“HOW great thou art” played subliminally in the background, as Auntie encouraged favourite nephew Leroy Logan (Features, 11 September) to complete his application to join the Metropolitan Police. It was the only reference to Christian faith — that central ingredient in Notting Hill’s West Indian lives — in Steve McQueen’s remarkable Small Axe: Red, white and blue (BBC1, Sunday): one of his anthology of five Small Axe films, based on true-life stories about the experience of black people in Britain in the 1970s and ’80s. No element, however small, was there by chance: the significance of each was therefore deliberate and telling.
The title quotes Bob Marley: “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe.” The timber that needs to be toppled is the cancerous racism blighting our society, institutions, and relationships.
Logan leaves the forensic lab work that he loves, inspired with the mission of changing the attitude of the police who harass him and his community, and of building bridges and opening people’s eyes to their common humanity. The brilliance of the film lies in its lack of brilliance: here is no succession of high-voltage events, but a slow, painstaking, loving build-up of corrosive daily incidents.
The West Indians are not depicted as homogeneous saintly martyrs: these real people each have a distinct character and story. The vile treatment he receives from his fellow officers is not sensationalised. His vocation creates double alienation: from white society and his birth community. Both treat him with suspicion and scorn; so what we are inexorably drawn into is a saga of deepening isolated moral heroism.
Through its deliberately minor key, this masterpiece lodges within us, and the small axe chips away at our own complacencies, prejudices, and securities.
In a similar vein, the A&E medic Dr Ronx Ikharia’s Is Covid Racist? (Channel 4, Monday of last week) examined a bitter contemporary phenomenon: why have four times as many black and Asian NHS workers died than their white colleagues? She demolished excuses one by one.
Research proves no genetic disposition, no DNA reason for this shocking anomaly. “Race” itself has nothing to do with it. It is not just elderly, or medically vulnerable, BAME staff who die: the young and healthy also succumb. Even the endemic poverty and overcrowding experienced by most BAME workers are not the full story: their well-paid doctors and consultants have similar mortality figures.
The only reasons left are shameful, deriving from endemic inequalities. The fear of having your visa withdrawn, the desperate consequences of being dismissed with no financial safety net, a culture of compliance based on systemic belittlement — all encourage exposure to extreme risks, putting up with inadequate PPE, taking on extra shifts, not speaking out against discrimination.
As I watched this on Channel 4 catch-up, each commercial break featured commercial for, shockingly, hair-straighteners and encouragements to make the most of “Black” Friday. Racism: the dismantling has hardly begun.