KCRW's Behind the Screens: Elvis Mitchell in Conversation with Steve McQueen

On November 16th, 2020, KCRW hosted a Behind the Screens conversation with KCRW host Elvis Mitchell and  Steve McQueen, writer, director and creator of "Small Axe," a new anthology series from Amazon Prime Video. This conversation focused on the first film in the anthology series titled "Mangrove."

Elvis Mitchell: Welcome to KCRW’s Behind the Screens series. I'm Elvis Mitchell. And I am thrilled to be sitting with writer, director and visual artist Steve McQueen. Steve, so good to talk to you.

Steve McQueen: Elvis, how are you?

Elvis Mitchell: Better now. Gosh, there’s so much to talk about here. I guess I would ask you when you first heard the song “Small Axe?” 

Steve McQueen: Wow. That’s good one. Oh, obviously it was from The Wailers “Burnin’“ album. I can't remember the first time I heard it. But I just love the lyrics. Always did. Always did. You know, as beautiful as it is, the mantra is a chant. It's almost like a going into battle song. Really.

Elvis Mitchell: Yeah, because just watching “Mangrove I couldn't help but think about that. Especially when we are introduced the policeman. “Why boasteth thyself, of evil men.” That first line from the song really hit me there. And also, you start “Mangrove” off with “Try Me.”

Steve McQueen: Yeah, yeah. “Try me.” Which is a kind of like a doo wop. You know, because obviously The Wailers were kind of riffing off the doo wop of the American influence on them beforehand. Bands sometimes could be warriors. I mean, they're a group of guys or women or a mix and they’ve got instruments and they have a message and they have an agenda, and they're gonna go for it until someone bloody listens. And that's why I always saw The Wailers before, of course, it became Bob Marley and The Wailers. But yeah, that's what it was. It was about that. It has this sort of biblical, but at the same time, timeless quality to it.

Elvis Mitchell: It’s definitely biblical. Very Old Testament. But also, The Wailers in particular are just so seductive that you almost have to listen to the song twice. Because halfway into it, it hits you “Wait, what are they saying?”

Steve McQueen: They were on a television program called “The Old Grey Whistle Test” that we have in England. That's the first time they appeared and when Bob was launched with “So High.” You know, rebel music. Fantastic.

Elvis Mitchell: Yeah. Because I remember from “The Old Grey Whistle Test,” they insisted on playing live, rather than synching to a track.

Steve McQueen: Always. Always. I think that was always live there. But yeah, it looks fantastic. Fantastic.

Elvis Mitchell: Yeah. Because there's something about the way you use music, particularly, in this. There was so much in the music that is like that. It has that kind of lilting, seductive quality that unless you know the songs, it’s really almost like walking past Notting Hill. You have to pay attention in a certain kind of way to know what it is. And that opening shot where you start you really get to see London basically being gentrified. You come down to the street in Notting Hill. It’s the same kind of thing.

Steve McQueen: Yeah, I mean, that was a post war Britain. There was a westway that cut through Ladbroke Grove, which is almost like the superhighway. And it tore down all the housing. And, of course, the debris you see is post war Britain because London wasn't really built up until sometime in the 80s. You always saw evidence of the of the blitz of the Second World War of the Nazi bombardment of London. And then when a superhighway came in the West Way, it just devastated a lot of local housing and what not. That's when squatting became very popular too, at that time.

Elvis Mitchell: Yeah, I remember going there for the first time in the 80s. There weren't a lot of tall buildings in London. And really, to me, Notting Hill felt like an epicenter of that, where it was one of the last neighborhoods to get those buildings.

Steve McQueen: Yeah, well it’s still super flat. London became sort of this shiny glass, metal space in the late 90s and 2000s really. Because it wasn't like that at all.

Elvis Mitchell: I just want to start thinking about the opening shot and the closing shot. You've got Frank on the street and his relationship to the street, where his sense of ownership at the very beginning, and the question at the very end. That made me think that in so many of the films you’ve done, they’re about the danger of recognizing your self ownership, in “Shame”, in “Hunger”, in “Widows,” certainly in “12 Years a Slave”. They’re about when you recognize who you are and you get that kind of self awareness, and how the world changes for you.

Steve McQueen: I think, for me, I could’ve only made this film now. It took a while. It took 11 years or so since I initially wanted to start to do it. Because also, I became 50. And when you become 50, it was almost like I gained a superpower. Wow. You know what I mean? It's like, “oh, I know what that feels like. Oh, I know how that's gonna work out.” You have some kind of map of how things are, even if it hurts, you know how it's going to hurt. If it's not like that, you know, how to deal with it in some way. You know what's coming. So in some ways, I could only have done this film now, because I had the courage to look at it. I needed the experience. I needed to mature. Someone told me it’s similar to how you see your parents when you're a teenager, and then how you see them now. And this is why, again, like you said, I had to sort of put the roots into the earth. So I couldn’t be toppled over or swayed, that I was firmly in the foundation.

Elvis Mitchell: I just think it's so interesting to me, because those other films, we talked about them, the ownership is sub textural. But here it's text. So it took you a while to get there. Is it like you said because you got to be, you know, a black man who lived to be 50 years old?

Steve McQueen: You know, how many of us don't? To be quite frank, how many of us don't? And to have that experience. It's kind of weird that you say that because I know so many people who didn't make it. And it's unusual. It’s a high number. I never forget the black ownership card in the window. Because what's so interesting about it is that I couldn't see it in the film at first. I put that card in there. Where's the card? I put it there for a reason. So we went back to the drudgery shit and Richard Lawson actually reshot the black ownership card. So it was kind of interesting how that ties up because I put the card in the bloody window, but every time I was looking for a card in the shots. I said I want it to be subliminal, but you can see it. But I thought no, no, no, let's stop. Let's not leave anything to chance. Frank goes into the shop and boom, black ownership, you see it.

Elvis Mitchell: I mean, that's what really hit it for me was seeing that card. I thought about it so often, that semantically, even in your art, the idea of ownership which becomes an awareness about who you are, where you stand in the world, and how other people see you is so big. It runs so often through your films. I just wonder if this felt for you, like the logical place to explore that as context rather than a thematic kind of a thing.

Steve McQueen: Yes, because I suppose, in a way, it goes back to 1968 when Frank opened his restaurant. He opened his restaurant in the same year as Enoch Powell, a famous conservative MP, gave a speech called “Rivers of Blood” speech. And what he was saying is that, because black immigration in the UK, that the streets will be turned into a river of blood, that there'll be violence, there’ll be carnage and so forth. Because the black man would have the whip hand over the white man. These were his words. So I wanted to get to a situation when we started the picture, that this wasn't you the Windrush generation. The Windrush generation of people came up in the 50s and early 60s and so forth. But for me, this was the second phase of it. These were people who were planting their roots and who just came off onboard a ship and just arrived. These were people who established themselves in London and in places like Soho. And there were nightclubs. And also elsewhere in London were working class black guys who basically said, “Okay, well you know what, I'm gonna own my own shop. I'm not gonna go to that place and pay money. I’m going to make my own.” So that was it. Absolutely.

Elvis Mitchell: And what's so fascinating is just to see the distaste in the cops face over the food. When they raid the place, you can see them smell the inside of Mangrove. I thought it was interesting that you let us see that too. They're almost revulsion to being inside a place that didn't smell like anyplace else they'd gone into before.

Steve McQueen: Absolutely. There was a serial killer during that time, in the late, late 60s. I can’t remember the guys name. This guy was a very famous serial killer. And he was living in Ladbrook Grove, of course, because it became a black Western community as well. And basically, he would put these bodies under the floorboards. When the detectives came, the black lodges were upstairs and they said it smells a bit funny in here. Oh, yeah. It's those foreigners, you know when they cook. Oh, yeah. I forgot his name. But yeah, that was his cover, the smelling the food. Oh, my.

Elvis Mitchell: Wow. Using that as another kind of smokescreen, it's so much about a kind of cultural revulsion to see the cops shutter and turn their noses as they come into this place to do something that they have no business doing anyway. There’s invasive force. And it really is like we're watching colonization, you know, the way the cops come into that place. And I wonder if that was something you were going for, as well?

Steve McQueen: Um, no, because we belong. This is our yard.

Elvis Mitchell: That’s just it. All the places they colonize, we belong to.

Steve McQueen: I know, I know. But it was wasn't the case that we had equal footing, I should say. I didn't want to apply a situation where there was it's like “this is our yard.” It's not the case. Do you remember that time when there were the floods in New Orleans and they would call these people refugees. “What do you mean refugees. We live here!” Remember when Bush called them refugees? I mean, come on. So this is exactly the same thing. “We live here. Get the hell out. And if you don't mind, can you just shut the door?”

Elvis Mitchell: We’ve talked about this before, so many times, the way you use space, and the space inside the Mangrove is small, but it feels intimate and not claustrophobic. And the way Frank moves from inside the space into out in the street at night, and how it all feels comfortable. In fact, the Mangrove, and the streets are one big neighborhood to him where there's a sense of comfort. And then you take us inside that car where the cop is already snarling and fronting about the smell before he goes into the restaurant and starts talking about how you have to keep the black in their place. There’s so much textually going on there. I mean, the ease that Frank had in his neighborhood versus what these outsiders want to bring to it.

Steve McQueen: I think also the clothes. I think in his uniform he's uncomfortable. There's a starched shirt and he wears a buttoned up jacket. His top button is down with a tie. There's always an uncomfortability. He's never relaxed. That's Frank Pulley, who is his nemesis. I think there was there was a huge jealousy between the two Franks, you know. It was a huge jealousy because Frank owned the streets. Pulley wanted to own the streets. He didn't own the streets. And that's the situation. This is why there was a big clash between them. Frank wouldn't pay them. Frank wouldn't bend. He said to Dolly's friend, “If I pay them, they'll never go away. I am never paying them. It's bribery.” And he never bent. And he had love with the people in the streets and Pulley couldn’t deal. That's why they raid him again and again.

Elvis Mitchell: And again, that's one of the things that you do so brilliantly here. So often for you interiors are really kind of terrifying, scary places. You also have this thing you do where you make big cities small cities. You do the same thing with Manhattan in “Shame.” It goes from being a big place to a smaller place. And I was thinking about here how you start with this big shot of London and then you take us inside of Notting Hill into Frank's ease in that place. And then there is that great scene going from inside the restaurant to outside, where you go to pulling up the car and we can see him seething again. He’s enclosed in that space. He's wearing that uniform you're talking about. He’s actually in profile view, but we get a sense of his anger and his discomfort. And also, he's in that little box of a car, which is the only neighborhood that he owns.

Steve McQueen: I suppose it’s about making the city inhabitable. It becomes much more of the local rather than the sprawling metropolis. And you feel that you're sort of a part of it. There's a familiarity. I think familiarity is the key in some ways, because it doesn't become so distant again. I think when you own your own street or you're familiar with your streets, it's like a fun room, but with people and such.

Elvis Mitchell: To me, it's so often about the way you use space and negative space. I wonder if that's one of the reasons that you love film so much because it gives you a chance to use space in a way we don't often see directors use it. The fact that you so often walk us inside of a room is a very specific reason for us to see how these people feel in their spaces. In “Shame”, it’s a really rather cold and modern place he lives in. But here, I'm just thinking about how Frank's world is very close around. He can almost touch the walls, but there's that warm sepia light inside that place. It's inviting to us.

Steve McQueen: If I can be bogus, it's a very black space in that sense. What I mean by that is as far as when I grew up, these were the spaces that were given to us. Okay, this is it. Okay, we make something out of it. You make something out of it. There's nothing which was seen as uninhabitable. And I think that that was it. The basement became the kitchen. In fact, the basement then became the center of the Mangrove, as far as the gambling thing is concerned. And that’s part of the “Small Axe” thing in a way. This is about space because we go from this hole in the wall to the highest court in the land, the Old Bailey. That space was a very interesting space, the Old Bailey. It’s an institution of justice. And how do you bring that overt hierarchy, entitlement, whatever you want to call it.

Elvis Mitchell: Oppression. It’s an oppressive space.

Steve McQueen: So that's it. And how did they win it back? And they win it back because they turn the courtroom into a church. That's what they do. They turn it into a pulpit. There's a congregation. They twist it and slowly, but surely, it becomes a church.

Elvis Mitchell: But it’s also about how they bridge the distance by being on the witness stand and speaking to the people in the room and to the audience. The fact is that black space is about constant communication, isn't it?

Steve McQueen: Hopefully. Also, we are turning the cinema into a church because that's the audience. When you get Darcus preaching, you're expanding the space. I don't know if I lost you by turning the courtroom into the church because it is. But then you turn the auditorium into a wider situation. I don't know if that makes sense to you.

Elvis Mitchell: It does because it goes from being a gallery into a pulpit with congregants. It's about filling the space with feeling, with heart, with people who talk, and moving out of that traditional ‘you speak when I tell you to speak.’ In fact, they take over the courtroom. In a really interesting subtle way, you show us how really how the Mangrove Nine bend the jurors to their will because they turn it into the space in which they inhabit.

Steve McQueen: I love what you just said ‘the feeling and heart.’ That was beautiful. I think that's exactly it. They turned into feeling. This is real. This is an injustice. Let's bring justice into the courtroom. This is apparently the House of justice. Okay, let's bring justice. And there you have it. We critique it. We talk about it. And, like you said, they turn the jury to the to their whim to the point where the jury comes and celebrate with them in the Mangrove. Yeah, they come for a slice of cake and a cup of tea after church, you know.

Elvis Mitchell: Which is my favorite moment because that really just shows how there's a certainly a k legal strategy with them for the Mangrove Nine. It becomes an emotional strategy, which is Darcus saying “you have to let me speak.” By showing the spillover from the personal lives into the courtroom, which is something we don't see often in these kinds of movies. There's always this weird separation where people walk into the courtroom and that's it. By taking the time to show us that that overlap, that overflow, that they are not just people on trial, they're not just defendants, they're people bringing their own histories and their own world into that courtroom. I thought that was the most incredible thing. One thing that struck that I need to ask you about – Did I see a picture of Jean-Jacques Dessalines?

Steve McQueen: Yes. 

Elvis Mitchell: I thought I did. Tell me about that. It's a really interesting choice to make because he's a freedom fighter. Let's not talk about. That’s okay. I just want to make sure I saw what I thought I saw and wasn't hallucinating there. Again, that idea of taking the space that is yours. In seeing the movie, the effect is about wherever these people go is home to them. Because if you're a nation of immigrants, you have to make a place that may be inhospitable, hospitable for yourself. And that becomes a courtroom too at the end, doesn't it?

Steve McQueen: Yes, you’re absolutely right. It goes back to that point where I said, “Okay, this is what we got. We make it ours.” And you know, again, it's the power of the world. You think your struggle is more than mine? Let's see. For me, I left my family. I left my people behind to come all the way here. And how I got here anyway, in the first place. So, again, it's never a level playing pitch and we know that. But at the same time, you know, we always aim to win. We don't have a choice. And I think because of how far some people have come, it's how much they're willing to risk. And when people see that, then, you know, it is what it is.

Elvis Mitchell: I don't know, because it's more than what it is. I'm sorry, I have to disagree with you there. Because you, as an artist, as a filmmaker, have an emotional understanding of what territory is both emotional and literal. And so often in your work, people are fighting for a piece of space around them in physical space or emotional space. That's the other thing that comes to mind too. This ownership expands to the idea of “how do I own this place around us?” To me, it really kind of epitomizes the moment where Frank has to decide what he's going to be. The system is trying to tear him apart from his ad hoc family. What's he going to do? And that's the real suspense, for me. Not the outcome, because I knew what the verdict was, but that moment. I feel like that was a conscious thing for you to do, wasn't it? To make it about that rather than the actual decision?

Steve McQueen: That is the premise in some way. Because Frank is this ordinary guy that becomes extraordinary. He’s unaware of how much influence he has in the community. And all of a sudden, he's been told what he knows, to some extent, but he's not an intellectual.

Elvis Mitchell: He’s not an activist.

Steve McQueen: He was a facilitator. He wants people, his people, to come into the café and enjoy themselves, a home away from home. And then people come and talk, whatever. He loves it. But all of a sudden, he has to decide where he wants to go. He can live a nice life and have his cafe and whatnot. And as his lawyers said, these agitators came in and took over your cafe, you must be guilty. And the temptation of that was strong because I remember that story was told to me firsthand by Altheia Jones-LeCointe. All the stuff with the baby and all that speech, nothing was ever written down. She told me firsthand what happened. And she overheard those guys talking. And that's the scene. That's why I wrote the scene in that way. So, you know, it was real and she had an unborn child. And for me, that was, you know, the future. If I could say anything of science fiction movies, they tell us where we are, how far we've come, and where we need to go. So basically, I'm interested in where we need to go. If this is where we are right now. This is how far it took us this long to get here. It also tells us how far we have to go. Yeah, so that's, that's what it is. People go either way. We know people who go the other way. We won't say names. I would love to say names, but I will never say names. People who say, “Okay, you know what? Fuck it. Let's just go. What have you got to lose? We’re all going to die anyway. Let's be frank. So what do you got to lose after a while? How much money can you make? How many pairs of shoes can you wear? How many cars can you drive? How many houses can you live in?” So, you know, whatever.

Elvis Mitchell: No better time to ask that question then now. But I think you're talking about this and all these things that I was alluding to and talking about the mad things that you do.

Steve McQueen: I have a large trainer collection. Sorry.

Elvis Mitchell: Oh, you do? I wouldn’t know that about you.

Steve McQueen: The signs of a poor upbringing.

Elvis Mitchell: And that's probably a great place to end. Otherwise, we'll be here for the rest of the day.

Steve McQueen: Okay. I’ll shut up now.

Elvis Mitchell: No, please no. I'm only saying this because we're out of time. Otherwise, we'll be here for the rest of the day. Let me say I miss you. It's been too long. And let me thank my friend Steve McQueen for his time and for his movie “Mangrove” and thank you all for watching KCRW’s Behind the Screens. We'll see you next time.