It took Steve McQueen a long time to make a film about Black life in Britain.

“I needed to understand myself, where I came from,” the director said of his new project, “Small Axe.” “Sometimes, you’ve got to have a certain maturity, and I wouldn’t have had that 10, 15 years ago.”

McQueen, who was born in West London to Grenadian and Trinidadian parents, is one of Britain’s most gifted and garlanded Black filmmakers. He’s best known to American audiences as the director of the star-studded “Widows” from 2018 and “12 Years a Slave,” in 2013, for which he became the first Black director of a best picture Oscar winner. When he collected that trophy, McQueen was already developing the drama project with the BBC that would become “Small Axe.”

Six years later, McQueen is debuting not one, but five films about various aspects of London’s West Indian community, set between the late 1960s and the mid-1980s, airing in the U.S. as an anthology series on Amazon Prime Video, starting Friday.

When “Small Axe” began development, the project was pitched to the BBC as conventional television, telling one story over six hours or so (Amazon signed on as a producing partner last year.) “To get my foot in the door, it started off as a sort of episodic situation,” McQueen said in a phone interview from Amsterdam, where he’s lived since 1997. “But then I realized they had to be individual films because there’s too much interesting material.”

Today, the finished product comprises five discrete works of varying lengths (the shortest is 70 minutes; the longest 128 minutes), all directed and co-written by McQueen. (Courttia Newland co-wrote two episodes and Alastair Siddons co-wrote three.)

The installments were shot in a variety of formats (including 16mm and 35mm film) by the emerging Antiguan cinematographer Shabier Kirchner — the first three premiered at this year’s New York Film Festival. The films include an epic scale, fact-based courtroom drama (“Mangrove”), a delicate semi-autobiographical portrait (“Education”) and an intimate dance-party mood piece (“Lovers Rock”), with myriad tones and textures in between.

The series will air in Britain on BBC One, which is a matter of significance for McQueen. “It was important for me that these films were broadcast on the BBC, because it has accessibility to everyone in the country,” he said. “These are national histories.”

“Mangrove,” the series opener, focuses on the sensational trial of a group of Black activists in 1971. They were accused of inciting a riot during a protest against the targeted police harassment of patrons at The Mangrove, a Caribbean restaurant in London’s Notting Hill district that was a thriving hub for Black intellectuals and artists. (The film offers a corrective to the whitewashed fantasia of “Notting Hill,” Richard Curtis’s 1999 romantic comedy.) Not only did the nine — including the Trinidadian-British activists Darcus Howe and Altheia Jones-LeCointe, key members of the British Black Panther Party — beat the rioting charge, they forced the first ever judicial acknowledgment of racism from British police.

The actress Letitia Wright, who was born in Guyana and moved to London at 7, said in a phone interview she was unaware of the Mangrove story before researching the project, for which she was cast by McQueen and the casting director Gary Davy after one meeting, and no conventional audition.

“People talk about the different types of racism Black people deal with, and often expect that the racism in America is quite outward and in-your-face, whereas in the U.K. there’s subtlety, layers to it,” Boyega said. “To explore that conversation in a healthy way is kind of cool.”

When asked about George Floyd and the protests, McQueen replied wearily. “I’m just tired,” he said. In Britain “it took a long time for people to believe the West Indian community about what was going on. All of a sudden we’re being believed. It’s taken a man to die in the most horrible way. It’s taken a pandemic. And it’s taken millions of people marching in the streets for the broader public to think ‘possibly there’s something about this racism thing.’”

“If you don’t laugh, you’d cry,” he added. “That’s how we deal.”

Near the end of “Mangrove,” Jones-LeCointe and a fellow defendant, Barbara Beese (Rochenda Sandall), collapse into exhausted laughter at the absurdity of their trial. McQueen acknowledged that making “Small Axe,” too, has been an emotional roller coaster, one he’s still processing.

“I just cried the other day thinking of my father,” he said. “My father is not here to see this — a lot of West Indian men of that generation lived and died without having that acknowledgment. And it’s heavy still.”

“But we have a future!” he exclaimed, brightening. “That’s the main thing.” In the beautiful “Small Axe,” the past is the future, and that future is now.

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