Song of the Day #4,604: ‘Silly Games’ – Janet Kay

Writer/director Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology is another 2020 release that doesn’t fit neatly into a box.

First, is Small Axe film or television?

The series was released on BBC One in the United Kingdom and on Amazon Prime in the United States. Four of its five segments clock in at around an hour, with one (opener Mangrove) lasting two hours. Amazon decided to submit the series to the Emmys rather than the Oscars. I guess that makes it TV?

Second, for top ten purposes, do you consider each of these movies on its own merits, or the project as a whole? The Los Angeles Film Critics Association took the latter route, naming Small Axe, the anthology, as their #1 film of 2020.

Many critics have singled out one or two of the segments on top ten lists — usually Mangrove or the second chapter, Lovers Rock.

For my own list-making purposes, I don’t feel comfortable with either approach. I believe each chapter of Small Axe is essential to its overall impact, making it difficult to consider them apart from each other. And It doesn’t feel right to weigh a five-film anthology against individual films.

Therefore, when I compile my 2020 top ten list later this year, I will exclude Small Axe. However, I’ll slap on a great big asterisk that says this was the most impressive achievement of the year in film.

With Small Axe, McQueen tells the tale of the West Indian immigrant population of London in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Three of the segments are based on true events, depicting the horrible treatment of this community at the hands of the criminal justice system. Another (Education) is inspired by McQueen’s own treatment as a schoolboy facing institutional racism. The one purely fictional account, Lovers Rock, depicts a house party where reggae DJs create an oasis of Black freedom and ecstasy.

Taken as a whole, Small Axe brings to vivid life a community that has rarely been depicted on screen. McQueen’s love and respect for these people bleeds out of every frame. He utilizes his gift for formal composition but pairs it with a looser, more sensual approach, especially in the gorgeous Lovers Rock.

Debates over whether this is film or television, one movie or many, are beside the point. As one podcaster, himself a West Indian in London, put it, Small Axe is art. No need to further classify it. I’m happy to leave it at that.

I’ve been wanting you
For so long, it’s a shame
Oh, baby
Every time I hear your name
Oh, the pain
Boy, how it hurts me inside

‘Cause every time we meet
We play hide and seek
I’m wondering what I should do
Should I, dear, come up to you
And say, “How do you do?”
Would you turn me away

You’re as much to blame
‘Cause I know you feel the same
I can see it in your eyes
But I’ve got no time to live this love
No, I’ve got no time to play your silly games
Silly games

Yet, in my mind I say
“If he makes his move today
I’ll just pretend to be shocked”
Oh, baby
It’s a tragedy
That you hurt me
We don’t even try

You’re as much to blame
‘Cause I know you feel the same
I can see it in your eyes
But I’ve got no time to live this love
No, I’ve got no time to play your silly games
Silly games

Silly games
Silly games (No, don’t wanna play)
Silly games (Your silly)

No, I’ve got no time to play your silly games

19 thoughts on “Song of the Day #4,604: ‘Silly Games’ – Janet Kay

  1. Dana Gallup says:

    I believe the industry term you are looking for is mini-series. If that term was good enough for “Roots” over 40 years ago and, more recently “Watchmen, ” “Unbelievable,” “The Night Of, “ “When they See Us” and “Unorthodox,” it’s good enough for “Small Axe.” Meanwhile, this mini-series has not been on my radar, but sounds like it should be.

  2. Amy says:

    Why isn’t is classified as a miniseries? Your description sounds like several other great several part “films” I watched this year, all of them able to develop their stories and characters more fully than a single 2+ hour film can.

    The fact that some producers of intended miniseries capitalize on the success of their product by turning them into series (“Big Little Lies” and “Handmaid’s Tale” most immediately come to mind) should in no way take away from what has become in recent years my favorite viewing experiences.

    In the last year or so were three I would stack against any film – “Unbelievable,” “Unorthodox,” “Queen’s Gambit, and “I May Destroy You.” Likely not a coincidence that this is the art form where women’s stories get more fully explored.

    So, yeah, not a movie 😜, but definitely a miniseries I will add to my list!

  3. Amy says:

    Oops, meant four 🙂 (and Dana and I are scarily on the same wavelength, aren’t we?)

  4. Clay says:

    The difference between the Small Axe anthology and every one of the mini-series you both mentioned is that those all tell one story over the course of several episodes. Here, each installment is a standalone film that requires no knowledge of the others.

    If these had been released in theaters a week apart, would they be considered films or episodes of a miniseries?

    I think that’s why so many critics (pretty much all of them) have included one or more of these films in their year-end lists, while not including any of the shows mentioned above.

    • Dana Gallup says:

      You can’t simultaneously argue that each installment is a standalone while also saying that each installment is “essential” to the other. While each may tell separate stories, they are all about the common theme of the West Indian experience. In this way, it skews closer to the wonderful mini-series “Mrs. America,” which, though including some mix or overlap of real-life characters, focuses each installment on a particular person at various points in the ERA movement. “Roots,” the mother of all mini-series, similarly tells stories about slavery over generations, tied together by the common theme and main character Kunta Kinte.

      I think the desire to classify “Small Axe” as something other than a mini-series is less about the standalone nature of each segment and more about the fact that it was done by the critics’ darling director of “Twelve Years a Slave.” My guess is that if it were done by a no-name director, a director known more for TV or miniseries or each segment was directed by a different person (like “New York Stories”), the critics would not be stumbling over their pretentious selves to elevate “Small Axe,” either in its entirety or a particular segment, as a movie.

      • Clay says:

        I think you’re right that the director’s name/status has a lot to do with how critics decide to bend these rules. I recall a lot of critics putting Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us on year-end film lists despite it clearly being a TV miniseries.

        Similarly, I believe American Utopia is showing up on so many top ten lists because it was directed by Spike Lee, while Hamilton is easy to leave off because the director is relatively unknown. If Lin Manuel had hired Martin Scorsese to capture the live show, we’d likely be seeing it on plenty of year-end lists.

        And we can’t discount the effect of the pandemic on these distinctions. In a year where pretty much everything we watched was on a small screen, it’s harder to draw the line between TV and film.

        • Amy says:

          The pretentious director argument was mine, by the way 😜. And I can’t believe I forgot to mention When They See Us and Mrs.America, two other miniseries I adored! Often the first episode is longer, so I guess you could argue any of those should be treated as films. It’s so silly. Clearly they are all mini-series!

  5. Dana Gallup says:

    Oh, and before you say it, yes, I know “New York Stories” was released as a singular film, but that was partially based on the length of each segment and my guess is that, today in the era of Amazon, Netflix, etc., and particularly now with Covid, it would have been split up and deemed a mini-series.

  6. Peg says:

    Modern Love and The Romanoffs are other examples considered anthology mini series. Each one completely separated from the others. So I agree miniseries not movie. Will definitely return to Small Axe!

    • Amy says:

      👍🏼👍🏼👍🏼 Glad to have Peg on our team!

      • Clay says:

        Hey, we’re all on the same team! The reason I’m writing about Small Axe today is that I decided it wasn’t eligible for my list of top ten films.

        I do think it’s different from When They See Us or most of the other titles listed in that it’s an anthology of stories that don’t share characters or plot lines. Peggy’s two examples are good analogies, as is Black Mirror.

        For our family movie nights, we have deemed Black Mirror episodes eligible, though we wouldn’t allow a single episode from, say, The Handmaid’s Tale. The standalone nature makes a difference in what we’ll accept as a “movie.”

        Complicating things a bit more, a Small Axe movie was selected for the (later canceled) Cannes Film Festival and three of the films were shown at the New York Film Festival. And before Amazon made the decision to push the series at the Emmys, it was conceivable that they would go the Oscars route instead.

        • Dana Gallup says:

          Neither Black Mirror nor Handmaid’s Tale are really mini-series, though the latter skews closer if they had stopped at one season. And Black Mirror is a TV show – no different than The Twilight Zone. The fact that each episode can stand on its own independently and without character overlap does not convert it to a movie or mini-series.

          • Clay says:

            I agree that it’s a TV show, but philosophically, what makes it one? If the three Black Mirror episodes from the last season had instead been released in theaters three months apart, would they then be movies, despite no change in form? Is a TV show simply something that is shown on TV?

            These lines have blurred as TV has gotten away from the traditional 24-episodes-a-season model and as anthologies have become more popular. And they’ve blurred because increasingly movies are shifting from the big screen to the small. Why is a Netflix Original Film that 95% of us watch on a TV a “movie” and not a “TV movie?”

  7. Dana M Gallup says:

    I think the definition of a movie vs. a tv show really just comes down to running time. A movie is rarely less than 90 minutes long. A tv show is rarely more than an hour. Certainly, there have always been movies made for TV, movies that go straight to video/on demand and, more recently, movies released straight to a streaming service or premiere channel like HBO. While a mini-series/anthology may have one of its segments (usually the first or last one, though not always) running more than an hour, each segment is usually an hour or less.

    Small Axe is not a movie because, while one or even a few segments may reach 2 hours, the others don’t, and you would not therefore put the series in the theaters weeks apart.

    • Clay says:

      I found this re: running time: “According to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the American Film Institute and the British Film Institute, a feature film runs for more than 40 minutes, while the Screen Actors Guild asserts that a feature’s running time is 75 minutes or longer.”

      • Amy says:

        I would like to assume that we all will be returning to theaters at some point in the not too distant future, so… what makes a film a film is the intention of its makers to have it seen in a theater and the desire of theaters to have it there, whatever its length. I liked the point made in the article you shared yesterday about the stigma that used to be associated with tv being a thing of the past. To me, it matters what the creators intended. Amazon foot the bill for Small Axe and recognize that it’s mini-series. Netflix foot the bill for Roma and was happy to pitch it for the Oscars and make sure it was shown in theaters.

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