Alex Wheatle: what the latest Small Axe film can teach us about confronting the UK’s racist history

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The fourth film in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series is a powerful lesson on why we must understand the past in order to move forward.

Underpinning this week’s episode of Small Axe, Steve McQueen’s critically acclaimed miniseries on BBC One, are timely ideas about the importance of understanding our heritage and history. It tells the true story of the award-winning author Alex Wheatle, who was taken into care in the 1960s as a small boy and raised in Shirley Oaks in majority-white Surrey.

Housed in an abusive care home and educated at a violently racist school, the young Alex (played by Asad-Shareef Muhammad) knows nothing about his parents or his Jamaican background. He’s never heard of reggae, and when his Jamaican friend Dennis’ (Jonathan Jules) sister asks about his own family, he can’t answer. 

There’s a clear link between Alex’s detachment from his Blackness and his desperate, devastating loneliness. One agonising moment sees him listening to Desert Island Discs on BBC Radio 4, as the author Roald Dahl chuckles in his upper-crust accent that he’d “love” to be alone on a desert island. The contrast with Alex’s genuine, enforced isolation – he might as well be abandoned on an island, for all the community he’s found in Surrey – is painful.

sheyi cole as alex wheatle in small axe
Small Axe: Sheyi Cole as Alex Wheatle, shortly upon arriving in Brixton

Everything changes when Alex moves from the care home in Surrey to a hostel in Brixton. Actor Sheyi Cole, who plays the teenage and adult Alex, does something astonishing with his face as he glides through south London in the back of a car: staring out of the window at streets populated almost entirely by Black people, he looks suddenly lit from within, as though he can’t believe such a place exists.

It’s in Brixton that Alex meets Dennis, who teaches him (for a small fee) how to walk, talk, dress and act like a confident young Jamaican man (lesson number one: the police are not your friends). He’s also introduced to Black people who take passionate pride in their roots, such as the barber who tells him forcibly that he is African – rebuffing Alex’s cheery declaration that “I might be Black, but I’m from Surrey”.

Alex Wheatle Small Axe
Small Axe: Khali Best as Badger, Sheyi Cole as Alex and Jonathan Jules as Dennis in Alex Wheatle

The film starts and (almost) ends in prison, where Alex has been sent for participating in the 1981 Brixton Uprising. He’s sharing a cell with Simeon (Robbie Gee), an ageing Rastafarian on hunger strike because the guards won’t serve him Ital food.

Simeon impresses upon Alex the importance of understanding Black history, and tells him to start by reading The Black Jacobins by Trinidadian historian CLR James – an account of the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804, when self-liberated slaves successfully overthrew the French colonial government. (This isn’t the first time the book has appeared in a Small Axe film: it also makes a cameo in Mangrove, where it’s seen in the hands of activist Darcus Howe.)

“Education, Alex,” says Simeon. “Education is the key… If you don’t know your past, then you won’t know your future.”

Sheyi Cole in Small Axe: Alex Wheatle
Sheyi Cole as Alex Wheatle in Steve McQueen's fourth Small Axe film

It’s a powerful line, and one that sums up the driving force behind the entire Small Axe series. From the Mangrove Nine to Leroy Logan, Steve McQueen’s films are shining a light on Black British stories that have never been given such a prominent platform before.

For many viewers, this episode may be their first introduction to the New Cross fire of 1981, in which 13 young Black people aged between 14 and 22 died at a house party. Initially, police believed the house had been firebombed in a racist attack – a plausible explanation at a time when racial tensions were running high in that part of south-east London and far-right group the National Front was active in the area

Yet officers later ruled the fire had been started accidentally inside the house, prompting an outpouring of pain and frustration from the local Black community that contributed to the Brixton Uprising a few months later.

Small Axe: Fumilayo Brown-Olateju as Dawn in Alex Wheatle
Small Axe: Fumilayo Brown-Olateju as Dawn in Alex Wheatle

Part of the UK’s problem with race lies with the fact that too many of us don’t know these stories — hence the ongoing campaign to get more Black British history onto UK school curriculums. (Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine a world in which the Small Axe series is shown in GCSE history lessons.) If you don’t know about the background to the Brixton Uprising, or the events that led to the trial of the Mangrove Nine, it’s easier to refuse to acknowledge this country’s deep legacy of state-enforced and state-supported racism. 

Ignoring the UK’s racist past doesn’t erase it, just as denying the existence of racism today doesn’t eliminate it. But too many white Britons, including the current leader of the House of Commons, still reject the idea that we should educate ourselves about the ugliest parts of the UK’s history, arguing instead that we should be proud of our nation’s past – as though history is a homogeneous object that we can only endorse or condemn.

Alex Wheatle dismantles that argument. Its message is that we can only move forward once we’re prepared to see our past clearly. The Small Axe series, in all its beautiful, empathetic, painful glory, is an extraordinary example of how film can help us do just that. 

Images: BBC 

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Moya Crockett

Moya is Contributing Women’s Editor at stylist.co.uk and Deputy Editor of Stylist Loves, Stylist's daily email newsletter.