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Small Axe: Alex Wheatle

Directed by Steve McQueen; written by Steve McQueen and Alastair Siddons
Review by Dr Roopa Farooki

The Small Axe series is an extraordinary awakening for British film and television, exploring what it has meant to be Black and British through intimate portraits and exploration of key events and struggles for immigrants of Caribbean origin from the 1960s onwards.

Each episode is a self-contained film, but the director Steve McQueen wanted the series to be firmly placed as TV, for his mother to be able to enjoy from her home, for these intimate stories to become part of our intimate family space, our shared experiences.

Each of the films takes an experience and makes it personal, but the Alex Wheatle episode is very much a personal story which opens into a wider narrative of the events he lived through.

We see Alex’s experiences in prison after the Brixton uprising, his watershed moment when he meets someone who loves books the way he loves music, bringing his poetry and innate musicality towards prose. We learn about his abandonment by birth parents, his upbringing in the care system, which gives him a Surrey accent but no sense of home or belonging. And then he discovers a home, a place of belonging, in Brixton. When he first meets his Caribbean neighbours, difference is what defines him, as though he has been flung there from outer space. A voice which doesn’t match his face. But the riotous Dennis teaches him how to fit in. He is adopted, at last, by a community. He adopts their language, their accent, and takes up their common cause against brutality and bigotry.

The recital by actor Sheyi Cole of an extract from Uprising, using Alex’s prose, holding a room captive within his beats, is my favourite scene – the music and the words coming together. The filmed story has a happy ending. Alex speaks to his Brixton friends with his own voice, perhaps accepting it as part of his extraordinary story, and then he speaks of searching for his birth family. A final note tells you that he found them, and that he became a gifted writer for children.

The real story is unfinished, still unfolding. Alex is still adding to his achievements as a writer. Described in the film as a children’s writer, Alex has produced some of the best literary writing by any black British male author. Perhaps he himself chose that focus; he finds unalloyed pleasure in his books for primary school age children and young adults, and in what his books have given to children – a mirror and a window.

This is the intimacy that is missing, perhaps intentionally so, from the film. The depiction of Alex is sincere and assured, performed with both passion and restraint by Sheyi Cole. His privacy is protected. My hope is that McQueen’s film will encourage viewers to seek out Alex Wheatle’s own words, and renew interest in his early books, which explore passion, family, brotherhood, tragedy, and the truth that sometimes there will not be happy endings. For Black British men and women, the story with a neat, happy ending is as yet unfinished.