June 20, 2021

Online Premieres: Review of Steve McQueen’s “Small Ax 4: Alex Wheatle” (BBC/Amazon Prime)

The fourth film in the series focuses on the strong childhood and youth experiences of the writer whose name the film is named, a man who grew up in an orphanage away from it all and was brought to the tense Brixton neighborhood as a teenager.

The fourth film in the series SMALL AXE it might as well have the subtitle “How I became a writer«. ALEX WHEATLE tells of some formative episodes in the life of this Alex, today a renowned novelist, starting from his stay in prison in 1981. The film is structured as a series of flashbacks in which the then-adolescent Alex (who was born in 1963) he tells his private cellmate how he got there. And that story, although it has a lot of personal and specific, is also a quite eloquent reflection of the life of the Afro-Caribbean community in England, the thematic center of this series of films.

When Alex appears in jail we see a young man between angry and scared for being there, but nothing suggests his particular story. Upon reaching his cell – perhaps the most comical moment of this film which has quite a few humorous moments – he bumps into Simeon (Robbie Gee), a Rastafarian veteran who is on a hunger strike and, let’s say, has some loud and nasty gastric complications . A politicized and cultured guy, Simeon is interested in knowing the story of this boy who begins in a strict boarding school in Surrey – where his parents left him, abandoned, in 1964 – in which he is one of the few boys who are not white. There he discovers his love for reggae music, something that quickly brings him problems with the authorities, problems that are reflected in one of the strongest shots of the film, very much in the style of HUNGER, another McQueen story that took place in jail.

But the bulk of the story takes place when Alex leaves that horrendous place and is taken to a British social services community home in the Brixton neighborhood of South London. There he is very well received by Dennis (Jonathan Jules), a very nice teenager who has all the streets that Alex lacks. The thing is that the boy has grown up so isolated from everything that, despite his origin, he feels almost like a foreigner there: he does not speak properly (he has an English accent learned at school, very different from the very closed patois who speak in the neighborhood), he does not walk or dress properly, he has no idea of ​​the street codes and he does not know the rites, foods, habits and customs that are common to everyone there. Except for one: music. His life seems focused on saving money, going to the local record store, and buying every reggae record imaginable. Your dream is to have your own crew and play at the local parties.

With some comings and goings to the narrative axis of the jail, which ALEX WHEATLE will be showing is the journey of this boy towards an increasingly strong politicization, which erupts in the famous Brixton riots of 1981, which will be the central nucleus of the drama – resolved with an original economy of resources – and what will deposit it in the jail. The shortness of the film conspires a bit against his credibility, as Alex’s brutal transformation from a boy lost in the neighborhood to a militant, protest songwriter and trafficker (in addition to having perfected his slang) is displayed too quickly. Although taking into account that he arrived in jail with just 18 years it is likely that his street education has been that fast.

Perhaps less effective than the previous ones (see the reviews of the first three films, here) but equally valuable when it comes to understanding that moment in the history of the Afro-Caribbean community in Great Britain (the one here is, specifically, the Jamaican from Brixton, so influential in music), ALEX WHEATLE puts the struggles, tensions and problems with the police and authorities back into perspective, focusing more than anything on the lives of a group of neighborhood youth whose marginal lives, beyond specific issues, could take place almost anywhere else in the world. world.

It is that friendship, drugs, music, neighborhood codes and confrontations with the police are the almost universal condiments of the film. Except that being a character “without history”, Alex functions almost like the spectators, observing and learning every day from the experience. By apprehending that history and being aware of your place in that world (“I’m not African,” he tells a neighborhood hairdresser when he first arrives there), he will gradually become part of that community. And his time in jail, perhaps ironically, will transform him once again. Only this time to turn him into an individual with his own ideas but aware of his place in the world and his history.


ALEX WHEATLE’s music is on the Official Playlist of the complete series on Spotify. The specific one for this episode begins with “Satta Massagana” and runs through to the classic “Natural Mystic” by Bob Marley.