Steve McQueen’s movie anthology series “Small Axe” firmly held my attention as I watched its first three movies, which were incidentally shown at a number of major films festivals including the New York Film Festival before all of five films were shown on BBC One in UK and released on Amazon Prime in US around the end of the last year. While “Mangrove” surprised me a lot as fully engaging me throughout its 2-hour running time, “Lovers Rock” mellowed me a bit as showing McQueen’s warmer and tenderer side, and “Red, White and Blue” impressed me a lot as calmly but powerfully depicting two different personal struggles against the system and its racism.
Compared to these three strong predecessors, “Alex Wheatle”, the fourth entry of the series, looks rather weaker in comparison. Like “Mangrove” and “Red, White and Blue”, it is based on a real-life story, and it is also prominently drive by reggae music like “Lovers Rock”, but the overall result sometimes suffers from its curiously unfocused storytelling, and I found myself losing patience despite its relatively short running time (66 minutes).
The movie opens with its young titular hero, played by newcomer Sheyi Cole, being transferred to his new prison cell in the middle of his imprisonment period. As being stuck with his new cellmate, Wheatle soon comes to clash with his new cellmate, but his new cellmate easily suppresses Wheatle within a minute, and, as trying to calm down Wheatle, he asks about Wheatle’s past, and the movie promptly examines Wheatle’s early years, which were full of emotional scars he acquired from here and there. Abandoned by both of his biological parents right after his birth, young Wheatle frequently experienced abuses from his foster mother, and, not so surprisingly, he grew up to become a problematic teenager who kept getting himself into troubles.
When he finally enters adulthood, Wheatle is allowed to live alone by himself, and he is sent to a shabby one-room residence located in the middle of a black neighborhood of London, but he feels quite awkward to say the least as an outsider who is not so familiar to many things in his new world. For example, he does not know a number of local slangs such as “Babylon”, and his accent surely sounds quite different from how his new neighbors speak (Due to their thick local accent, it is sometimes difficult to understand for us what the hell they are talking about, so I sincerely recommend you to watch the movie with English subtitle).
Anyway, things are not entirely bad for Wheatle thanks to a small-time criminal who gladly takes Wheatle under his wings right from their first encounter. Although he is still clumsy in many aspects, Wheatle comes to learn more and more from his new friend as time goes by, and he eventually gets accustomed more to his street life of crime.
In the meantime, Wheatle gradually becomes more fascinated with reggae music. He frequently drops by a local record shop for buying any latest album from his favourite artists, and he also gets interested in making a sound system good enough to sell to others along with drug. He is subsequently involved with a local crime organization for getting more money and advance, and there is a little amusing moment when he has to show those criminals that he is not an undercover cop at all despite his accent.
However, Wheatle is also reminded of how things can be quite grim for him and many other black dudes in his neighborhood. Although he has been more careful than before, he is well aware that he can be arrested by the police at any point, and a certain tragic real-life incident reminds him and many other black people of how they frequently cope with racism and inequality everyday. Around that narrative point, the movie stops for a while as presenting a series of photographs of the aftermath of that incident, and I must say that, along with the accompanying narration, these photographs are more impactful than the story itself.
That incident led to riots and demonstrations from black people during that time, and that was how Wheatle got arrested and then incarcerated. Thanks to his new cellmate, Wheatle slowly goes through a process of enlightenment via a bunch of books given to him by his new cellmate, and he comes to realize the importance of knowing the past for advancing toward the future. Once he gets out of the prison, he searches for who he really is, and there is a small touching moment when he comes across someone close to him in the past.
Although the screenplay by McQueen and his co-writer Alastair Siddons stumbles more than once as merely scratching the surface of its titular hero’s dramatic life story, McQueen’s competent direction still holds our attention to some degree, and Cole’s earnest performance is good enough to carry the film at its center. In case of several supporting performers surrounding Cole, Jonathan Jules and Robbie Gee are solid as two different important figures in Wheatle’s life, and Jules did a good job of balancing his character between charm and sleaziness.
In conclusion, “Alex Wheatle” is the least satisfying entry in the series as feeling more like an aborted prelude, but it is not entirely without engaging elements at least, and it mostly works as another story added to the big picture envisioned by McQueen. Along with the next entry, “Education”, the movie makes a point on the importance of enlightenment in fighting against racism and inequality, so I will not complain for now.