- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
Early in Steve McQueen’s Alex Wheatle, the young protagonist whose name gives the film its title prompts derision from a barber shop full of Londoners of West Indian descent by revealing that he doesn’t consider himself African. “I might be Black, but I’m from Surrey,” says the young Brit abandoned by his Jamaican parents, who has grown up in the loveless Social Services foster-care system. The words of his bibliophile cellmate toward the end of the film come as a direct rebuke to his unformed cultural identity: “Education is the key. You see, if you don’t know your past then you won’t know your future.”
Wheatle, played in his childhood years by Asad-Shareef Muhammad and as a teenager by Sheyi Cole, is the widely translated author of more than 15 novels for young adults, awarded an MBE in 2008 for services to literature. His story of finding a path forward from his troubled beginnings fits satisfyingly within the frame of McQueen’s Small Axe anthology for Amazon and BBC, about the self-determination of London’s West Indian community, rising from under the marginalizing thumb of a society of racism, classism and cruel injustice.
Release date: Dec 11, 2020
Co-written by McQueen with Alastair Siddons, who also scripted the Mangrove and Education episodes, Alex Wheatle focuses on a slender chapter of the protagonist’s life. It moves gracefully back and forth among his traumatized early childhood, the teenage years in which he discovered a sense of community and his incarceration after participating in the Brixton Riots of 1981. At just a fraction over an hour, the film doesn’t match the narrative scope of Mangrove or Red, White and Blue. Nor does it have the enveloping intimacy of Lovers Rock, the only Small Axe entry not based on a true story. But its understated celebration of resilience and hope makes the compelling snapshot very much in keeping with the deeply personal nature of this project for McQueen.
Like the aforementioned dialogue, there’s also a visual that encapsulates Alex’s awakening self-identity with startling effectiveness. While sharing the discovery of reggae music at school with classmate Valin (Elliot Edusah), he gets into a fight with a racist white student and is hauled out by security. As they place Alex in restraints and knock him to the floor in an isolated room, DP Shabier Kirchner’s camera trains its penetrating gaze on his stunned, angry face in a slow pan that moves in, lingers long enough to leave us profoundly distressed and then moves back out again. It’s as succinct a depiction of the harsh dehumanization and stirring consciousness of a brutalized minority as I can recall.
Alex is first seen as a young man being shown to his prison cell by a callous guard. He meets his Rastafarian cellmate Simeon (Robbie Gee), an amicable type crowned with a voluminous cascade of dreadlocks, whose warm welcome is undercut by the disagreeable effect of his explosive bowels in close quarters. The raw vulnerability of promising newcomer Cole’s performance scalds in their physical altercation, as burly Simeon overpowers Alex, insisting on hearing his story, and the latter screams through angry tears, “I ain’t got no frickin’ story.”
Editors Chris Dickens and McQueen jump back to Alex’s roots as an illegitimate child taken into care in 1964. Details from his file are heard in voiceover with unfeeling detachment — few friends, chronic bedwetting, asthmatic, suffers from eczema — as his white housemother (Ashley McGuire) is shown physically and verbally abusing the lad for his supposed transgressions.
His world opens up when he’s placed in his late teens in a Social Services hostel in the multicultural South London district of Brixton. There he meets Dennis (Jonathan Jules), a weed-dealing wide boy who takes Alex under his wing, giving him a makeover that includes pointers on a more confident strut in scenes that inject low-key humor. In one lovely interlude, Dennis invites Alex to Christmas lunch with his family. The guest’s unfamiliarity with an environment of such easygoing warmth is quietly affecting, and the way he wolfs down his food suggests the hardships of growing up in tough institutions.
Alex’s love of music blossoms during this period, spending whatever cash he has at a local record store. He reconnects with Valin, and the two begin a DJ operation, with Alex writing lyrics about Brixton life. Around this time, he also gets his first taste of the blatantly discriminatory practices of London police, witnessing random stop-and-frisk harassment or unprovoked assaults that make a mockery of his naïve belief that the cops are “here to help.” As in other Small Axe entries, the idea that British politesse precludes open expressions of racial hatred is swiftly dismantled.
The biggest eye-opener for Alex is the tragedy of the New Cross fire of 1981, in which 13 young Black people were killed and many more injured. While the cause was never established and no arrests were made, an act of arson was suspected, sparking a wave of protests while the Thatcher government remained silent. McQueen makes the powerhouse choice of showing both the wreckage of the blaze and the protests exclusively in black and white news photographs, accompanied by the scalding verses of Jamaican spoken word artist Linton Kwesi Johnson’s “New Crass Massakah.”
Unrest in the Black community escalates, leading to the Brixton Uprising, which is depicted on a small scale but with visceral force, as young Black men including Alex face down lines of cops with riot shields.
It’s during his subsequent imprisonment that Simeon expands Alex’s education by drilling into him the importance of reading, starting with C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins. The 1938 book by the Trinidadian socialist historian figures also in McQueen’s Mangrove, one of many understated thematic links that bind the Small Axe anthology together despite the films’ range of styles. The setting here also echoes Mangrove, evoking the streets and markets of Brixton with an energized sense of place comparable to that film’s images of pre-gentrification Notting Hill. The reggae soundtrack adds further to the immersive portrait of Alex’s gradual self-discovery, the music’s buoyancy and freedom providing a contrast to the confinement of cramped settings like his prison cell and hostel room.
The film’s conclusion is both abrupt, in that it feels like Alex’s life is just beginning in earnest, and apposite in its delicate portrait of the artist as a young man. Swiping his Social Services file, he reads the clinical details outlined there and absorbs the uncaring perspective on his life experience, resolving then and there to track down his family and try his hand at writing. Perhaps more than with any of the other Small Axe films to date, it’s easy to imagine an analogous epiphany in the early life of the young McQueen.
Production companies: BBC Film, Turbine Studios, Lammas Park, in association with Amazon Studios, Emu Films
Distributor: Amazon, BBC
Cast: Sheyi Cole, Robbie Gee, Jonathan Jules, Elliot Edusah, Fumilayo Brown-Olateju, Ashley McGuire, Asad-Shareef Muhammad, Leah Walker, Johann Myers, Louis J. Rhone, Riley Burgin, Zakiyyah Deen, Khali Best, Dexter Flanders, Xavien Russell, Cecilia Noble, Ross Cahill, Lennox Tuitt, Shanelle Young
Director: Steve McQueen
Screenwriters: Alastair Siddons, Steve McQueen
Producers: Michael Elliott, Anita Overland
Executive producers: Tracey Scoffield, David Tanner, Steve McQueen
Director of photography: Shabier Kirchner
Production designer: Helen Scott
Costume designer: Jacqueline Durran
Editors: Chris Dickens, Steve McQueen
Casting: Gary Davy
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day
More from The Hollywood Reporter
Original Power Rangers Reunite in ‘Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: Once & Always’ Trailer to Defeat Rita Repulsa
‘Star Wars’: Steven Knight Steps In to Write New Movie Following Damon Lindelof Departure
12-Year-Old ‘Cocaine Bear’ Star Unveils New Comic Book She Created and Co-Authored (Exclusive)
Norman Steinberg, Screenwriter on ‘Blazing Saddles,’ ‘My Favorite Year’ and ‘Johnny Dangerously,’ Dies at 83
Gordon T. Dawson, Peckinpah Protégé and ‘Walker, Texas Ranger’ Writer and Producer, Dies at 84