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Small Axe: Alex Wheatle, BBC One review - elliptical telling of a writer's troubled early life | reviews, news & interviews

Small Axe: Alex Wheatle, BBC One review - elliptical telling of a writer's troubled early life

Small Axe: Alex Wheatle, BBC One review - elliptical telling of a writer's troubled early life

Steve McQueen engages powerful performances and fine filming to show rather than tell

Akex Wheatle (Sheyi Cole) with Brixton friends Badger (Khali Best) and Dennis (Jonathan Jules)©Will Robson-Scott; BBC

Anyone who expects traditional narrative in Steve McQueen’s five Small Axe films about the black experience in the London of the 1970s and 80s will be disappointed.

It seems to me that the most experimental of the four so far screened, Lovers Rock, holds us in a unique world between dream and reality, a masterpiece, but it’s had the most stick so far. The others have specific true stories to tell, and they do it surprisingly. Red, White and Blue explored only the early days of Leroy Logan, before the point when his war on racism in the police force could make a difference; now Alex Wheatle stops at a similar point, when the future novelist, still in his teens, decides he’ll become a writer.

The style is more telegraphic and suggestive than Mangrove or Red, White and Blue, and moves with sometimes bewildering speed through flashback and the seminal prison scenes where Wheatle tells us his love of reading was inspired by a hunger-striking Rastifarian cell mate, Simeon, who turns teacher and father figure (a lovely performance from Robbie Gee, pictured below). Like John Boyega's Logan in Red, White and Blue, newcome Sheyi Cole’s Wheatle tells us all we need to know about the watchfulness of an intelligent but in this case emotionally scarred young man. In Red, White and Blue the camerawork took in the full detail of what Logan sees in the police headquarters and college of his first steps, while here so much is firmly on Best’s expressions, from suspicious and hostile to the acquired surface confidence of a Surrey boy turned streetwise Brixton man.

We glean what we need to know about the Shirley Oaks Children’s Home and School where the abandoned child was brought up in short scenes: the casual brutality of a home “auntie”, the swift removal of the fighting schoolboy, straitjacketed and thrown to the floor of the gym – one of McQueen’s most memorable silent scenes (his careful use of music throughout this series is always unerring). Shabier Kirchner’s always superb cinematorgraphy moves the camera slowly in to the frozen kid lying there behind a slant of sunlight and back out again (the shot from above of Wheatle in the prison yard is a stunning composition, too). Robbie Gee as Simeon in 'Alex Wheatle'Then we’re whisked from Surrey to London in a car, the radio playing Desert Island Discs with Roald Dahl as guest – the first hint of Wheatle’s possible interest in the vocation of the writer – and on to a Brixton hostel where the guarded youth is befriended by Jonathan Jules’s flamboyant Dennis. In six months, his accent is more Jamaican than Surrey, and he’s spending what little money he gets on records. “It was always about the music,” Wheatle tells his cellmate later about the drug-dealing he used to fund his massive sound-system and new life as a musical poet.

In a feature-length film you imagine that the Brixton riots would have had more space, more sense of a climactic set piece; but McQueen has already depicted a clash in depth when a peaceful protest in Mangrove is brutalized by the police. The necessary feeling of the bigger picture here comes in Linton Kwesi Johnson’s reading of “New Cross Massahkah”, in which 13 black Londoners lost their lives when a petrol bomb set a house party alight - one of the prompts for the riots. The photos used also focus the anger and injustice. In a way it’s a pity that the powerful words can’t be Wheatle’s own; his second novel East of Acre Lane takes the riots as its subject. This is the nearest McQueen comes to homaging the writer’s profession, apart from the typed credits which follow on from the hopeful final scene in which the crucial offer is made of an old machine for £10.

Maybe another 15 minutes would have helped to enlarge some of the themes, while others are perfect in their elliptical form. More than its companions, perhaps, Alex Wheatle needs to be seen within its Small Axe context. There are neat references to the neighbouring films – rasta Nelson produces a copy of C L R James’s The Black Jacobins, also a part of Mangrove, and the lust for giant speakers reminds us of the big party to big sounds in Lovers Rock. You also have that sick feeling of "here we go again" as yet another police raid breaks the peace, as they did repeatedly in Mangrove. Any one of these films, seen in the cinema by itself, would impress; that there are five of them under the BBC’s aegis still seems like the big TV miracle of 2020.

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