Up until now, each instalment in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series has, to varying extents, provided compelling insight into how family dynamics have shaped its main characters’ motivations and eventual decision-making. Members of the Mangrove Nine emphasised the importance of their resolute actions in inspiring their own children to carry on their legacy of resisting prejudice against them from authoritarian institutions like the police; in Lovers Rock, it became apparent that Martha saw the reggae house parties as a place of serenity from a seemingly strict and disciplined upbringing; Leroy Logan in Red, White and Blue defied his parents’ warnings and entered the London Metropolitan Police force following a group of officer’s assault on his father. However, the penultimate entry in the series, Alex Wheatle, details key moments in the life of a man who had no strong family unit, and had to create opportunities for himself on his own terms. Revolved around a real British novelist whose life story warrants some form of dramatization, the latest piece in the anthology occasionally takes a few missteps in its depiction of the Jamaican-born titular figure’s challenges, but is ultimately tale of an individual making something out of nothing.
The opening few minutes see a shift in narrative storytelling from the other entries in Small Axe in that it employs a non-linear framework in capturing Alex’s difficulties in childhood and adulthood. It transitions quickly from the protagonist (played by Sheyi Cole in his adult years) being thrown into a prison cell by police officers in his late teens following his involvement in the Brixton Uprising to his time as a child where he endures awful abuse both in a care home in Surrey and in school, culminating in a moment where he is left lying on the gym’s floor in restraints having been involved in a struggle with a fellow classmate. This introduction encapsulates a few of the film’s strengths and weaknesses. The use of a non-linear narrative is deliberate in demonstrating how bigotry, violence, and isolation has followed Alex throughout his life, with the most brutal manifestations being perpetrated by the people whose job should involve protecting him from such atrocities. The shot of Alex helpless on the gym floor is an arresting culmination of this sequence, with the camera zooming on the main character’s face which conveys a feeling of vexation. It evokes the harrowing scene in Steve McQueen’s Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave in which the director lingers on an image of Solomon Northup struggling to tiptoe as he is being hung from a tree. Although this piece of filmmaking is McQueen at his best, the minutes preceding feel too abrupt and haphazard in the way the story shifts between Alex’s torment as a child and an adult. The conditions of his upbringing are reduced to a handful of snapshots of callous harassment which, despite being perturbing on a visual level, lack dramatic weight due to how little time has been spent outlining the circumstances behind Alex’s situation. While other films in the anthology have used a single extended sequence to capture a sense of the era and racial tension which pervaded it (the opening of Red, White and Blue illustrated this neatly), this introduction comes across as slightly jarring and one-note, albeit boasting numerous instances of terrific craftsmanship.
Alex Wheatle begins to hit its stride once the time jumps decrease and it begins to delve into the key relationships in the protagonist’s which fuel his interest in reading and music. In regards to the former, his cellmate Simeon (Robbie Gee) proves to be an influential figure in shaping his engagement with the works of West Indian writers such as C.L.R. James. The initial interactions between both prisoners are rather frosty, but Simeon ends up becoming a much-needed mentor for Alex, an individual who helps steer Alex on a path which would eventually develop into a fruitful career. Similarly, the figure of Dennis (Jonathan Jules), who the titular character encounters in a Social Services hostel in his late teens, assists in allowing Alex to settle into Brixton, showcasing an affability which is exemplified when he invites Wheatle to accompany him to Christmas dinner at his family’s home. These dynamics facilitate Alex’s gradual assimilation into the West Indian community, reflected in his change in mannerisms and clothing. Although the broad strokes of the narrative may seem familiar (certain developments and figures echo those in beloved tales like Oliver Twist), it is the cultural context surrounding them which renders this a fresh coming-of-age story.
One of the most striking features of the entire Small Axe anthology has been its use of music, and yet again McQueen utilises a back catalogue of reggae music to punctuate proceedings. However, while Lovers Rock was concerned with highlighting how music serves as a form of respite and a signifier of identity for young West Indian immigrants, Alex Wheatle digs into what shapes the creation of such music through its main character. Wheatle’s love of reggae music is transparent early in the film as he and his friend Valin (Elliot Edusah) are shown bonding in school over their shared interest in the genre, and eventually the two collaborate through a DJ operation as teenagers. Alex draws upon his tough upbringing and the manifestations of institutional racism in Brixton to enhance his lyrical content. The scenes of Alex developing a knack for songwriting are too brief, but McQueen, with the help of cinematographer Shabier Kirchner, still manages to express the thrill that aspiring artists seek in creating such content through the performances he gets from his cast and the sleek camera work. The amount of screen-time dedicated to this aspect of Alex’s life does not feel quite sufficient enough, and that criticism can be levelled at other narrative strands, specifically the depiction of the New Cross Massacre. While the montage detailing the tragedy of the event is powerfully captured through real-life photographs as well as a reading of Linton Kwesi Johnson’s ‘New Crass Massakah’, the effect it has on the main subject of the film is not communicated as clearly as it ought to be as the transition from the incident itself to Alex’s arrest is quite abrupt.
Running at barely over an hour, there is certainly room for various elements of Alex Wheatle to be expanded upon in order to exacerbate the accomplishments of its central figure. Nonetheless, Steve McQueen’s latest piece is a compelling portrait of a young man coming of age in the midst of a turbulent period in history for Black British people.
Alex Wheatle is currently available to stream on the BBC iPlayer. It will be released on Amazon Prime in the USA on December 11th.