“Alex Wheatle” – Swings a small but mighty axe [MOVIE REVIEW]
Written and directed by Steve McQueen and cowritten by Alastair Siddons, “Alex Wheatle” is episode 4 out of 5 in McQueen’s small axe series. Like the other episodes in this series, it gets its inspiration from the African proverb upon which Bob Marley based his song, “Small Axe.” “So if you are the big tree/ We are the small axe/ ready to cut you down.” McQueen shines a light on the West Indian community of London, the one that gave rise to him as an artist.
Alex Wheatle, an award-winning writer, was a lost soul until he found a home in the Brixton West Indian community. Abandoned by his Jamaican parents to the British social services system, he spent his youth neglected and punished by the white woman paid for his care at a children’s home and the teachers more interested in punishing him than in his education. A black face in a sea of white both at home and in school, he faced institutional racism at every turn. Constantly scapegoated, his self-esteem was non-existent; his possibilities severely limited.
Music, particularly reggae from the islands, was his only solace. Released from care and school before he was 16 with few prospects, he needed a source of income, not just for food and shelter but also for the records he craved. On his own, he made his way from the Shirley Oaks Care Home in South London to Brixton, the seat of a large Afro-Caribbean population. A native English man, he doesn’t sound like his new neighbors but his interests are the same – the new music. Physically and mentally abused all his young life, he is an easy recruit in the sale of drugs. But he has a goal – he wants to start a band and become a DJ; he doesn’t care where his money comes from. The end justifies the means.
It’s open season on blacks in Brixton. Beat now, question later. Poor housing, high unemployment, and skyrocketing crime combined with the systemic racism of the police, Brixton is a powder keg waiting to blow. And blow it did with the riots of 1981.
Whether it’s wrong place at wrong time or an act of civil disobedience, Alex is in the middle of the riots and arrested. Thrown in prison, his future could not be more dismal. His cellmate, an old rasta dude, is beyond annoying. But as irritating as he is and as dismal the circumstances, his smelly cellmate has wisdom to impart and Alex, with no other options, begins to listen. That message? Education, education, education and thus is born the literate and literary man he will become. Lesson learned? He is who he chooses to be not what others say he is – a lesson remarkably similar to that taught by Malcolm X two decades earlier.
Alex Wheatle is a real person and these were real events. McQueen’s task was even trickier in that he was telling the story chronologically. But it’s a story worth telling and McQueen finds just the right balance between “coming of age” and moralism. The hypocrisy of the so-called open British society and the overt and systemic racism practiced on people of color is difficult to watch. It’s also a good reminder that the antecedent to revolt and protest against police brutality was everywhere to be seen.
Sheyi Cole as Alex Wheatle does an admirable job of growing as a character throughout the time frame.
Although not groundbreaking as a film, McQueen keeps it moving and reveals how much higher the barriers were for members of this community who had finally had enough, fighting back in a riot that left a lasting mark on that society. The real Alex Wheatle survived and triumphed but he did this against all the odds. The question to ask is, how much have things changed?
Streaming on Amazon Prime beginning December 11.
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