‘Small Axe’ is an anthology comprised of five original films directed by Steve McQueen and set from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s, telling personal stories from London’s West Indian community, whose lives have been shaped by their own force of will despite rampant racism and discrimination. This title is derived from the African proverb, “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe,” later popularized by Bob Marley & the Wailers.
For the fourth entry in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series, it is interesting to look at the move to another direction compared to the previous entry. While “Red, White and Blue” emphasized the anger found in the injustices taking place in the police force, “Alex Wheatle” chooses to show what happens when a character is offered compassion and guidance. There are still rocky areas to contend with, but they are matched with a level of warmth that inspires hope.
This entry is based on the real life of Alex Wheatle (a strong debut performance from Sheyi Cole), a black novelist who is put into a position of discovering his identity. We meet Alex just after being sentenced to a term of imprisonment for his involvement in the 1981 Brixton uprising. Where familiar dramas may see this as an opportunity for a young man to get toughened up by life behind bars, Wheatle has a different experience.
Sharing a cell with a rather large Rastafarian, Simeon (Robbie Gee), whose stomach issues only further exacerbate the disgusting state of Alex’s life, the attempt to lash out is thwarted. After years of various forms of abuse and the feeling of being cast aside, Simeon gives Alex the chance to explain himself, talk about his life, and ideally get through this brief time in prison as one who can look towards a brighter way to live his life.
While I have some quibbles that ultimately place this on a lower tier than the previous Small Axe entries, there are plenty of aspects that make him very relatable. As he recounts his personal journey, we learn Alex’s parents abandoned him at birth, and he was raised in a group home in what was ostensibly a white community. Subject to abuse by his foster mother and racial attacks at school (the U.K.’s issues with racism, classism, and xenophobia continue to be an uneasy theme throughout this series), Alex only has so much knowledge of Black culture.
Watching his interactions with the various Brixton members, an Afro-Caribbean community that feels more and more familiar for those who have been tracking this series, it’s clear Alex will continue to feel alienated from society, even while being invited to embrace it. But things can change given time and the choice to embrace what should feel familiar and inviting.
As a coming of age story with merely an hour and change to dig into who this young man is, that’s a lot of ground to cover. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, “Alex Wheatle” could play as a haphazard attempt to chronicle a life by hitting some simple bullet points and underline them with on-the-nose dialogue. McQueen is smarter than this. He lets certain moments sit. A Christmas spent at a friend’s home lets Alex scarf down a meal out of instinct, while the others calmly enjoy. Various trips into town find Alex’s naivety regarding his surroundings being responded to with raised eyebrows.
There are a couple of times when Alex is forced to the ground and left to think. As we watch these moments, we see a man realizing that he may have a possible station in life, and it is largely coming down to his race. Set in the late 70s/early 80s, the rising unemployment and crime rates begin playing more of a role, as the friction between the people of Brixton and the police increases. Alex has grown older and wiser over the course of the film, but all the efforts he’s put into being a writer, poet, and singer only goes so far when looking at ways to combat his oppressors.
The build-up to more impactful moments is effective. The riot has the visceral one would expect from the director who also delivered “Mangrove.” Another moment arriving before the riot, the New Cross house fire, utilizes real-life still frames, and a specific recitation to cover the ground of what is taking place, and emotional reasoning for how affected a community can get before taking on a cause to certain extremes. Planting Alex in the middle of all of this could show a sign of more drama to come. Instead, the film has already hinted at how things will get better.
Despite having a lack of freedom, the prison is actually a beginning, or at least a new starting point. The real Alex is not even 60 today, but he has managed to accomplish so much through writing and in other areas of his life this film briefly touches upon. Given the assumptions many around him make, let alone Alex himself, the actual triumph is notable, to say the least.
While examining the ways social justice has been incorporated in this part of the U.K. during a certain period of time can lead to some heavy content, for the most part, Small Axe has shown some achievements to counter the terrible factors that boiled over in different ways. Thanks to the strength in cinematic observation put on display, the informed look at unfortunate scenarios is effective, but the positive revelations coming, as a result, continue to be worthwhile.