“Alex Wheatle,” the fourth installment of Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” film series, begins with Alex (Sheyi Cole) staring blankly into space as if traumatized. He has good reason; it’s his first day in prison. His state of shock continues as he is marched into the cell he will share with Simeon (Robbie Gee). “It stinks in here,” Alex protests as he’s shoved into his new home, and he’s about to discover why. Simeon is an older man with massive dreadlocks and an even more massive gastrointestinal problem brought on by a hunger strike. More than once, Simeon will go to town on the porcelain bus while the soundtrack echoes the famous baked beans sequence in “Blazing Saddles.” Pushed to his limits, Alex fights his much larger cellmate, resulting in Simeon restraining him and demanding “What’s your story?”
This is an unusual way to set up a true story told in flashbacks, but Simeon’s question expresses the major theme of the film. “Alex Wheatle” explores how its titular character discovered and honed his identity. Unlike the other people we’ve seen in the prior three installments of the film series, Alex doesn’t come fully formed in his Black British identity. He’s like the country mouse who has come to a city where the folks look like him but don’t act like him. Alex’s eventual running buddy Dennis (Jonathan Jules) notices just how clueless he is about vernacular and fashion as soon as they meet. Dennis mocks him relentlessly, but soon becomes his mentor and his guide through the neighborhood.
Alex’s unfamiliarity with the traits that are practically intrinsic to Dennis and his crew is due to him growing up in mostly White foster homes and institutions, places where any shreds of knowledge about his heritage were often met with violence. McQueen doesn’t dwell on these acts of brutality, but at one point, series cinematographer Shabier Kirchner lingers on Alex’s face as he lays on the floor in the straitjacket unfairly imposed on him by school security. The camera pulls away, but slowly returns to the young man’s stunned expression. It’s a mirror image of his facial expression in the opening shot, except there are still flickers of innocence in his eyes. The visage on the adult, jail-bound Alex is completely devoid of any hope.
As in the other installments, music plays a major part in the development and enjoyment of our protagonists. Alex and Dennis hang out at record stores, with Alex getting an education in the same reggae music that caused him trouble back at school. He puts records on layaway and even becomes a selector at parties. McQueen and his co-writer Alastair Siddons foreshadow the ties between Alex’s love for music and his eventual career as an author of young adult books by giving us a snippet of a radio interview where author Roald Dahl talks about listening to “good music” like Beethoven before he starts writing. That comment is drowned out by reggae music, as if replacing Dahl’s musical inspirations with Alex’s own.
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.