With the arrival of Alex Wheatle, the fourth of five installments that make up Small Axe, Steve McQueen’s adamant and penetrating series of roughly hourlong dramas centering on the Black immigrant community experience in post-World War II Britain, the emerging core concern is the hypocrisy involved in the nation laying out the welcome mat to newcomers in the first place while denying opportunity once they’ve arrived. The theme could hardly be clearer than it is in this episode, which sees the eponymous young lad bounced around for years by social services before becoming involved in the Brixton Uprising of April 1981. The reason we’re seeing a film about him now is that, some years later, Wheatle emerged as a successful writer.
Ferocious police brutality by the London police is a recurring hallmark in McQueen’s compelling series; the authorities shut down a popular Caribbean restaurant in Mangrove and veteran officers make life very difficult for a token black recruit in Red, White and Blue. Here, the focus is on the eponymous teenager (Sheyi Cole), whose father fobbed him off on the government when the kid was just 3. His mother returned to Jamaica, never to be heard from again.
How many young men survive, much less flourish, presented with such thorough deprivation? Alex is skinny and slight, never one who’s going to win a fist fight or even a foot race. McQueen doubles down on the kid’s miserable misfortune; he’s brutalized and called “a horrible, nasty little boy” by his foster mother, who can’t resist hitting him. He suffers at the hands a much bigger cellmate during one incarceration and is later straight-jacketed. Whites bombard him with “African” taunts.
Upon coming of age and saying goodbye to school, Alex is provided with a run-down room in a social services hostel in the then-seriously depressed Brixton district. Like Oliver Twist, he’s got to hustle and think fast if he’s going to keep his head above water in the London underworld; he shovels a plate of food down in seconds flat, a ploy learned at an early age if he was to prevent other boys from taking it from him. Getting an Afro haircut in an attempt to fit in, he still has problems adjusting due to his proper schoolboy enunciation. “Your accent sound too English,” one street kid tells him, advising that learning some Rasta is a must.
Americans and others will have some problems with the thick island patois that dominates much of the dialogue, but the challenges facing this physically unprepossessing lad are clear enough as he tries to do what’s expected of him by the street lads, more than a few of them criminals who rule the roost in the neighborhood. He finds some work at a disco, but he can’t escape performing more unsavory tasks for his tough elders, who need to test his loyalty.
A powder-keg of discontent and lawlessness, Brixton blows; hundreds of cars were burned during the rioting of April 10-12, 1981, many business were damaged and there were 279 police injuries, as opposed to just 45 members of the public; remarkably, no fatalities resulted from the clashes. While sleeping in his room, Alex becomes one of the 82 arrested, but this provides the opening to how this “lonely boy” discovers literature and use of the mind. “Education is the key,” an older Rastafarian instructs him. “If you don’t know your past, then you won’t know your future.” Thus inspired, we are told, the youngster got serious in a way that led him to his successful writing career.
As powerful as Wheatle’s life story is in the way the young man overcame adversity to put himself on a promising path, the 66-minute film feels rather conventional in its narrative approach and not particularly illuminating of his character; it’s no The 400 Blows. Nor does the script by McQueen and Alastair Siddons (the latter of whom also collaborated with the director on two other episodes, Mangrove and the forthcoming Education; he also wrote the dismal 2018 Tomb Raider) illuminate how the legal system and personal perseverance (as in Mangrove and Red, White and Blue, respectively) were critical to the breakthroughs that caused significant repercussions and changes in society and official practices. In Wheatle’s case, his discovery of writing and career advancement came after what’s depicted in the film.
Here, we see the fuse being lit, but don’t get to witness the explosion that resulted.
Previous ‘Small Axe’ Reviews