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
From left to right: Small Axe: Lovers Rock (Photo: Will Robson-Scott/Amazon Studios); Dekalog (Screenshot: Warner Bros.); Twin Peaks (Screenshot: Showtime); Small Axe: Red, Wight & Blue (Photo: Will Robson-Scott/Amazon Studios)

Steve McQueen’s Small Axe makes the “TV vs. film” debate irrelevant

From left to right: Small Axe: Lovers Rock (Photo: Will Robson-Scott/Amazon Studios); Dekalog (Screenshot: Warner Bros.); Twin Peaks (Screenshot: Showtime); Small Axe: Red, Wight & Blue (Photo: Will Robson-Scott/Amazon Studios)
Graphic: Libby McGuire
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In the month since it premiered, Steve McQueen’s Small Axe has proven to be a landmark of long-form cinematic storytelling. The limited series, comprising five feature-length films, each taking a different approach to the decades of racism faced by London’s Black West Indian population, is an astounding achievement regardless of the rubric you apply to it. Naturally, that hasn’t stopped critics and cinephiles from hand-wringing over whether it qualifies as cinema or television.

Ask Steve McQueen and he will tell you that Small Axe is five interconnected standalone films. Each feature stands alongside McQueen’s immaculate and heralded films like the Oscar-winning 12 Years A Slave or its follow-up, Widows. As a television series, Small Axe has a scope and stylistic variety without many peers. But one of its most striking achievements is how deftly the series occupies both mediums at once, how resoundingly it has blurred the lines between cinema and television to the point of making such distinctions irrelevant.

Though the TV-versus-film debate has become a major talking point in recent years, examples of stories with equal place in television and cinema existed earlier than we often acknowledge. Many of the earliest examples are in eurocinema, with the likes of Rainer Werner Fassbinder (World On A Wire) and Wolfgang Petersen (his expanded Das Boot, not its remake) delivering work that has had both theatrical and televised life. Esteemed director Ingmar Bergman’s works moved between the mediums, with even his final film Saraband receiving different release methods across the globe. Scenes From A Marriage was originally intended for television and would later be cut to a theatrical version. Fanny And Alexander had the opposite rollout, with its theatrical version arriving before the miniseries version. The stigma of home viewing was firm then: Fanny And Alexander won four Oscars (a record for a non-English language film that it still shares with Parasite and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), while Scenes From A Marriage was deemed ineligible due to the televised version premiering a year before the theatrical one. Today, they are considered masterworks no matter which version you choose to view, whether you are watching your Criterion at home or in a repertory theatre.

But conversations of quality (or something’s seriousness as art) have often presented television as the lesser form. Just look at HBO’s old slogan—“It’s not TV, it’s HBO”—the implication being something more significant than its television competitors. But the phrasing also subconsciously instilled the idea that the cable channel could be a bridge between the two. HBO has probably delivered some of the key cases that started the discourse, like Mike Nichols’ Angels In America adaptation and clearly episodic narratives like the Cary Fukanaga-directed season of True Detective. And that’s not even wading into the waters of series that are indisputably TV but receive cinema-level reverence, like The Sopranos and The Wire. But with that iconic tagline, HBO tapped into how we distinguish the stories we consume, before Netflix would begin to sweep away at the imaginary line in the sand and reap most of the blame for it, chasing Emmys and Oscars alike and being called the death knell of movie theaters. What Netflix continues to prove is that what audiences don’t want to keep their films and their series separated; they simply want stories that compel them.

The other most contentious epicenter of the conversation is obviously Twin Peaks: The Return, David Lynch’s much argued-over serialized opus. Delivered in 18 surreal hour-long installments, Lynch famously considers the work one long-form film. Many of its vocal fans therefore have considered that gospel, while their opponents point to its episodic delivery as definitively television. When Cahiers du Cinéma magazine called it the best film of the decade, it was presented as the ultimate intractable argument for how we consider the definitions of television and film.

There are also differing considerations for various kinds of films. Nonfiction has had softer criteria, at least in terms of cinema’s highest honors, with sources like PBS and Showtime having equal hand in the release of the likes of celebrated documentaries like Citizenfour. O.J.: Made In America transcended the stigma of episodic format, winning the Best Documentary Feature Oscar with no signs of pushback to its airing on ABC and ESPN only a few weeks after a limited theatrical run. That theatrical life certainly helped its status as a film in terms of eligibility, but also how we largely consider the film.

O.J.: Made in America was also launched at the Sundance Film Festival (and played at others), which underscores the new significance that festivals have provided in positioning line-straddlers as films. McQueen’s Small Axe is the newest in this scenario; the first three chapters were launched at the New York Film Festival, after being selected for this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Not only does this set a film’s categorization, it also provides it with an elevated gloss of something special, playing into that long-standing bias of TV as lesser. “It’s not TV, it’s HBO” has given way to “it’s not TV, it played a film festival.”

But Small Axe is something special; through it, McQueen achieves a feat that no one limited series or single film could. In one massive swing, he’s created something with the depth of authorial voice it might take some filmmakers decades to showcase over multiple films, or what one series might take several seasons to develop. The films are in dialogue with one another, showing not only different forms of oppression but different forms of protest—uprising, art, organization, attempted infiltration, and (most ecstatically) Black joy. If we reduce conversation about Small Axe to oversimplified (and, frankly, tired) conversations about “TV vs. film,” it not only obscures the meaningful stories within Small Axe from the larger discussion, but it also reduces what it pulls off so successfully by telling multiple stories under one narrative umbrella.

Small Axe: Mangrove
Small Axe: Mangrove
Photo: Will Robson-Scott/Amazon Studios

Serialization is part of what gives Small Axe its impact. Every installment is very different from one another but impossible to decontextualize from each other, approaching the systemic racism endured by a very specific community and across decades. Each of its stories echoes another. McQueen even switches genres between films to examine different branches of British racist roots, starting with the courtroom drama of Mangrove. Then, he pivots to the house party quasi-musical of Lovers Rock, then to the intimate character study within the police force of Red, White And Blue. Next, he gives us a biopic in Alex Wheatle’s story of personal history obscured by white institutions, ending with a family drama in Education’s exploration of systemic segregation practices in the British school system. With precision and intense focus, this multi-pronged approach fulfills the aim of its ambition: The series’ breadth gets at the pervasiveness of systemic racism within our society with a wider lens than a single narrative, entry point, or stylistic approach could muster.

Perhaps the closest example to what McQueen has created is Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Dekalog, the 10-part miniseries of short films that revolves around modern interpretations of the Ten Commandments, and is regularly recognized as one of the all-time best TV productions, as well as Kieślowski’s masterpiece. Small Axe and Dekalog bear similarities as film cycles, though Kieślowski’s style and tone stay more homogenous across his chapters. Aside from its domestic drama concerns, Dekalog grapples with such larger societal issues as the fallout of the Nazi invasion of Poland decades later, capital punishment, and the disintegration of the family unit. Kieślowski was painting a broad portrait of a sense of trauma on such a scale that it becomes a national Polish identity, less about religion than it was about the failing of society’s moral code when faced with ambiguity.

Today, Kieślowski’s Dekalog is weighed as a singular work, and not by its individual parts. What Steve McQueen has created in Small Axe is something that should be viewed in the same measure, because it also achieves its sky-high ambitions with the level of craft we often attribute to the highest of cinema. And yet its episodic nature is essential in providing its panoramic view; we can’t see the big picture McQueen wants us to see without it. What Dekalog has in its favor to avoid such reductive assessments is its age, but the TV-or-film distinction doesn’t need to be a roadblock to evaluating its new peer; Small Axe deserves better conversation than that now, and not just decades later. Has anything on-screen this year been as breathlessly cinematic as the dancing crowd getting lost to “Silly Games,” Lovers Rock’s sexy, swaying 10-minute set piece? Is there a season of any series that has explored so many facets of its subject as this, feeling as if no detail is spared? Small Axe simply succeeds at dispelling the rulebook that demands it be one thing or the other. So if McQueen makes the lines between television and film even more unclear, the impact and quality of the series should make the response a resounding “who cares anymore?”

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