“There’s enough talk of ism and schism and racism. Me no defend nobody against the charge of racism, cos Rasta don’t discriminate. But the main thing you have to worry about in dis here country is the system of class and classism.”


The penultimate film of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology, Alex Wheatle is a biopic of the British novelist’s early life, culminating with the New Cross fire and the 1981 Brixton riot. The weakest entry in the anthology, it exudes a made-for-TV quality that its siblings escape, routinely feeling restricted in scope and scale. This is not helped by the short running time at just over an hour. As presented on screen, Wheatle is a difficult character with whom to engage since his response to adversity is to dissociate: his vacant visage belies any emotional depth in contrast to similarly lingering shots of Boyega in Red, White and Blue or Shaun Parkes in Mangrove. This is not to say that we feel no sympathy for him; plainly he suffered spending his childhood in the social care system, without family and mistreated by authority figures at home and school. The film is strongest during Wheatle’s fish-out-of-water arrival in London where his Surrey upbringing stands in contrast to the city’s black community with its strong cultural ties. The most telling moment is his naïve response to a warning about the police, “They’re here to help you.” Unfortunately the rapid pacing means we do not really see his character develop organically; instead we are simply presented with scattershot versions — DJ, dealer — occasionally revealing the broken child beneath. It is further fractured by a prison framing device that offers little beyond some fairly trite wisdom from his Rastafarian cellmate. Although it may be disappointing, a weaker entry in the context of an anthology as strong as Small Axe is not to be discounted entirely.


Small Axe anthology: Mangrove | Lovers Rock | Red, White and Blue | Alex Wheatle | Education