Director: Steve McQueen
Stars: Sheyi Cole, Jonathan Jules, Robbie Gee
One of the points I wanted to cover (but skipped for the sake of relative brevity) in my review of Red, White and Blue was how important music remained to the storytelling; as vital an element as any in Steve McQueen’s milestone Small Axe series. In last week’s film, it was the pop and soul of the era’s charts – chiefly American music – that moved it’s protagonist, Leroy Logan. This fourth installment once again forefronts the power and drive of West Indian music in the culture of London in the 1980s, underscoring an ongoing struggle of racial politics and freedom of expression that continues to this day.
Running at a tight 66 minutes, McQueen’s forth shot across the bows is a masterly example of concise, economic storytelling. We meet the titular Alex Wheatle (Sheyi Cole) as he is led to a cell – flabbergasted at his fate. His bunking down brings back memories of childhood in a foster home and the two states of being are married quite shrewdly. This nimble dance with time leads us into the main flashback narrative, with a younger Wheatle (Asad-Shareef Muhammad) encountering reggae music in secondary school (another institution that the film frames as fearful and claustrophobic). Roughed up and isolated by the teachers, McQueen pushes in and pulls out again on Wheatle as he lies constrained on the floor, staring intently into his own mind’s eye; a bold inhale and exhale in the piece given the svelte running time.
Raised in rural Surrey without knowledge of his heritage, Wheatle arrives in London conspicuous for his detachment from the West Indian community. He quickly comes to discover the disparity, and endeavours to reconnect with a cultural identity he hadn’t previously known had been quelled or suppressed. Fresh-faced Cole is well-suited to conveying this sense of otherness. The importance of music (and to a lesser extent ganja) in Alex’s overhaul cannot be understated, and it is in this respect that Alex Wheatle continues a thread seen in all previous films in this series. In the second of the film’s deliberate pauses, McQueen takes us on a 360 tour of an independent record store as Alex walks through the door, evoking the romanticism of discovery, and of belonging.
Still, Alex’s schooling in street smarts takes time. His chief tutor – and exploiter – is his neighbour Dennis (Jonathan Jules), twinned in the film’s present by Alex’s cellmate Simeon (Robbie Gee). Absorbing the patter, the humour and, in short, the lifestyle of his new peers through osmosis, further flashbacks chart Alex’s continued integration into the West Indian community. And, in the process, the pressing need to protest and counter the oppression felt by the Met. Though the eyes of Alex Wheatle and Alex Wheatle, all police are one faceless entity; ‘the Beast’.
The third ‘breather’ in the piece comes in the form of a monochrome montage of documentary photographs documenting the cultural toll of the New Cross Fire of 1981 that took the lives of thirteen party goers and provoked a wave of protests. The sequence is set to a recital of Linton Kwesi Johnson’s poem “New Crass Massakah”. This cross-media interlude in the piece runs the risk of overpowering the dramatised narrative that McQueen has unfolding, and it lands as one of the starkest, most impactful moments in Small Axe thus far. Still, it is a credit to McQueen’s ongoing dexterity that it doesn’t so much halt the action but transition it into a third act of combustive action and activism. The immediacy of those collisions between police and protesters in Mangrove receives a reprisal.
Perhaps its the regularity of Small Axe becoming a Sunday night Event, but Alex Wheatle feels the most indebted to its sister films. Where the prior three felt like isolated installments in an anthology, Alex Wheatle has a kind of cross-pollenation vibe to it (though no characters recur). It knits together all of the themes brought to the fore so far. Were you to air just one of the films for a vibe of the whole, this might be the easiest entry point. While you wouldn’t get the searing drama of Mangrove or the buoyant, sexy haze of Lovers Rock, the conflicts, concerns and proud expressions of a very specific culture are all present here.
There is a sense – as with Red, White and Blue – of half a story told. But by narrowing focus to the period of time that influenced Wheatle the most, McQueen has created a modest film about major overhaul on a personal front. This is a film about two teachers; Dennis, who re-engages Alex with his background and community, and Simeon, who ultimately ignites a methodology to take that all forward through creative expression.
Near the film’s culmination, Simeon stresses to Alex that “education is key”; a moment that may be taken as a pointed segue leading us toward next week’s fifth and final offering in this vital set of films…