This article explores how Steve McQueen’s acclaimed 2020 pentalogy Small Axe (BBC) appears paradoxically to swerve away from Black British history in the very act of retrieving it. By examining key moments in Mangrove, Red, White and Blue, and Alex Wheatley, it argues that the constant tension between a push toward history and the pull of the aesthetic is the result of McQueen’s reformulation of “racial uplift” aesthetics that privileges exceptional acts over collective experience. Yet in striking contrast to his poetic license with history, McQueen presents Black masculinity and male self-expression within standard social and sexual norms. There are, however, more experimental, stylized moments in Small Axe where the historical and the aesthetic come together, notably in the highly physical dancing sequences of Lovers Rock. While not without limitations, such scenes reveal fresh, liberatory forms of Black space and time, and forge transformative and redemptive moments of Black reality.

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