Small Axe – Alex Wheatle

I’m so inconsistent. Last week I criticised Red, White and Blue, the third in Steve McQueen’s quintology of Small Axe films looking at the experience of black people in Britain, for seeming incomplete. It took the story of a young man who joined the police and successfully challenged institutional racism only to stop before he’d successfully challenged any institutional racism. Now we have the fourth, Alex Wheatle, which details the life of the prolific writer but wraps up before he’s written anything. Here, though, I had no problem with it.

To be fair, as this series progresses I can see what McQueen is doing and actually I think this film has made me appreciate Red, White and Blue more than I initially did. The director has taken some people who have achieved great things, Wheatle here, Leroy Logan last week, Frank Critchlow in series opener Mangrove, but is showing what they did before this and what lead them to their victories. This better captures a wider experience. The second film, Lovers Rock, focused on relatable lives the most, following young people to a house party, but this aim for universality is behind all of the films. Not everyone has become an author, reformed the police or won a landmark court case but lots of people have been victim to prejudice, felt injustice, had to show respect to those in authority who don’t deserve it, been undermined in the workplace, even gone to prison for things that white people would not have been charged with. It is important for this to be depicted on screen for those that can relate to it and for those that really can’t. Last week I listed Detroit, BlacKkKlansman, Just Mercy, The Hate U Give, If Beale Street Could Talk and Queen & Slim as films that were all better than Red, White and Blue but these Small Axe movies have opened my blue eyes to the experience of black people way more than any of those. In this McQueen has magnificently done what he set out to do. God, I hope these films are getting the audience their Sunday evening time slot hopes for. The Downton Abbey crowd need to see these.

Taken in isolation, which I can increasingly see none of these stories should be, Alex Wheatle is a mix of small picture and big picture story telling. We start with young Alex, parentless and mistreated in a care home in Surrey, a long way away from others in the black community. Then in early adulthood he moves to Brixton where he starts to find his identity while still struggling with the anger his upbringing has ingrained in him and not instantly fitting in because of his clipped Home Counties accent. Ultimately he is caught up in the 1981 Brixton riots and imprisoned where he meets an inmate who takes hold of him, turns him round a little and sends him off in a very different direction. The final moments where he heads off to buy a typewriter are the perfect ending because then he started to write and the rest is already history.

There are some excellent directorial decisions in the construction of the film. There is one scene where you view the action from the protagonist’s POV, hearing a friend getting roughed up by the police and thrown in the back of their van but not seeing it. Then when the vehicle pulls out from behind a wall you see blood on the side panel. It is a powerful moment that speaks volumes and again will speak to real experiences. Elsewhere you see the trouble young Alex has fitting into a culture where family is valued but with no family of his own and this is handled without labouring the point.

Mostly though it seems that McQueen and his camera have stepped back and captured a life, just as he has so excellently in this whole series.

Next week the Small Axe concludes with a look at the treatment and opportunities given to black children in schools. The film is called Education and, just like the four that have come before it, I am sure it will provide one.

Small Axe is on Amazon, iPlayer and iTunes.

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