The fourth installment in the SMALL AXE film series by Steven McQueen is ALEX WHEATLE. It’s a true story, told non-chronologically, of Alex, a kid abandoned by his parents. Alex grew up in a children’s home and was subjected to abuse. He finally finds a family of friends in his teenage years (though they do lead him to the wrong side of the law), and then he ends up in jail following the Brixton riots of 1981. It’s a rags-to not quite riches-to prison story that is alternatingly inspiring and depressing. Kind of unfortunately, the audience knows it will not have a happy end.
Or will it? Alex himself is well-known writer now, so clearly he had a rich life after his stint behind bars. But that isn’t the focus of this movie, nor part of the narrative presented her.
Early on, because the episode is told in jumbled order, we see Alex (the first credit for Sheryi Cole) in a cell. He’s angry, and justifiable so, as we’ll come to find out. Alex reluctantly tells of his past, which he doesn’t consider a story, to cellmate Simeon (Robbie Fee, Berlin Station). It’s through this that we get an account of Alex’s life so far, his short eighteen years, most of them tragic. Thank goodness for a wise cellmate who helps Alex realize who he should be.
I said last week’s entry was small and focused, centering on a father and son. SMALL AXE ALEX WHEATLE is even more so, concerned with the life of a single individual, and mostly covering just a short period in his life. It’s a pivotal moment, one which defines his path forward. But it is just a small snapshot into a much larger existence.
I find it kind of curious that SMALL AXE ALEX WHEATLE doesn’t run much into a second hour, never showing us what Alex becomes on the other side of prison. Other SMALL AXE movies are focused, too, but often show longer periods. That after-life is much more well-known, and certainly the bigger part of him. But it’s also a bold choice to home in on something monumental, and it is doubtful that any single event later will ever measure up to what this film chooses to show. In a series that is becoming known for the decisions director and co-writer Steven McQueen makes, this may be one of the most important.
SMALL AXE ALEX WHEATLE was in the bottom half for me of the four installments I’ve viewed thus far. It’s still very good, and Cole, who basically has to carry the whole thing himself, is quite talented. I just found the story a little less compelling than the Mangrove restaurant and trial, or the father-son cop conflict, though maybe a bit more moving than the single-night dance party. I still think ALEX WHEATLE is a tale worth telling, and it looks and sounds just as great as the others. But while the catharsis of change is powerful, and there are moments that stick with you (such as a disturbing one involving a sheet), it is overall more specific to an individual and less relatable than other films in the series.
Still, it’s a worthy inclusion in the series, and McQueen once again proves why he deserves to keep making films such as these. On the strength of this run, I hope SMALL AXE is picked up for a second batch as soon as possible, and I look forward very much to reviewing the final of his five releases.
SMALL AXE ALEX WHEATLE is available now on Amazon Prime streaming video.