Welcome to What’s the Buzz, 25YL’s feature where members of our staff provide you with recommendations on a weekly basis. In our internet age, there is so much out there to think about watching, reading, listening to, etc., that it can be hard to separate the wheat from the chaff, filter out the noise, or find those diamonds in the rough. But have no fear! We’re here to help you do that thing I just described with three different metaphors. Each week a rotating cast of writers will offer their recommendations based on things they have discovered. They won’t always be new to the world, but they’ll be new to us, or we hope new to you. This week, Hal Kitchen is watching the final two films of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe (Alex Wheatle and Education), Rachel Stewart is listening to Tori Amos’ Christmastide EP, Hawk Ripjaw is enjoying Aunty Donna’s Big Ol’ House of Fun on Netflix, and Emma Gilbert recommends FoxyJoel on Twitch.
Small Axe: Alex Wheatle
Hal: Part four in Steve McQueen consistently impressive five part series of features on 20th Century British history, Alex Wheatle tells less a coming of age and more a journey to maturity for its subject, novelist Alex Wheatle. Born in 1963 and given over to foster care as an infant, Alex grew up with little understanding of Afro-Caribbean culture or even his own identity, with no loving family to mould him. As we all do, as he grew older, he came into a fuller understanding of who he wanted to be and his responsibility to the community that took him in. There’s a quietly devastating power in the moments of loneliness that punctuate the story—one moment in which Alex quietly slopes away from his first family Christmas, tears of joy and loss wetting his cheeks, had my own eyes welling with recognition. There’s no doubt that this was, for me, the most personally relatable of all the Small Axe features thus far. The pain of not knowing who you are, through having had no one to teach you, leaving you with only rage against those who reject you, is a raw wound from my own childhood, though it was nowhere near as rough as Alex’s.
Alex’s story is told mostly in flashback, as Alex finds himself sharing a prison cell with a sympathetic Rastafarian, who encourages him to share his story. After coming of age he was released from the care system and made friends with working class black people for the first time, discovering his own ethnic culture, half as an outsider, half as if he had merely forgotten. Through the influence of his new friends and new community, he discovers the twin defining factors in his life, artistic self-expression and political activism, following the New Cross fire and subsequent riots.
At the film’s centre is a withdrawn, but fantastically physical performance by Sheyi Cole. So much of his growth as a character, and therefore of the story, is demonstrated merely through the way he moves and carries himself. He initially cuts a fragile and spectral figure, physically a mere sapling, naturally either hostile or fearful of those around him, eventually unraveling the ways of his new community and finding himself through music and books.
Alex Wheatle is as small and vulnerable as its subject, often feeling pressed and warped to hit the right notes in the right order, at times feeling over-tightened or meandering, but it has a humane poignancy and simplicity that keeps it engaging enough to draw you into the few moments of real emotional resonance.