Steve McQueen’s landmark anthology series continues with a mini-biopic of British novelist Alex Wheatle – a DJ who found literature in prison after getting involved in the 1981 Brixton uprising. Shorter and slighter than any of the other Small Axe chapters at 66 minutes, it’s a frustratingly quick snapshot of a much bigger picture, but there’s still plenty to admire in the frame.
We meet Alex (newcomer Sheyi Cole) when he first walks into his cell – a frightened, confused 18-year-old who’s thrown behind bars with an incontinent Rastafarian on hunger strike played by Robbie Gee (Snatch, Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest). McQueen allows himself a brief throwback to his debut, Hunger (2008) – another hunger strike in another prison that took place the same year – but we don’t spend long in the cell before Alex starts narrating his life story.
Beaten in a children’s home and beaten in school, Alex’s background (played as a child by Asad-Shareef Muhammad) is marked by casual violence and deeply entrenched racism. In a fleeting flashback, McQueen delivers one of the most powerful shots of his career – a slow pan into Muhammad’s face as he lies bound, broken and motionless on the floor of a school gym, and a slow pan back out again to the ironic strains of BBC4’s Desert Island Discs.
Spat out onto the streets of Brixton, adult Wheatle is cast adrift in a community he knows nothing about (“I might be Black, but I’m from Surrey,” he says in a clipped Home Counties accent, baffling a barbershop full of Londoners who only speak Patois). Hanging out with friends Dennis (Jonathan Jules, Fighting With My Family) and Valin (Elliot Edusah, 1917), Alex gradually finds himself – along with a deep love of music that he discovers in the backstreet record stores of Brixton Market.
Suddenly we’re thrown right into the tragedy of the 1981 New Cross fire (where 13 young Black people were killed in a suspected arson attack, later ignored by the government) – powerfully seen here in black and white news photos beneath the spoken words of Jamaican poet Linton Kwesi Johnson’s New Cross Massakah. Moments later we see Alex in the middle of the Brixton Uprising, but McQueen squashes the action into one street and a single scene – making it feel far smaller than it should. The riots were an explosive cultural moment in modern British history, exposing the extent of institutional racism across the country and influencing everything from Eddy Grant’s ‘Electric Avenue’ to Wheatle’s own 2001 novel, East Of Acre Lane. Here though, they’re a quick clip at the end of a glorified short – another speedy anecdote to finish off an annoyingly brief story.
Lacking the scope of Mangrove, the intimacy of Lovers Rock and the power of Red, White And Blue, Alex Wheatle feels like it’s saving a seat for next week’s Small Axe finale, Education. Cole is remarkable in his first role, a handful of scenes sting with anger, and Shabier Kirchner’s cinematography and Helen Scott’s production design both elevate this way above pretty much everything else on the BBC, but it’s frustrating to think what McQueen could have done with Wheatle’s story if he gave it a bit more space to grow.
- Director: Steve McQueen
- Starring: Sheyi Cole, Jonathan Jules, Robbie Gee
- Released: December 6 (BBC One)