Small Axe is for the most part a gift of history and perspective. Steve McQueen’s curation of
1960s-1980s Black history in the United Kingdom continues to make up for lost time with Alex
Wheatle, a 65-minute biopic of the eponymous author in his formative years trying to figure out
who he is in the midst of shifting interests, social unrest, and a stint in prison. As with the
Mangrove Nine and Leroy Logan, McQueen has handpicked a figure betrayed by the system put
in place to protect him and all citizens. And like them, he’s able to turn this trauma into poetry,
albeit far more literally.
Newcomer Sheyi Cole plays Alex with a distant loneliness that becomes the center of the film
(with Asad-Shareef Muhammad as a younger version). Growing up in a congregate care facility
in south London that is friendly toward physical abuse, he eventually finds himself dreaming up
lyrics and verses in a social services home in Brixton shortly before the 1981 riots. Finally finding
a place in his community, Alex notably rejects his African roots in an early scene. Naturally, that
doesn’t stop the police from ripping him out of bed shortly after the riots and throwing him in
McQueen and co-writer Alastair Siddons (also credited on Mangrove and the forthcoming final
entry Education) smartly jumble up the timeline, so as not to create too linear of a biopic for
the 65-minute runtime. Like much of Small Axe thus far, the pacing is economic, allowing for
the straight-forward point to come across with ease by the time the credits roll. Easing between
Alex’s adolescent traumas and his illuminating prison conversations with cellmate Simeon
(Robbie Gee, stealing just about every moment of screentime he gets), the film is fast and
Without these shifts, Alex Wheatle wouldn’t be able to generate interest nearly as successfully.
Part of that is due to the somewhat limited range Cole is given to work with throughout. While
his performance helps generate the film’s powerful themes, and is given an impressive and
staggering physical feat to master as McQueen’s camera slowly zooms in at a pivotal moment,
the script purposefully doesn’t push Alex to a measurably emotive place. He’s largely stoic, and
that’s much of the point, but there are a few missed opportunities to connect with the
But his story and his journey as McQueen presents them are undeniably rich. Alex’s arc is about
generating interest in his roots from within himself, given that his unfortunate history has all
but erased where he came from, a fact too often true to this day for Black people whose
ancestors went through the slave trade and got lost along the way. McQueen thankfully
delivers inspiration just in the nick of time after such a bleak narrative. Alex Wheatle ends on a
lovely note that projects its title figure’s shifting passions as his past becomes part of his future.
His story is intrinsic to what Small Axe has been all about up to this point, and thus another worthy addition to the series, even if it can’t measure up to the care and precision of Mangrove
or the sheer magic of Lovers Rock.