'There's always joy within the pain': Steve McQueen on 'Mangrove' and Black Lives Matter movement

Rasha Ali
USA TODAY

Steve McQueen's "Small Axe" film series sheds light on untold stories of Black people's experiences with racial discrimination and police harassment, but amid the trauma, he also highlights two key themes: Black joy and Black resilience.

The five-part anthology, which launched in November on Amazon Prime with "Mangrove," takes place in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, and centers on stories about those within London's West Indian community who made it their mission to dismantle racist systems. 

We see people like the British Black Panther movement's Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright) in "Mangrove" and Leroy Logan (John Boyega) in "Red, White and Blue,"  a Black man who decided to join the Metropolitan Police after his father was beaten by officers, working tirelessly to bring about change. We witness their frustrations, see their blood boiling at every roadblock put up by systemic racism, and become privy to the struggle of simply trying to exist as Black people in a world that appears to be built against us.

"We don't have an alternative," McQueen says. "We don't have a choice; we have to keep on keeping on. One can't take the foot off the gas." 

Letitia Wright ("Black Panther") stars in "Mangrove," the first film in Steve McQueen's "Small Axe" anthology on Amazon Prime.

Though the stories in McQueen's films took place decades ago, "these movies are not about the past" at all, he says, mirroring what's going on with Black Lives Matter movements across the globe now.

Despite this seemingly everlasting fight against racial injustice, McQueen reminds of the solace that comes with it.

"There's always joy within the pain," McQueen says. "That's what we're good at. Look at who we are as a people. We come out singing and dancing as well as fighting, that's our sort of solace. We are given the burden (and) it's a beautiful burden to reflect humanity in its fullest form and that's who we are."

McQueen adds: "Look at the music, look at the clothes, look at the things one invents when they have nothing. When they have nothing, they still invent jazz, they still invent hip-hop, they still invent reggae, and it reverberates around the world because what we're all about is humanity because that's the only thing we've got." 

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John Boyega stars as a young London man who joins the police force to fight racism on the inside in Steve McQueen's "Red, White and Blue."

The singing and dancing and creating beautiful art McQueen references is fully apparent in "Lovers Rock,"  a nod to the creation of the lovers rock style of reggae and the Black youths who found escape in it in the 1980s when they were turned away from white nightclubs. 

Yes, McQueen's movies evoke anger at the mistreatment of Black people. Watching Logan's colleagues snicker at those who aren't speaking English awakens a deep anger. Seeing the judge overlook clear biases in the courtroom in the trial of the Mangrove Nine, the activists arrested after protesting unjustified police raids, makes you want to flip a table.

But there are also multiple moments where viewers get caught up in the infectious joy of Black people, gathering at a restaurant as a community and dancing the night away at house parties. We got lost in the Black love between families, spouses and friends laughing outside a courtroom while their future hangs in the hands of a racist judicial system (we're looking at you, Wright and Rochenda Sandall).

"We are a joyous people. I think you have to be in order to survive all these sort of unfortunate situations," McQueen says. "You have to have joy; otherwise, it's impossible." 

That joy felt in "Lovers Rock," "Mangrove" and "Red, White and Blue" is still reflected today. In the midst of marching in the streets for Black Lives Matter protests, we have seen pockets of Black people break into dance. 

"Yes, we have a responsibility, but we also have a responsibility to have fun and to love and to dance," McQueen says. 

McQueen's last two films in the anthology are "Alex Wheatle" and "Education." The former follows the real-life story of the writer of the same name who was imprisoned during the Brixton Uprising of 1981, while "Education" is a coming-of-age story about 12-year-old Kingsley and a school segregation policy that kept Black children from having access to the same resources as white kids.

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