Every film in Steve McQueen’s five-film series “Small Axe” has interesting characters, and a couple of them are strictly character-driven.
But it’s the milieu and the passing parade of history — real events, pivotal moments in British social justice — that grabbed me. And the further I get into it, the more convinced I am that the whole enterprise is best appreciated in a weekend long binge. Get through “Mangrove,” the densely-packed two hour opener. Adjust your ears to the dialect, the storytelling style and the overarching themes — Londoners from Jamaica, Trinidad, Grenada and The Bahamas overcoming virulent racism to become a vital part of British culture — and the later films just float by on a curry-scented Caribbeans-in-London breeze.
“Alex Wheatle,” the penultimate film, is about a much-honored British writer who overcame an orphaned childhood spent in the child welfare system, prejudice and imprisonment to find his voice and his place as one of his generation’s greatest authors of children’s and young adult fiction.
We meet Alex, born “Alfonso” (riveting screen newcomer Sheyi Cole) on incarceration day. He is shocked and sullen, a skinny waif settling into a cell with a friendly, helpful but oh-so-smelly convict he calls “a nasty rasta” (Robbie Gee, terrific).
As the kid lashes out at his new circumstances in rage, the great bear of a cellmate, the Rastafarian Simeon literally hugs the hate out of him.
“My ears is fully woken,” he says. Tell me your story and “start at the beginning.”
We see the abusive foster care Alfonso endured, the staid conformist attire and dialect he emerged from that system with, and his total immersion in all things Caribbean when he emerges, “on the dole” (“G-checks”) as a teen, taking a room in Brixton.
There’s something to be said for watching this entire series of movies with the subtitles on, which wouldn’t spoil Alfonso’s first meeting with his first mentor, the beret-bedecked hipster Dennis (Jonathan Jules, a delight). The kid is as mystified by the slangy, musical patois as any newcomer would be, as indeed any North American must be.
But not to worry. Dennis will set him up. First, get him out of those “PVC” clothes. I have no more idea what he means than Alfonso did.
A big step? “Learning the proper Black man’s strut…You always hunching like a Storm Trooper hunting the Jedi. You got to be the JEDI hunting the Storm Trooper!”
As the kid masters that, the dialect and getting by — “G-checks” and selling “a little kush” — he finds his first outlet, DJing.
And as all this is going on, the culture clash/racial-strife history we saw “begin” with “Mangrove” in the late ’60s comes to a head. An infamous house party fire — remember, we dove into community house parties with “Lovers Rock” — is on everybody’s lips — “New Cross Massacre” they call it.
That leads to protests, a street march becomes “a riot” and that’s how Alex ends up in prison, taking stock of his life and not even 20 years old.
McQueen makes the viewer work towards understanding the themes and subtexts of these films. He gloriously recreates the jaw-dropping delight the bullied, racially-taunted kid experiences the first time he sees the shops and colorfully-attired street life of “his” people on moving day.
But the state-provided ride there has a wonderful clue about Alfonso’s transition to Alex. The kid hears the long-running BBC radio series “Desert Island Discs” and he catches one of its decades of guests, a writer, talking about hearing music so obviously the product of greatness that he listens to it “just hoping some of that would rub off.”
That first visit to a record store furthers Alex’s transformation. It’s 1980 and he’s just been introduced to yet another whole new world, the one the viewer’s already been shown in “Lovers Rock.”
Departing from the formula or your typical streaming series, McQueen has created five stand-alone movies that intersect, and as they do further illuminate aspects of the culture, characters who shaped it and people like Alex Wheatle and yes, Steve McQueen who emerged from it.
Born in West London in 1969 to parents from Trinidad and Grenada, today a Turner Prize-winning artist, Oscar-winning filmmaker and Commander of the British Empire, no character in McQueen’s “Small Axe” could possibly have seen the day his success would be possible. But they could dream.
MPA Rating: TV-MA, violence, drug use, profanity
Cast: Sheyi Cole, Robbie Gee, Jonathan Jules
Credits: Directed by Steve McQueen, script by Steve McQueen, Alastair Siddons. A BBC Films/Amazon release.
Running time: 1:05