by Charles Kirkland Jr.
The Small Axe series of Amazon Prime continues with the story of one of the most respected West Indian writers in London, Alex Wheatle.
As the cell door closes, a very angry young man named Alex Alphonso Wheatle (Sheyi Cole) reflects upon his life, his interactions with the police, or “The Beast” as they are known in his community, and the direction of his life. Despite this forced personal meditation, it is the interaction with Simeon (Robbie Gee), his cellmate on a hunger strike, that will have the most impact upon him. Simeon will get the former foster child to discover his identity and value his heritage.
Written and directed by Alastair Siddons (Tomb Raider) and Steve McQueen, Alex Wheatle stars Cole and Gee with Asad-Shareef Muhammad, Jonathan Jules, Elliot Edusah, and Khali Best. Wheatle is the story of the famous writer known for the classics Liccle Bit and Brixton Rock.
As the latest part of Amazon’s Small Axe series, McQueen gives an intimate look into the life and start of the celebrated writer with an opening in a jail. The setting is the perfect start for the story because Wheatle’s experience in jail and his mentoring by his cellmate Simeon is credited for the evolution of the man into who he is today. Because the movie starts in jail we are led to believe that the story is at its end but it is only the start of the life of a man who rose to receive the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 2008. McQueen’s movie deftly explores the rearing of the foster child in a system that stripped him of his identity and how he struggled to find his voice.
The younger Wheatle is portrayed well by young Asad-Shareef Muhammad who sets the tone for the older Alex by being hot-tempered and out of touch with himself in an environment that did not understand him and forced him into compliance with a world where he had no belonging. Everything, from his clothes, to his speech and even his walk, had to be recreated and realigned by the time the teenager aged out of the system that “fostered” him. His new friend Dennis (Jonathan Jules) would see to that. Dennis becomes instrumental in the discovery of Alex’s love of reggae music and his development into an MC starting the Crucial Rocker sound system.
Unlike his previous work in this series, McQueen’s deliberate pacing is mostly absent in this film. There are a couple of pensive pauses in this movie but they are nowhere near as long and dramatic as in the other films of this series or in his Oscar-winning, Moonlight. Alex Wheatle plays much more like a documentary biography than dramatic storytelling. Regardless, McQueen maintains his authenticity in this film. The words, the accents, the clothing, and the rhythms continue to be definitely Jamaican (except for those of the young child Wheatle) and exact for the time. He does not shy away from the fact that, at times, many will have no idea exactly what his company of unknown actors is saying but trusts in the ability to communicate their feelings through their emotions.
Rated TV-MA for profanity, alcohol, drugs, and smoking and frightening and some violence, Alex Wheatle allows the viewers to understand how the knowledge of culture and history are instrumental in the development of identity and positive social adjustment. It is a wonderful and poignant commentary that has special relevance in this current day of BLM and social justice.