Small Axe: Alex Wheatle

The fourth installment in the “Small Axe” series titled “Alex Wheatle” is arguably the weakest of the four I've seen. That is certainly no personal criticism of the award-winning writer Alex Wheatle, whose life the film covers, but definitely a step down in the pedigree we’ve come to expect. Our story follows Wheatle from when he was just a young boy to his time as a young adult before he became a writer. From his time in a white institutional care home, he makes his moment of self-discovery in the south London district of Brixon, he finds a passion for music. This passion helps him the most when he’s thrown in prison in the Brixton uprising of 1981. Certainly, a lot of information to maintain, it’s crammed in too small of a package. 

Over the course of these films, Steve McQueen has wanted to expose audiences to relatively unknown history. In installments like “Mangrove” and “Red, White, and Blue,” you learn a lot of intricate details in how these stories unfolded. Being a meager 68 minutes makes Wheatle rush through moments that I would've loved to see expanded upon. Add to it a rather cliched ending and you get a film that plays like a weak PBS adaption. It's rather unfortunate because I’m sure the life of Wheatle had much more of a meditative quality than the film wants to convey. I can only help but wonder if the overly tight running time stems from the fact of McQueen having a co-writer. While I was watching, it just felt as if two different styles were consistently clashing.

That being said, “Wheatle” is certainly not a total disaster in any sense of the world. Much like his previous three installments, McQueen crafts the story by establishing a strong world around him. Alex being from an incredible and unnecessarily sheltered background allows moments of pure joy when he discovers what he’s been missing. Between times of trying new foods and finding his love for being a DJ, it’s purely euphoric. First-time actor Sheyi Cole is absolutely dynamic on screen especially in how he conveys Alex’s wide-eyed innocence. There’s a particular moment where he tries a meal and his reaction is one of the most genuinely joyous moments I’ve seen all year.

Even in his time in prison, Cole conveys this struggling artist’s mentality that is quite difficult to do. As McQueen has written the character, we never actually see him sit down to write. We witness the “spark” he has, not through him sitting down to write, but in his experiences of life. It truly is special watching this history unfold because you see the formation of a “genius” in the making. I just wish that McQueen let us live in those moments more, instead of quickly jumping from one to another. Thankfully with Cole as our guide, there’s definitely no issue with the film being slow.

Amongst the “Small Axe” series, “Alex Wheatle” is the one that is arguably the most modest in its execution. It’s not necessarily as layered and nuanced as its predecessors but tells this story with nothing but good intentions. On its own, it doesn’t necessarily make distinct choices that let it stand out. As a part of the collective whole, it serves as another interesting idea from McQueen on the process of a creative artist. I certainly will not tell anyone to avoid the film, but to please go in with lower expectations. It’s a thoroughly entertaining but overly simplistic piece in a complex and moving tapestry.

Rating: 3/5

Watch the trailer here.

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