Is Small Axe Film or TV? Early Critics’ Group Awards Ignite Debate

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The 93rd annual Academy Awards won’t take place until April 25, 2021, but the extended season—with eligibility stretched to February 28, 2021, on account of the coronavirus pandemic—hasn’t stopped the nation’s critics from gathering to bestow honors on 2020’s best releases. Over the last week, critics’ groups in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, and Nashville, Tennessee, have unveiled their winners and nominees. They’ve also stirred at least one debate that will likely extend into spring: Should Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series be considered an Oscar contender?

The short answer is no. While the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences adjusted the eligibility rules for 2020 due to the global health crisis, McQueen’s five-part film anthology does not qualify for Oscars consideration because it was never planned as a theatrical release. The project, which McQueen produced for the BBC, was always set to debut on Amazon Prime Video rather than in movie theaters.

But because each entry in the series is a standalone film, and McQueen—an Oscar winner for 12 Years a Slave—is one of the most influential and respected filmmakers of the 21st century, critics’ groups have nevertheless been honoring Small Axe as a film achievement. The Chicago Film Critics Association nominated Lovers Rock, the first Small Axe entry, in a number of categories, including best picture. When the New York Film Critics Association met last week, the influential group cited Shabier Kirchner for best cinematography for his cumulative work on the series. And on Sunday, Small Axe received its biggest awards season endorsement yet: a best picture win from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Kirchner similarly won with the Los Angeles critics in the best cinematography category, while McQueen was named runner-up in the director category; it was won by Chloe Zhao for Nomadland.

“With something as magnificent as Small Axe, labeling these movies ‘film’ or ‘television’ is irrelevant, particularly in a year when we’ve been forced to watch practically everything from inside our homes,” Los Angeles Times film critic and LAFCA member Glenn Whipp wrote this week. “Awarding the Small Axe series as our ‘best picture’ was probably the most 2020 thing we could do. And the best news is that they’re all available for viewing, right now, on Amazon Prime Video. There’s no gradual rollout. They’re here, ready to be added to your viewing queue.”

The embrace of Small Axe has certainly boosted McQueen’s work and sparked broad debate on Twitter about what constitutes a film, in a way that recalls the war overDavid Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return in 2017. But not every group has taken such liberties with the perceived separation between big- and small-screen affairs. The Nashville Film Critics Group recently announced its nominees and left Small Axe completely off its list, instead opting for slam dunk Oscar contenders like Mank, Nomadland, and The Trial of the Chicago 7.

Still, McQueen has said the anthology is a collection of five films, not episodes. Not that he’s really losing any sleep over the classifications—nor Amazon’s plans to campaign the project for Emmys in 2021. “There’s nothing to talk about, really,” he told Rolling Stone in a recent interview. “These films were made for television. They can be projected in cinema, but Small Axe was all about the generosity and accessibility to these films. From the beginning, I wanted these films to be accessible to my mother, I wanted them on the BBC. It was always going to be on TV, the five films. But at the same time, they premiered in the cinema. There’s no absolutes anymore. There shouldn’t be. Because it’s about how people want to see things. That’s about it.”

Where to Watch Small Axe:


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