Review: Steve McQueen's endearing 'Alex Wheatle' feels slight
Courtesy of Prime Video
Lacking the intensity of “Mangrove,” or energy in “Lovers Rock,” Steve McQueen’s 66 minute portrait of British novelist Alex Wheatle is endearing and thanks to newcomer Sheyi Cole, a worthy addition to the “Small Axe” cannon. But running just over the hour mark, holds the film back from exploring the aspiring DJ who found himself in prison following the 1981 Brixton uprising. McQueen finds plenty to dig into, albeit, some characters and subplots struggle to become fully realized.
When we first meet 18-year-old Alex (Cole) he’s just been thrown into his cell, frightened and angry at the world, adjusting to a new future. His Rastafarian cellmate (an earnest Robbie Gee) gives some powerful advice about understanding the past, but it’s not long before Alex starts narrating what came before and we’re thrusted into McQueen’s memory play.
Given up at birth, Alex spent the majority of his childhood getting beaten by the headmistress of a children’s home and by teachers at school. At one point, he’s literally put in a straight jacket and left on the gym floor motionless and alone. It’s a powerful shot where McQueen lingers on the deadpan glare of Alex’s fractured expression. The subtext being: “How did we get here?”
Thrown out of his foster home at 18, Alex is left to fend for himself in the streets of Brixton, forging community ties and connections with locals, including barbers and new friends Dennis (Jonathan Jules) and Valin (Elliot Edusah). He’s a resourceful kid, quickly acclimating to his surroundings, writing down slick beats in his spare time, and spending an entire paycheck at the record store. All the films in the “Small Axe” anthology have used music as a way of healing wounds and providing hope. “Alex Wheatle” is no different.
I also noticed several ties to the previous entry “Red, White and Blue” in which the police use tactics to control unruly crowds of protesters. Flashbacks of John Boyega’s character training for that exact scenario are fresh. We knew the “Small Axe” features were connected, but throughout the film you start to see McQueen’s entire scope and feel “Alex Wheatle” is a smaller piece in a bigger canvas.
The tragedy of the 1981 New Cross fire - where 13 Black men were killed in a deadly attack that was later ignored by government officials - is presented in a stirring black and white montage underscored by Jamican poet Linton Kwesi Johnson. Later, McQueen puts Alex smack dab in the Brixton Uprising where the brief sequence fails to make an impact. Considering how vital these riots were in history, they could easily take up the length of the movie, but McQueen rushes through important historical moments to ground “Alex Wheatle'' with a more somber message about discovering roots.
“Alex Wheatle” still works as a piece in the “Small Axe” universe, though it struggles on its own. There’s a sprawling, epic mini-series on Wheatle lurking in the wings and Cole is a revelation of talent. A young actor with a promising career that McQueen knew could carry the emotional weight of the picture. My only wish is both of them had gotten to expand on this individual in a more fulfilling light.
Alex Wheatle streams on Prime Video starting Friday, December 11th.