Steve McQueen’s Small Axe has changed a little since three of its episodes premiered at the 2020 New York Film Festival (NYFF). Just weeks ago, it appeared that Red, White and Blue starring John Boyega would be the closing film for the anthology series. Since the end of the festival, that film became the third installment in the series instead, making it feel like a centerpiece rather than a finale.
This reshuffled order is fascinating. Even though each film about London’s West Indian community is technically standalone, I can’t help but think about them like songs on an album, chapters in a book, or short stories in a collection. The order affects experience and interpretation. This makes me wonder about the closing note of Education, the fifth and final installment in the series. Moving Red, White and Blue also affected my read of Alex Wheatle, which was originally going to be middle entry of the anthology.
Alex Wheatle feels like it revisits territory covered in the courtroom drama of Mangrove and the joyous house party of Lovers Rock. The differences in accent and aspiration also feel like a nod to Red, White and Blue. While some scenes feel like a retread, it’s done with purpose. Alex Wheatle is not repetition but reticulation. In addition to being a biopic and Bildungsroman (specifically a Künstlerroman), Alex Wheatle is about learning one’s past, and how what’s come before paves the way for who and what can come next.
Alex Wheatle – Small Axe
Director: Steve McQueen
Release Date: December 6, 2020 (BBC One/iPlayer); December 11, 2020 (Amazon Prime Video)
Alex Wheatle is an award-winning British novelist who is still alive and writing today in his late-fifties. In the film, he’s played by Sheyi Cole, whose performance is so varied. At times meek and at other times impassioned, Cole’s ability to modulate is ideal for depicting an alienated young man constantly searching for a sense of self. When we first see Alex, he is a bundle of defeated nerves about to start a prison sentence. It’s the early 1980s, and he’s celled up with an older man named Simeon (Robbie Gee), a Rastafarian with bad bowels who stinks up the room as he strains on the toilet at odd hours. We then hop back and forth through time, from the present in the cell, to Alex’s childhood as an orphan in a predominantly white group home, to his relocation to Brixton as a young man.
In Brixton, he speaks with a posh Surrey accent, far removed from the local Caribbean patois. Alex makes friends with a flatmate named Dennis (Jonathan Jules), who teaches him how to walk, how to talk, and how to dress like he fits in. It’s something like community for Alex, who’s lived a solitary life of white culture and white aspiration without any other models of who or what he could be. Now, there are other options, actual possibilities.
And yet the barriers to a genuine sense of belonging are pervasive.
Throughout Alex Wheatle, McQueen drops in shots of Alex completely alone. As a child he’s been manhandled after a fight in a classroom, and as an adult he’s roughed up by racist cops. In those cases, he’s bound on the floor, totally inert and dehumanized. During Christmas at a friend’s house, he sits on the couch while the adults fill their plates in the kitchen and some children play off to the side, oblivious to his presence. After inhaling a home-cooked meal with someone else’s family, he excuses himself outside, where he is overwhelmed. This sense of isolation is part of the essential solitude of being a writer, but it’s also part of his fundamental sense of loneliness. He may look like a member of the local Brixton community, but he still doesn’t feel like he’s part of it.
The Small Axe films have all been about black solidarity as a means of overcoming white supremacy, but Alex Wheatle considers what it means to really become part of a community. Conversely, it explores how community bolsters the individual. In just 66 minutes, Cole’s performance reveals so many facets of a person finding himself, through the kindness of others, though creative work, and through political involvement. That sense of shared struggle through time is essential to Alex’s maturation. It makes sense, then, that Alex Wheatle must revisit familiar moments of what’s come before, namely the house parties of Lovers Rock and the protests of Mangrove.
Alex served a prison sentence for participating in the 1981 Brixton riot. The riot was sparked in part by a fire at a New Cross house party that killed 13 black people. The fire was likely caused by white supremacists. Here, McQueen briefly telescopes out of the Alex Wheatle biopic, dropping a short, mournful documentary on the fire, its victims, and the protests that followed. The house party scene was started as a way to circumvent the racism that kept black youths out of London clubs, and yet white supremacy is so pervasive that even house parties aren’t safe. I’m reminded of the scene in Lovers Rock when Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) leaves the party for a moment only to be harassed by some racists down the street. A sign of the horror to come.
The street-level confrontation of Mangrove is seen here in Alex Wheatle; the same with the police hunting down black people. The same struggles occur time and time again and must be fought each time. It’s the same sense of weariness in the closing moments of Red, White and Blue, too mindful of the realities of racism and white supremacy to offer a pat celebration of whatever progress has been made. Alex Wheatle (the character and the film, likely the real life man as well) finds purpose through this struggle.
While this is ostensibly a biopic about a writer, Alex Wheatle avoids cheesy moments of the title character toiling away at a desk over a pad of paper to find the right words. The moment we see him writing is more natural. He’s in bed, alone, drafting and refining song lyrics. He’s a young man finding his voice as an MC rather than as a novelist. He’s writing about what’s happening in the moment to the community. In that moment of solitude, Alex is alone but far from lonely. He has found something like a family, a place like home. While not overtly metatextual, it feels like Alex becomes himself when he understands he is a small axe who is part of an unfolding collective story.