Small AxeAlex Wheatle (UK 2020)

from left: Valentine (Elliot Edusah), Alex (Sheyi Cole) and Dennis (Jonathan Jules)

This fourth film in the Small Axe anthology is similar to the third, Red, White and Blue, in being a form of biopic covering the life of a single character, this time up to his late teens. Alex Wheatle was younger at the start of this film’s narrative than Leroy Logan in Red, White and Blue. Both films end around the same time in the early 1980s. The big difference is that Wheatle was on ‘the other side’ as one of the young Black men involved in the Brixton ‘uprisings’ in 1981. The uprising is an important part of his story, as was his recognition of the New Cross Fire in January 1981. These ‘real’ events in the narrative mark it as a different kind of story than Red, White and Blue.

Alex is introduced to his prison sentence . . .

In the beginning of the narrative, ‘Alex’ does not yet know his own name properly and is referred to as ‘Alphonse’ (his given name at birth) by a voiceover statement from a social worker. He was brought to the Shirley Oaks children’s home in Surrey as a young child without any knowledge of his own parents. The children’s home seems to be a hard place with harsh treatment of the children by the staff. The first section of the narrative is not presented in a linear way. We first meet Alex (Sheyi Cole) aged 18, being admitted to prison and meeting his cellmate, Simeon (Robbie Gee), a Rastafarian on hunger strike. A series of short flashbacks then fill in the early part of Alphonso’s time in the children’s home, ending with his transfer to a hostel in Brixton (presumably at age 16?). From this point, Alex is taken up by a couple of the other residents in the hostel and introduced to his new life. I was reminded of another film, Black Joy (1977) adapted from his own play by the Guyanese playwright Jamal Ali and directed by Anthony Simmons. The film is not generally considered as a ‘Black British’ film because it had a white director. Even so, it features a West Indian story which is also the universal story of the ‘country boy’ come to the city. Actually he is a young man straight off the plane heading to Brixton where he will be conned by the great Norman Beaton, a Trinidadian conman. ‘Alphonse’ is lucky that his new mentors are not so interested in relieving him of his money but they do enjoy his naivety and lack of a sense of his own Blackness since he has never known his parents or the world outside his children’s home. Even after six months in Brixton, Alex still speaks with the accent he grew up with in the care home and we do wonder if all his time spent with his new friend Dennis (Jonathan Jules) is having little impact, but two things are possibly responsible for the eventual change in Alex. One is meeting Dennis’ family for Christmas and experiencing an extended Jamaican family gathering and the other is Alex’s love of music which was the one aspect of life in the children’s home that interested him.

Simeon (Robbie Gee) is Alex’s cellmate

Soon Alex is spending all his weekly income (his ‘giro’ or weekly benefit payment) on records and his music obsession shifts up another gear when he meets Valentine, the only other Black boy from his children’s home and together they work to create a sound system which Alex dubs ‘Crucial Rocker’. He turns out to have a knack of writing great lines for a DJ. But life on the streets of Brixton in 1980 is tough and the youth have to look out for the SPG. The antics of the Special Patrol Group meant that most young Black men were wary of ever going ‘up West’ or into areas where police activity was likely to be constant like Brixton. The SUS laws allowed police to stop and search whoever they liked ‘on suspicion’. The SPG appeared in groups in transit vans and often took youth off the street to distant police stations. The level of police activity in Brixton was one of the main factors in the uprising in April 1981. Before that came the New Cross fire on January 18, 1981. After it was not mentioned in Red, White and Blue it was good to see this terrible criminal act given proper treatment. A lengthy montage of black & white photographs is accompanied by Linton Kwesi Johnson’s poem ‘New Craas Massahkah’ which later appeared on his 1983 LP Making History.

Rita and Katrina (?) in front of the ‘Crucial Rockers’ sound system built by Alex and Valentine

Linton Kwesi Johnson (‘LKJ’) was a major figure in South London and a nationally successful dub poet, both live and on recordings and in print. He wrote a useful short summary of events in 1981 which you can read here. I haven’t seen any references to the poem in either the film’s credits or the soundtrack listings. If I’ve missed them will someone let me know where they are? The photographs which range in quality (but some are excellent) are also not credited unless they are copyright of the Archive sources listed. None of the songs are credited and I wonder if this is because this is a ‘TV play’ rather than a film designed for cinema? It just seems disrespectful. The montage of stills is presented in a simple form with images against a black background but it did also remind me of the more artistic/expressionist work of Black Audio and especially Handsworth Songs from 1986. It’s also worth mentioning that Alex Wheatle evokes something of the experiences of the young hero in Horace Ové’s seminal film about Black British experience, Pressure (1974/6). McQueen’s film follows the New Cross Fire (in which 13 young Black Britons died and for which the police failed to make any arrests for arson) with footage of the major march through London protesting about the lack of official action. I’m reminded of just how bad things were at that point and throughout the next couple of years in which the UK’s racist tabloid press demonised Black youth, especially during various protests. These were all justified in my view and the subsequent Scarman enquiry found the Metropolitan Police had acted disproportionately and had lost the trust of the community. Scarman’s recommendations were not all implemented and it was not until the Macpherson Report of 1999 that the police were seen as ‘institutionally racist’ – something which had been widely understood by many London residents for many years.

One of the stills used for the montage of the New Cross fire attack and the response from Black communities in London

Alex learns about the history of his people from Simeon’s prison cell library and at the end of the film discovers how he came to be in the children’s home. The end credits tell us about his celebrated writing career today. Alex Wheatle has the lowest rating of the five Small Axe films on IMDb and there are several ‘disappointed’ reviews of the film. In some ways I’m not surprised by these reactions, but I think they are wrong. I would say that this is the most intriguing of the films in relation to ideas about identity and through its prison sequences how Alex uses the books to discover who he is and where he came from. The character of a young Black boy in care was used rather differently, but just as tellingly, in David Leland’s 1982 TV play Made in Britain. In some ways, Alex’s story also sets up the last of the Small Axe films, Education. I would agree with one review I read that suggested the film is just too short and that things seem to happen very quickly. Several sequences could be extended including the music sequences with the sound system. Sheyi Cole is very good in what I think is a difficult role but for me the delight of the film was to see Robbie Gee, the ‘wide boy’ from the Desmond’s sitcom (1988-1994) – and now when I check back, his character in the sitcom was a boy taken into care as a child who is then looked after by Desmond and Shirley. If McQueen intended to make that connection, he made an excellent choice in casting Robbie Gee.

4 comments

  1. christinegeraghty

    Thanks for this. I actually liked this the best, partly because I thought the boy’s attempts to make himself fit in to Brixton were funny, moving and convincing psychologically. I agree with you about it setting up the next one Education which otherwise is a bit thin. I do think that Mangrove (fits into a familiar television mode) and Lover’s Rock (many saw this as a film) work best while the other three needed somehow a bit more work to expand into television’s storytelling mode. Perhaps McQueen needs to watch EastEnders more!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Roy Stafford

      I probably take the opposite view about how these five films refer to film or television but I don’t have the benefit of your theorised ideas about a television storytelling mode. Alex Wheatle seems to me to fall somewhere between what I think of as a film and a TV drama. I don’t really understand what it is in Mangrove that signals ‘a familiar television mode’. Could you provide just one example?

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      • christinegeraghty

        This may be me just making rather arbitrary distinctions but I think that the crime genre with its action, detection, trial structure (not all need to be covered) fits into what I think of as the storytelling mode of tv. It can be compressed into a single episode or stretched into a series and the story fits into the spaces of the police station, the cafe, the court, which television handles comfortably. I also think that the interweaving of story lines (which I don;t think McQueen really manages except in Love Rocks perhaps!) is a narrative device which television excels at and has been refined in endless series and soaps. Maybe I’ve been too prescriptive about this (I know that there are films which have extended trial scenes). Alex Wheatle is clearly doing something different from Mangrove- it is more picaresque and rambling and perhaps that’s why it just seemed to come to a stop rather than achieve a conclusion.

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      • Roy Stafford

        Thanks, that’s very helpful. I think the debate about Small Axe as TV or film will continue but I’m clearer now as to the TV side of the argument. Re Alex Wheatle, I think the ending does actually mark a form of resolution/conclusion. I see the whole narrative as presenting Alex’s ‘journey’ from a state of being classified by a state agency and having no sense of his own identity to a point where he finally discovers who he is and where he has come from. At this point his life begins again

        Liked by 1 person

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