Small Axe: Alex Wheatle movie review (2020)

As Alex comes into his own (and gets some amusing lessons from Dennis) his demeanor changes. He has the swagger and the clothes of his peers, he spits the right lingo and he has a crew. He also learns about the side hustles that run through the neighborhood and sees the growing level of injustice perpetrated by the law and the government. These things should bind him in shared experience to his peers, yet he still carries the scars of what befell him growing up. “I can’t know how deep your pain,” Dennis tells him, “but I’ll always look after you.” Music becomes a strong bond between the duo, who hope to gain fame by creating a new sound.

That dream takes money, which leads Alex to the employ of the neighborhood drug kingpin Cutlass (Johann Myers). Myers steals the movie with his eccentric portrayal, scarfing down food while forcing Alex to completely disrobe to verify he is not wired. Cutlass even questions Alex’s accent, proving that all that Caribbean practice didn’t take all the British out of it. Once this deal is made, one assumes that drug sales are how Alex winds up with Simeon, but it’s more complicated than that. Here’s where research on the 1981 Brixton riot will come in handy.

Of the five films in McQueen’s opus, “Alex Wheatle” is the one I liked least. It is not a bad film, it just feels so much smaller and more unfinished than the others. The framework structure, despite good acting by Gee, is extraneous and generic. Granted, it may be a tad unfair to wage comparisons with its companion pieces, but “Small Axe” is held together by the repeated themes it interrogates across the series. Even as a standalone feature, this installment falters by keeping its main character at arm’s length. We never get close enough to Alex Wheatle to feel as if we know him. Despite my mild dissatisfaction, I believe that distancing is on purpose, a part of the film’s design. Even after his big, emotional scene and his decision to start writing about his experiences, our protagonist is still growing, still learning who he is. He’s incomplete as the film ends, and the movie reflects that in its construction and its execution. Cole does a good job playing these intentions, but he’s overshadowed by the more intriguing supporting characters. Still, the questions raised here are interesting ones that we rarely see applied to Black people in movies, which is important. As far as satisfaction goes, however, your mileage may vary.

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