Alex Wheatle (Small Axe) (Review)

There is a scene towards the end of Alex Wheatle in which spoken-word is placed over archive photographs. The combination of poetic words, rhythmic phrasing and captured reality is striking. It is easily the most powerful moment of this short film: showcasing how history looked while contextualising it with an authentic voice, making it hit home more than the imagery alone ever could.

Outside of this, Alex Wheatle falters. The film attempts to tell the true story of the eponymous figure, now a YA novelist. This covers his childhood and early adulthood, starting with growing up in an institutional care home before ending up in Brixton and discovering culture, identity and music. The film gets a lot of leverage out of young Wheatle’s clipped RP voice juxtaposed against the voices of the community around him. This is the source of humour but also lets the film track his growth (in many ways) as his speech starts to slowly match all around him. The story then leads to him getting involved in music and builds up to his arrest in the Brixton uprising. This is known from the start, as it is told through a framing device of Wheatle in jail.

This framing device is an issue. It feels very constructed and lends itself to lots of overt moments. Towards the start we have his cellmate order that he tell his story from the beginning, giving an overt segue into a wider narrative that feels at odds with the focus on naturalism Small Axe has had. This is the first in the series to overtly feel like storytelling – to feel constructed – and this is especially an issue because this overt storytelling always feels in search of a story. This period of Wheatle’s life doesn’t neatly lend itself to one simple narrative and the film spreads itself to thinly – the running time of 65 minutes is just not enough. The end result is something that feels more like disparate narrative threads in which too little is cemented.

There are just too many overt or artificial moments here – including thudding links to the historical events that must come next: like the spontaneous decision to just make music or write a book. These moments may be accurate, but they are affected by the concision of the overall piece where everything thing feels on fast forward. This film is full of lots of important content and, for the first time in the series, does not do enough to make it feel as resonant as it should. Moments that need to be incredibly powerful do not hit the heights that are needed – for the most part.

There is still more than enough here to warrant a strong recommendation. The evocation of place and community – and of a time period – is excellent. There is also some astonishing cinematography that speaks powerfully, and cinematically. Though, even that is not as consistent here as it has been before. This film is a compelling insight into a well realised time and place, marked by strong performances and a great soundtrack. It just feels too incidental much too frequently: the need to race through material making it that not enough of what is covered truly works.

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