This penultimate Small Axe film, penned by Steve McQueen and Alastair Siddons, looks at the early life of YA novelist Alex Wheatle. A fish out of water struggling for his own identity, Alex (Sheyi Cole) progresses from elocutionary naivety to dealing weed, before diving into his passion for music. All within one tight and fascinating hour.
Sheyi Cole stars as Alex Wheatle. Photo: BBC
Alex's bumpy transition into London’s West Indian community is like Dickens in reverse; he even starts in a gruesome boarding house. The young Alex is hounded by a horrible, abusive ‘auntie’, who shoves his urine-soaked sheets down his throat as punishment.
When he arrives in the capital city as a teenager, he speaks like a southern English gent, eager to impress. But that doesn't go down well in Brixton, where the locals are close to shunning him for knowing nothing about his racial heritage.
Wheatle’s past and present initially scatter like disconnected puzzle pieces. McQueen and Siddons patiently fix them together, soon forming a cohesive whole. At the start, Alex is admitted into prison after the 1981 Brixton riot, ignited after the New Cross fire that killed 13 residents (believed to be a racially motivated attack).
Robbie Gee as Simeon, Alex's educated Rasta cellmate. Photo: BBC
His cellmate is Simeon (Robbie Gee): an educated, aphoristic Rasta who needs to constantly evacuate his bowels. He encourages Alex to tell his story, to release the pains he’s kept locked inside of him.
Cutting back to life in Brixton: watching Dennis (Jonathan Jules) teach Alex the ropes of the community is a joy, like a street-smart Guide To. The Small Axe films function as powerful insights into West Indian lives in London, but this feels like a proper education. Dennis’s lessons range from health and safety, like keeping your head down when a police officer passes, to an appropriate style of walking (‘strut as a black man strut’).
But Alex is always playing the chameleon, adjusting himself to his environment – keeping silent in new places and crying quietly to himself. Since Alex had never known his family or his origins, his identity is fractured and confused. He's burdened with the need to belong.
The 1981 Brixton riot. Photo: BBC
The racial hate and the slurs, specific to Britain, continue to cut deep but it's worse when they’re directed at children. You watch as Alex is bullied by white kids and pulled into a straitjacket by teachers. It’s not much different in Brixton, the abuse from police equally distressing. Since this is the fourth film in the anthology, McQueen has cemented this fear and loathing of the police. Passing any bobby could mean damage or death.
Later, when the bricks hit the riot shields like first shots in a battle, you can feel the rage, the need for justice banging, banging, banging. There’s even a beautiful pause beforehand: cutting to black-and-white photographs, layered with spoken poetry, of the New Cross fire and the riots that emerged from the flames. Although this is very much Wheatle’s story, like a mini-biopic, the context is vital.
Towards the end, when Simeon passes on some vital reading material, he emphasises: ‘If you don’t know your past, then you won’t know your future’. As a series, Small Axe aims in this direction: looking back at significant but overlooked events in racial history, learning from them, and aspiring to a better society. The future is ours.
Small Axe: Alex Wheatle airs on Sunday 6 December at 9pm on BBC One
|What||Small Axe: Alex Wheatle, BBC One review|
06 Dec 20 – 06 Dec 21, ON BBC ONE
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