Three Little Birds

A TV Mini-Series by director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave)

Written by:
Andrew Osborne
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In 2020, 12 Years A Slave Director Steve McQueen created a sweepingly cinematic anthology miniseries for the BBC called Small Axe about the lives of West Indians in the UK during the second half of the 20th century.  The episodes covered a range of common immigrant experiences from struggles with systemic racism to joyful celebrations of shared community.

Initially conceived as a conventional TV serial, McQueen’s project evolved into five thematically linked yet otherwise unrelated standalone films with running times ranging from 63 to 128 minutes — whereas Three Little Birds, an ITV1/Britbox series created by the comedian, actor, and writer Sir Lenny Henry tackles similar material within the framework Small Axe ultimately eschewed.

Set in the 1950s, the first season of Henry’s show (informed by yet not directly depicting his family’s journey to Britain from Jamaica) is both saddled with and strengthened by its soap opera conventions.

On the one hand, the three eponymous birds of the title are established as broadly drawn types — the indomitable mother, Leah (Rochelle Neil), fleeing an abusive husband to create a better life for her children, her flirtatious, movie star wannabe half-sister, Chantrelle (Saffron Coomber) who loves to drink and dance, and their devoutly religious friend, Hosanna (Yazmin Belo), who’s agreed to marry their brother in England sight unseen.

By design, the diverse attitudes and aims of the women spark frictions between them, just as the obstacles they face together and separately in the strange new worlds of London and the Midlands ultimately cement their bonds while helping each to grow as individuals.

Along the way, the trio encounters everything from white supremacist cops, employers, and Teddy Boys to charmingly enlightened Caucasian allies with very little grey area in between — yet while the storytelling is often formulaic, it’s nevertheless buoyed by its effective performances and real-world inspirations, making it easy enough to root for the likable characters and Henry’s timely celebration of global migration in an ever-shrinking world.

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