Small Axe: Alex Wheatle and the New Cross Fire Story
Last night marked the penultimate episode of Steve McQueen's BBC anthology series, Small ax. The fourth film, titled Alex Wheatle, is named after award-winning British novelist Alex Alphonso Wheatle MBE, who was sentenced to prison after the Brixton uprising in 1981. The episode follows the story of Wheatle's heartbreaking beginnings - the abuse he suffered […]

Program name: Small Ax - TX: 12/06/2020 - Episode: Alex Wheatle (# 4) - Photo shows: Simeon (ROBBIE GEE) - (C) McQueen Limited - Photographer: Parisa Taghizadeh

Last night marked the penultimate episode of Steve McQueen's BBC anthology series, Small ax. The fourth film, titled Alex Wheatle, is named after award-winning British novelist Alex Alphonso Wheatle MBE, who was sentenced to prison after the Brixton uprising in 1981.

The episode follows the story of Wheatle's heartbreaking beginnings - the abuse he suffered at a predominantly white children's home in London's Shirley Oaks, and the racist experience of school, in his sole marginally best location in Brixton social service hostel. Wheatle, played by Sheyi Cole, documents his experiences of abuse, racial injustice, and an attempt to assimilate into a culture previously unknown to him (which has been confirmed by Wheatle on its website). A black man's struggle in a white world is particularly evident here, as Wheatle displays an almost overwhelming disconnection with his culture and a distorted view of his sense of belonging, noting early on that he is "not African" , but rather from Surrey.

Program Name: Little Ax - TX: 12/06/2020 - Episode: Alex Wheatle (# 4) - Photo Shows: Alex Wheatle (SHEYI COLE) - (C) McQueen Limited - Photographer: Will Robson-Scott

The turning point for Wheatle was the New Cross Fire incident in January 1981, in which 13 innocent young black men and women were killed, an event depicted in the series. To this day, the fire would have always been motivated by race. The fire took place during a birthday party in South East London and reports of The Guardian from 2001 said it was initially thought to have started due to an incendiary bomb thrown into the downstairs window. After analyzing the scientific evidence, the police confirmed that the fire had been started inside the house, either on purpose or by accident. Unsurprisingly, the coverage of the fire in the mainstream media was not in favor of the victims, as it still underscored a theory developed by the police: that a brawl had started during the party, which led to the fire.

"There was an assumption that something illegal was going on at the party," Baroness Ros Howells said of the media stance at the time. “They didn't believe it could just be a bunch of kids having fun. It was at this point that the black community began to believe that their children's lives were worthless - we felt the view was, “What are 13 dead? a bit more.'"

Program name: Little ax - TX: 12/06/2020 - Episode: Alex Wheatle (# 4) - Photo shows: Brixton - (C) McQueen Limited - Photographer: Will Robson-Scott

Several weeks after the incident, more than 10,000 people (including Wheatle) gathered to rally against the incompetence of the police, which sparked a wave of riots - which mainly took place in Brixton. The event marked a turning point in history for young black Britons, as it partially sparked what would later be known as the Brixton Uprising.

Mark this occasion inside Small ax, McQueen asked poet and recording artist Linton Kwesi Johnson - now a founding member of the New Cross Massacre Action Committee - to read his famous poem "New Crass Massakah"on a series of images taken from the incident itself, highlighting the still existing tension between black Brits and the police.

They didn't believe it could just be a bunch of kids having fun. It was then that the black community began to believe that their children's lives were worthless.

Following the uprising, Wheatle was jailed for four months, and for viewers in this installment of Small ax, this is where our story begins and, a little abruptly, ends. His prison cellmate, an old Rastafarian named Simeon (played by Robbie Gee), is set to change Wheatle's mindset for the better through education. "Education is the key ... If you don't know your past, you won't know your future," Simeon said in the film, as he encourages Wheatle to read. The Black Jacobins by Trinidadian historian CLR James. “This is the first person I have met who saw a promise in me,” said Wheatle. The telegraph in 2016 of the impact of his Simeon on his life. “Social workers just expected the minimum from me. For the first time in my life, I had a mentor who believed I could achieve great things. Wheatle has since written 14 books, won four literary awards and received an MBE in 2008 for his services to literature.

This educational message is as true today as it was then, something that Small ax supports wholeheartedly by telling his four true stories. Following the rise of the Black lives matter this year it is clear that education, mainly fueled by today's younger generation, has helped reignite a discussion and cause so needed that it cannot be dismissed again. It is the brutal retelling of such stories in McQueen's anthology that helps provide this education and shine a light on the many unresolved issues black people in the UK - and around the world - still struggle with today.

The last episode of Small ax is scheduled to air on BBC One on Sunday, December 13.

Program Name: Little Ax - TX: 12/06/2020 - Episode: Alex Wheatle (# 4) - Photo Shows: Alex Wheatle (SHEYI COLE) - (C) McQueen Limited - Photographer: Will Robson-Scott

Image source: BBC / McQueen


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