One of the rather intriguing quirks of Steve McQueen’s very fine ‘Small Axe’ series of five films, delineating the backlash of racism that the West Indian blacks faced in Britain in the 1970s and 80s, is that the films in the series end with the struggle. We never see the protagonists enjoying the fruits of their success.
Alex Wheatle went on to become a celebrated author after being incarcerated for participating in racial riots in Britain in 1981. He comes out determined to fight the system. The last we see of him is in a park where he meets an old friend whom he tells of his plans to take to writing. The rest of the rather sluggish film goes into Alex’s life on the streets struggling to compose music and stay afloat.
Unlike the other four films in this highly-rated series, Alex Wheatle has no family to support his struggles and dreams. He is on his own. The closest he comes to forming a bond is when he is put into a stinking cell with a racial protester Simeon (Robbie Gee), a massive bulk of a man with ambitions of being a philosopher. He soon becomes Alex’s guide and mentors and impresses on the young man the importance of reading books.
It all feels a tad too didactic and virtuous, like a visit to a reformatory school for juvenile delinquents where we are shown the path to salvation. There is no dramatic core to the plot. Though seamlessly played by newcomer Sheyi Cole, Alex Wheatle barely comes alive as he goes from an abused childhood in a foster home to an abused adolescence under police surveillance.
The life that is tackled here is way too complicated to be put across so insouciantly. The film at times seems as aimless as its protagonist. Alex wants to be a musician, but then he also wants to be a writer. By the time Alex finds his bearings, the film seems to have lost it. There is a lot of warmth especially in the sequences where Alex bonds with his unlikely mentor and guide. But eventually, it all boils down to a biopic that doesn’t quite get the focused attention it deserves
Written & Directed by Steve McQueen Alex Wheatle gets 2 and a half stars.
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