Out of the three Small Axe films I have watched so far, with two more to come, it’s Steve McQueen’s Red, White And Blue which has been the one that has felt most personal. Recounting the true story of Leroy Logan, played beautifully by John Boyega, joining the Metropolitan Police. We learn how a violent police assault on Leroy’s father led to him joining the force. The film explores his journey from cadet to working alongside allies and racist colleagues as well as the hardship he faced as he sought to be the change, challenging institutional racism and his community’s relationship with the police.
I don’t know of any family members who joined the police force, but it did feel significant to acknowledge that, on the day I watched this film, a second generation British South Asian school friend was promoted within the Metropolitan Police. That smiling brown faces on Moonpig type card in 2020 would incidentally preface a film depicting the struggles for equality being fought by a person of colour in the 1980s, in the decade we were both born.
As an aside. Person of colour has a distinct vulgarity to it which I feel undermines the uniqueness of our individualities. It’s an acceptable convenience to generalise and is as lazy as the usage of B.A.M.E. - Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic - a means to say, “and you lot.” But I digress.
It’s these peculiar parallels I had with the film which connected me to the story more intensely, that really struck a chord. Especially when it came to language and communicating in a way to better understand one another versus speaking for the benefit of those around us. Allowing oppressors their dominance, speaking in a language they understand even when the subject matter has nothing to do with them.
In the film an example of this takes place when Assad Zaman's P.C. Asif Kamali is speaking with a South Asian business owner whose property has been vandalised with racist graffiti. Talking in Urdu to better understand what happened, on the arrival of white officer P.C. Kamali is taken aside by a superior and reprimanded, being told that when representing the police speaking English is the best course of action. A moment watched over and acknowledged by Boyega’s Logan.
I wonder how this moment was viewed by a white British audience?
Later in the film there is a scene between a group of white police officers, in the police canteen with Kamali and Logan present, where the group vocally complain about their ability to understand South Asian accents. They mock a stereotype “Indian” accent and “head wobbling” speak, asking why - when someone has been in this country for so long - they don’t understand how to speak “our” language.
I wonder if a white British audience agreed with this observation?
For me, both incidents will be the second time I have heard an iteration of this story being told, the first time being from my mum, over 20 years ago. My mum has been cooking in school kitchens since I was little, in the 80s and 90s she worked in a secondary school kitchen which, given its location in an area with a high population of South Asian migrants, employed a number of South Asian women some of whom English was not their first language and probably not their second or third. My mum acted as interpreter to explain what they needed to do, being able to speak Punjabi and English, and to varying degrees Gujrati, Hindi and Urdu. She saw a colleague struggling and helped by explaining the tasks expected of them. Witnessing this a white colleague of hers complained stating that my mum and the lady could have been saying anything. My mum was called to speak with the kitchen manager, she was told she was only to speak in English whilst at work and that the lady, my aunt - not related, if you’re South Asian every non-family member is an Aunt or Uncle as a sign of respect – should be able to understand. My mum replied that it was clear my Aunt had not understood and that if she was to remain employed my mum would continue translating, talking in a language my Aunt understood, so the work would be done. If you are interested my mum was explaining how best to wipe down surfaces and clean up after they had served school children. My mum was not challenged after this and I expect McQueen’s next series, Small Mango, to have a story about this incident included. I won’t hold my breath.
This reflection on the power and burden of language also reminded me of a poem I recall reading during my GCSEs, Sujata Bhatt’s Search For My Tongue. I have always found learning a new language one of the most difficult tasks - along with French and German, I have sadly failed to grasp Punjabi as well, much to the dismay of my mum – but Bhatt’s poem always makes me reflect on how first and second generation immigrants must reason with using languages depending on the where they are. Even around their children, having to assess how to measure the introduction of their mother tongue to new generations who are on their own unique journey of integration.
You ask me what I mean
by saying I have lost my tongue.
I ask you, what would you do
if you had two tongues in your mouth,
and lost the first one,
the mother tongue,
and could not really know the other,
the foreign tongue.
You could not use them both together
even if you thought that way.
And if you lived in a place you had to
speak a foreign tongue,
your mother tongue would rot,
rot and die in your mouth
until you had to spit it out.
I thought I spit it out
Excerpt from Search For My Tongue, by Sujata Bhatt
The scene discussed above in, Red, White And Blue, really did have a profound impact on me, acknowledging the power of languages and what it means to be able to speak them aloud. It’s such a simple act taken for granted and yet it’s a tool to communicate, confront, isolate and identify those who oppose your sounds. My mother tongue is English and I feel tremendous remorse that it is not Punjabi, that I have not held onto any of the abilities I once had as a 2 year old heard on a cassette tape speaking fluently with my mum, which sounds like someone else today whenever I hear it.
What it is clearly becoming apparent through Small Axe is McQueen extending, defining and documenting a shared experience the South Asian and Black communities in Britain struggled through. In a month where Burnt Roti’s new issue specially addresses anti-blackness, I hope the South Asian community is paying attention and acknowledging what McQueen is focusing on, how he is platforming our history too. In three weeks, South Asians have been cast as business owners, police officers and factory workers willing to take a stand, amongst other characters in Small Axe, in a significant series documenting Black British experiences. This form of representation is not something we should fail to address, this is representation in a far more informed capacity that we should be celebrating.