In most biopics, filmmakers offer their audience a sweeping bird’s-eye view of the life of a historical figure. These films chronicle the person’s childhood and any trials or tribulations they may have faced before ending in a typical flourish of the subject’s successes and triumphs. In Alex Wheatle, the fourth film in the Small Axe anthology, which follows London’s West Indian community from the 1960s into the 1980s, Steve McQueen offers something different. The British-born filmmaker presents a snapshot of the life of a young man who was never meant to rise above his circumstances.
Taking inspiration from the real-life British novelist who is not yet 60, McQueen unfurls the story of a despondent young man on the verge of discovering his identity and his power in just over an hour. When Alex Wheatle opens, Alex (newcomer Sheyi Cole) is stoic and full of rage. Standing shirtless in prison, he’s shoved into a jail cell with a larger-than-life Rastafarian named Simeon (Robbie Gee), whose stomach issues and constant trips to the toilet leave the small room intolerable. Disgusted with the state of his life and Simeon’s bathroom habits, Alex chooses to retaliate against the much larger man. What happens next is unexpected. Simeon offers Alex compassion, understanding, and some guidance. Up until that point, it’s one of only a handful of times the young man is offered such grace.
Laying in his bunk in prison, Alex mentally retraces the steps that have led him down this path. His memories began with a slap in the face, literally. We learn the young Alex (played here by Asad-Shareef Muhammad) was abandoned by his parents at birth and raised in a group home in Surrey. Confined in an all-white community, he was emotionally and physically abused by his foster mother. She called him “a horrible, nasty little boy.” Alex was also often the subject of racial attacks by his schoolmates. As with the first three films in his saga, Mangrove, Lovers Rock, and Red, White And Blue, McQueen shines a bright light on the racism, xenophobia, and classism that continues to brew in the U.K., issues that many Brits insist don’t exist.
Raised without a family and little to no knowledge of Black culture, things begin to shift for Alex when he ages out of the system. As a young man, he lands in Brixton, an Afro-Caribbean community thriving with culture, food, traditions, and most importantly, Black people. Despite his own afro-textured hair and deeply melanated skin, Alex soon realizes he’s an outsider amongst his people. Sticking out like a sore thumb in his new neighborhood, Alex quickly gets a crash course in the dress, manner, and lingo of Black Caribbeans, mainly from his friend Dennis (Jonathan Jules). However, Alex soon discovers that fitting in doesn’t mean belonging.
A short coming-of-age film that works well within the Small Axe saga, Alex Wheatle has a a richness comparable to any long, drawn-out biopic that’s come from Hollywood of late, thanks to the the nuances McQueen layers into the story. The audience watches Alex as he eagerly shoves fried chicken and rice into his mouth on Christmas morning, after being treated like just another member of Dennis’ family. From the barbershop to the street corners, Alex’s induction into Black culture is swift and sharp, but as a master of survival, he is eager to learn his way.
Despite his assimilation into Brixton, Alex does not quite understand what is at stake for him as a Black man living in the U.K. He is apprehensive about police brutality until it’s slammed in his face. Class and lack of opportunity are things he quickly comprehends, but race isn’t something he’s grappled with yet. Amid Thatcherism and the rising unemployment and crime rates in the early ’80s U.K., Alex settles into Brixton just as it goes up in flames. The friction between the Afro-Caribbean community and the police bubbled and exploded into the 1981 Brixton Uprising.
As the film depicts, the most underprivileged in society are never content with their circumstances. When they are constantly berated and squeezed in the background, they will inevitably retaliate and rise up, demanding their due from their oppressors no matter what it might cost. To capture the moment when Alex’s destiny shifts forever, McQueen puts the novelist’s words against real-life images of the January 1981 New Cross house fire, which was the catalyst to the riots that ultimately landed Alex and 81 others in jail. As Wheatle writes, “It was a terrible price, the community paid just to live a little.” Thankfully for Alex, prison is the beginning; it is not the end. Though his freedom is taken from him for a time, he discovers a new lifeline that he never even knew existed.
Alex Wheatle is a film primarily about the beginning, something rarely seen in biopics. While in prison, Simeon offers Alex an opportunity to take his life into his own hands. Alex’s self-education becomes his first real chance at independence. He uses the moment to strip away any labels that were once thrust upon him, pushing him toward a new path where he would not only just exist but thrive. A distinctive component of McQueen’s Small Axe series, Alex Wheatle doesn’t quite have the lushness of Lover’s Rock, the grit of Mangrove, or the rage of Red, White And Blue, to make it a standout, but it’s impactful as a part of the whole. On his journey, Alex finally discovers who he is and how to leave his mark on the world. This film may only depict a small window in time for the real-life Wheatle, but it’s a revelation for viewers.