Caribbean representation on BBC television: a case study of Small Axe pentalogy

Etienne-Manley, Mara (2023). Caribbean representation on BBC television: a case study of Small Axe pentalogy. University of Birmingham. M.A.

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This thesis investigates Caribbean representation on BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) television through a case study of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe pentalogy. Small Axe references an African proverb popularized by Jamaican reggae singer Bob Marley – “If you are the big tree, we are the Small Axe /Sharpened to cut you down” – which means in essence, continuous action, no matter how small can eventually result in meaningful change. That said, metaphorically speaking, McQueen has used the proverbial axe to make a dent on a mainstream platform, delving into largely uncharted territory and giving representation to people of Caribbean descent in a way that has not been done before. Thus, in this thesis, the argument is made that Small Axe has broken new ground on BBC television, paving a new path for other filmmakers who want to change the narrative and write the West Indian experience into British history. Specifically, the study seeks to analyse the ways in which McQueen uses content and form in a collection of five films to highlight the less familiar aspects of British history involving the experience of Caribbean immigrants in Britain from the 1960s through 1980s. Until then, the West Indian struggle for equality in Britain from the perspective of the said immigrants has been rarely seen on British screens. Consequently, McQueen intended to address this cinematic scarcity and write London’s West Indian community into British history, bringing to light the real life experiences of Caribbean immigrants such as structural racism, discriminatory policing and racial disparity in education. The importance of McQueen’s Small Axe pentalogy for Black British cinema cannot be overstated and is even more significant in light of the 2018 Windrush scandal in which the Home Office has been revealed to be denying Caribbean immigrants and their childrenBritish citizenship.
Furthermore, the British government’s April 2021 report on the state of race relations in the United Kingdom and subsequent recommendations to mitigate racial disparities suggest that the problems affecting Blacks in Britain as highlighted in the Small Axe films are as relevant today as they were during the period depicted in the films. Produced in collaboration with BBC Films, Small Axe is significant for many reasons, not least because it has made its mark in an industry traditionally unwelcoming to stories about immigrant communities. The five films are thematically intertwined, with each exploring a distinct aspect of the Caribbean immigrant experience, pushing the boundaries of cinema and representation for people of colour, rarely seen on BBC television. Throughout the series McQueen shows his commitment to detail and historical accuracy to ensure authenticity is achieved regarding the Black experience in Britain, in a way that resonates with West Indians and other immigrant communities.
Using Berry’s (1997) Acculturation Theory, scene analysis is conducted to explore the narrative of the ‘Caribbean immigrant experience’ in Britain as presented in Small Axe. In doing so, an argument is presented that through each protagonist, with the unconventional use of lighting, camera angles, framing and point-of-view, McQueen sheds light on the Black experience in a British society that is steeped in racism and discrimination. Indeed, McQueen’s unparalleled success in retelling British history through the perspective of West Indian immigrants demonstrates that Small Axe is of considerable importance in relation to the reshaping of Caribbean representation on BBC television, particularly on the subject of the unrepresented or under-represented history of Caribbean immigrants in Britain.

Type of Work: Thesis (Masters by Research > M.A.)
Award Type: Masters by Research > M.A.
Licence: All rights reserved
College/Faculty: Colleges (2008 onwards) > College of Arts & Law
School or Department: School of English, Drama and Creative Studies, Department of Film and Creative Writing
Funders: None/not applicable
Subjects: A General Works > AZ History of Scholarship The Humanities
N Fine Arts > N Visual arts (General) For photography, see TR
N Fine Arts > NX Arts in general


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