One of the few joys of 2020 was Steve McQueenAmazon anthology “Small ax“A series that tells, for the first time, the stories of the black Britons who were oppressed in the 60s and 70s. While”mangrove“Announced authorization through self-expression”Lovers rock“Through music and”Red, white and blue“Through reforms from within”Alex WheatleCalls for literature as a gateway to freedom. In addition to an uneven story and impressive images, the film also offers a clever debut by Sheyi Cole, whose strongest acting takes place in the quietest moments of the film, as the title character.
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“Alex Wheatle” implores his imprisonment from the 1981 Brixton uprising with his chaotic upbringing to explain his transition from cultural outsider to author. Alex is an orphan who is haunted by feelings of abandonment. She lives in the Shirley Oaks Children’s Home under the guise of abusive white adults. He is often slapped in the face by a white woman he calls aunt. He later gets into a fight with a white student after the kid insulted reggae as “Coon … Wop Crap”. As a punishment, the older white teachers throw Alex into a straitjacket and leave his limp body on the gym floor.
Once again, like the other Small Ax films, McQueen and Cameraman Shabier Kirchner combine to make the most indelible photograph of the year. In a floor shot, Alex is lying on the floor in his straitjacket when a streak of sunlight falls across the floor. The camera purposely tracks his expressionless face as if checking his condition, only to see his eyes get lost in a paralyzed void. Alex is so motionless that time stands still when the sensitive lens comes into a close-up of his shadowy face. As if we’re looking for a way to comfort the vulnerable neglected Alex. But we can’t. He is alone in this hell. And so the camera slowly creeps from the shadows back into the light. It’s a moving explanation of McQueen and Kirchner’s isolation, an impenetrable scene from Cole, and they best understand the torture Alex feels when he is forcibly torn from his culture.
If you’re just under 65 minutes of running, you might want the film to stay with Alex at this boys’ home longer to bring to the fore how much this biased white institution has ripped out a hint of its West Indian roots. Instead, Alex moves from the isolated Shirley Oaks to the thriving West Indian borough of Brixton. He’s wearing prep clothes and a classy accent. He stands out badly. His neighbor Dennis (Jonathan Jules), takes the young intruder under his wing and introduces him to the food, clothing, music, and language he has missed. Take Alex’s noble accent, which might as well be a different language from Dennis’ slang. Or Alex’s impression of the police. Everyone in the neighborhood calls them the beasts. But the upstart Alex believes they are there to serve and protect. In every possible way he is a stranger among his own people.
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Ironically, McQueen loses Alex when the character rediscovers his roots. Alex switches to rock hair and leather jackets and then forms the sound system of the music group Crucial Rocker. While Alex uses music to develop his political observations on the oppressive law enforcement that is throttling Brixton, the look into his passion for songwriting is short-lived. A curiosity for an anthology that is so enthusiastic about the power of music. Beats are missing between these events and his imprisonment. It is the prison scenes in which his cellmate, the sage Simeon (Robbie Gee) works to learn Alex’s story, which falls into the generic, and adds little more than a framework to explore Alex’s past. When Simeon instructs Alex to learn about his culture by reading, we wonder how we ended up at this point.
“Alex Wheatle” combines the relevant themes that guide the previous “Small Ax” installments: music as an escape from one’s surroundings, police brutality and a character removed from his community – yet writing struggles to get the most important plot points for to combine the bigger picture with interpretations of Alex’s cultural self-formation. The problem could be in the writing process of the film. McQueen explains to the observer: “In [the ‘Small Axe’ writers’ room] It was also a man named Alex Wheatle who became an amazing person to get information about that time. We ended up making a film about his life because it was so fascinating. “Although McQueen and Alistair Siddons One wonders if her closeness to novelist Wheatle affected her translation of his life, leading to the film feeling crowded, rushed, and not fully considered.
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“Alex Wheatle” is certainly the weakest of the first four “Small Ax” films. The story isn’t that strong. The character is not that indelible. And there are great costumes and wigs, large replicas of the neighborhood and shops from that era, but there is no anchor that can explain to the non-British audience what events led to the 1981 Brixton uprising. The disastrous event is divorced from Alex until it literally lands in his lap. This decision counteracts history. For dramatic purposes, viewers need to witness not only Alex’s growth, but the tensions that build up between Brixton and the law enforcement agencies surrounding him. Perhaps McQueen believes that in the context of “Mangrove” and “Red, White and Blue” the audience can connect the dots, but these films stand alone without the help of their surroundings.
For this reason, “Alex Wheatle” is a good filler film – the episode that tends to the main anthology themes to wrap up the wonderful growing up finale: “Education” – but it does not meet the high standards set in the other breathtaking stories from became the “Small Ax” series, and it is even shorter to use the feeling of abandonment that draws on its subject. [C+]
“Alex Wheatle” will be released on December 11th on Amazon Prime Video.