A Big Tree still ahead for "Small Axe" by Schuyler Esprit

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*The Network Editors of H-Black-Europe would like to thank Schulyer Esprit for the following contribution.

 

"A Big Tree still ahead for 'Small Axe'"

by

Schulyer Esprit

 

 

 

 I wanted to join people of the Caribbean diaspora who were enjoying Steve McQueen’s Small Axe on Amazon Prime Video but couldn’t because I live in the Caribbean. Mangrove, the first story in the five-part series, about West Indian immigrants turned activists in London provided an opportunity to do more than showcase West Indian immigrants in the UK. It was an opportunity to connect audiences in the wider diaspora with their viewing counterparts in the region. Instead, the oversight in distribution has highlighted troublesome disparities surrounding who gets to create, distribute and consume representations of Caribbean identity in global media.

 

 After a grueling work week, with the ongoing spread of COVID-19 and the world generally falling apart before my eyes, I was ready to unwind in my Jamaica home and join the Caribbean diaspora Twitter zeitgeist to analyze and comment on Mangrove, which premiered on November 15, 2020. After checking a few times, on the Smart TV and other devices, I had to confront the disappointment delivered in the infamous words: “this title is not available in your location.” In the seven years since I’ve been back in the Caribbean full-time, this was a familiar refrain. Licensing and copyright regulations means my part of the world very rarely has direct and legal access to many of the amenities of digital life via social media and streaming services. No Instagram music, access to Spotify, Disney Plus, Pandora, and the list goes on.

 

In contrast, Barbadian superstar Rihanna’s projects with Amazon Prime, Guava Island and the eponymous SavagexFenty Fashion show, have been accessible from within the Caribbean from the premier dates.  Setting aside whatever particulars may be behind the availability of these programs in the broader Americas, I see the choice as a statement about Rihanna’s commitment to her Caribbean audiences and ultimately her consistent elevation of her West Indian identity. In light of this oversight for what was one of the most anticipated stories for West Indian people, I wondered whether, in the ideation and production of this series, Steve McQueen or any of his producers and collaborators had considered this question of access, and if it was considered, what were the challenges or debates that shaped the decision to exclude such a critical audience from accessing the series in real time?

 

Admittedly, McQueen has discussed Small Axe primarily in the context of Black British identity, declaring in an LA Times article that “these stories are British stories” (November 21, 2020).  Here, McQueen drives home a point frequently at the heart of debates about immigrant identities within the UK and the US: immigrant families share citizenship and belonging and deserve to have the texture of their cultural difference reflected in the social landscape of these countries. But the limited distribution is a missed opportunity to engage more deeply the origins of the cultural texture that makes Small Axe remarkable.

 

For what it’s worth, a follower responded to my tweets to let me know that it is not available in Canada either, a major film market in North America and also the site of a massive community of West Indian immigrants. Additionally, Amazon responded to my tweet of frustration asking to “fix” it, with a pretty standard statement, “We understand the frustration regarding #SmallAxe not being available to rent on Prime Video, and apologize for the experience. Our selection changes from time to time” (@AmazonHelp, November 22, 2020). But the response missed the point: my concern is less about any algorithmic selection process or the breadth of distribution around the globe. I’m worried about the lack of targeted distribution to audiences whose histories provide the substance of the stories for which these films receive high praise and visibility.

 

Recently, similar questions emerged during the popular Verzuz battle on Instagram, between Jamaican dancehall stars, Beenie Man and Bounty Killer. During the battle and in the days following the event, many people in Jamaica and around the Caribbean took to Twitter and other social media to highlight the irony that that particular episode of Verzuz had one of the highest participation records of all of the Verzuz battles, yet fans in the region were excluded from enjoying the Spotify-curated playlists and content without resorting to VPNs or more nefarious methods like torrents.

 

The obstacles to accessing content produced in the developed world are not limited to audiovisual creative content. In fact, the Caribbean literary community has struggled with the paradox of the region’s literary and publishing industries that have taken flight in metropolitan centers of the diaspora, with little access to the novels, poetry and other creative writing by readers in the West Indies. Moreover, the cost and challenges of working with Caribbean publishers, and professional pressure to pursue the prestige of elite publishers in the North, make it difficult for writers wanting to advance their work in a global market to choose Caribbean publishers that would guarantee regional circulation.

 

Even in the age of technology and Amazon Prime two-day shipping options, overseas publishers of Caribbean fiction still overlook reviewers, bookstagrammers and educators within the region when sharing advance reader copies or even desk copies of new and established works. The economic reasons for this may be complex, but they are irrelevant in the face of history. Such denial of access, along with other kinds of oversights that exclude Caribbean readers and viewers, is just another iteration of the ways the colonial encounter, whereby artifacts, talent, local knowledge, and expertise of the Caribbean region transferred to, consumed by, and ultimately subsumed into the Global North. Caribbeanness is celebrated and circulated within Europe and North America with much less attention to reciprocity: acknowledging and including the region itself rarely, if ever, happens. And as in these many examples, we must confront the discomforting truth that it is not just white institutions that perpetuate neocolonialism, but also too frequently members of the diaspora themselves. However noble the intent of our Diaspora artists who work to increase visibility of our stories, it is worth a discussion about accountability to inclusion beyond mere visual and narrative representation.

 

In the literary community, with which I’m most familiar, literary festivals have played a major role in filling the gaps of access to writers, readings and book sales that would not otherwise be available. From Calabash Literary Festival in Jamaica that paved the way for others like the Nature Island Literary Festival in Dominica and the now esteemed NGS Bocas Lit Fest out of Trinidad and Tobago, these festivals and their organizers have created space for literary and cultural dialogue that is mostly free and open to a diverse public, with many festivals including children’s programs and fringe activities in rural or distant communities. High school students, young aspiring writers and the average man on the street enjoy the same rooms and conversations as Nobel Laureates and distinguished writers like George Lamming, whose 1963 question, “for whom then do we write?” is answered in every edition, every country, every time one of these festivals rings its opening bell.

 

Similarly, the film industry in the Caribbean has seen slow and steady growth and even within the Caribbean region, the models for an up-and-coming film industry exists behind paywalls of different price points, including the most exclusive such as Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival, CAFA Film Festival and the FEMI film festival out of Guadeloupe. However, there have been organizations and institutions committed to making films for, by and about Caribbean people available to a diverse audience within the region itself. Since 2007, Cuban-based Travelling Caribbean Film Showcase has gone throughout the Caribbean with various films and was the reason I could enjoy the 1983 film adaptation of one of my favorite novels, La Rue Cases Negres by Joseph Zobel with my family and friends when the showcase came to Dominica in 2012. I had only seen the film before on a tiny screen at the University library while in graduate school.

 

In the French departments of Martinique and Guadeloupe, culture activists and enthusiasts have increased exposure to film and other creative arts across socioeconomic groups, with particular emphasis on youth engagement. One such effort is Ciné Woulé, founded by Martinican intellectual Aimé Césaire’s grandson Jean-Marc Césaire in 1998. Ciné Woulé is a traveling cinema effort that was designed in a blow-up theater experience and could be mounted on any large field and can accommodate about 125 people. The focus of the venture is not simply to make film accessible, but to make Caribbean and African diaspora film specifically available to people in the region no matter their background. Ultimately, the goal of these efforts is to allow Caribbean people to see more of their own stories on screen.

In a December 13, 2020 interview with Andrew Kendall for Stabroek News,[1] McQueen responded to this very question about lack of access for viewers in the Caribbean. He acknowledged his own frustration with that reality, but also gave a glimmer of hope: “There’s no point in making something that is about and for the West Indian population and the West Indian experience, and not having the West Indians watching it. It doesn’t make any sense. So, I know there are talks. And if that falls through, guess what? I’ll personally be going to those countries and doing a broadcast of the films, for sure.” McQueen indicated elsewhere in the interview that deals are being made with a South American distributor that would benefit the West Indies, although no timeline was indicated. The final episode of the five-film series premiered on December 18, 2020. The series was still not available for viewing in my location.   

 

Just as e-books and audiobooks have extended the reach of stories about the Caribbean to a Caribbean audience, streaming services have shifted the way people view television and film and made it possible for smartphones, tablets and computers to democratize access, influence, taste and critique. These are all exciting developments. But there is much more work to be done. Yes, I would love to live tweet Small Axe with my friends and not feel left out of the experience. But this is also about my colleagues seeking access to archival material about Caribbean history currently only available in New York or London and has not been digitized. This is also about making funding available to Caribbean institutions for proper databases of literature and film instead of only having them owned and managed in metropolitan universities. This is about creating opportunities for young aspiring artists and creatives to learn the skills and participate in the conversation in real time, to feed their talent and help them develop their craft.  The small axe we use to reclaim and celebrate Caribbean identity in the region and the diaspora should work beyond sentiment and shared culture to operate in other materially impactful ways for the region’s multiple publics.

 

 

 

[1] ‘We are not a monolith.’ (2020, December 13). Stabroek News. https://www.stabroeknews.com/2020/12/13/sunday/we-are-not-a-monolith/