Steve McQueen’s five-film “Small Axe” series was conceived to spotlight underrepresented stories of West Indian Londoners, from the thrill of a 1980 house party in “Lovers Rock” to the tumultuous civil rights battle of “Mangrove.” With “Alex Wheatle,” McQueen centers on a subject whose mission syncs with the project as a whole. In this hourlong origin story about the British Jamaican young adult novelist who found his calling after the 1981 Brixton riot, McQueen and co-writer Alastair Siddons have produced a concise, vivid window into the experiences of a young soul finding his place in a world stacked against him.
Compared to some of the other “Small Axe” entries, “Alex Wheatle” occupies a somewhat awkward position within the film and TV media boundary that the anthology pushes up against: It’s not episodic, but feels more like the first act of a larger story begging for further exploration. Nevertheless, with a complex, ever-evolving turn by newcomer Sheyi Cole at its center, the story it does offer up turns on McQueen’s usual sophisticated narrative techniques and the same striking penchant to render Black British culture in complex lyrical terms.
The drama kicks off with the rascally teen Wheatle thrust into prison, where his garrulous Rastafarian cellmate (Robbie Gee) can’t get a rise out of him. In flashbacks, McQueen brings us up to speed, tracking Wheatle’s tumultuous experiences in abusive foster case (where he’s played by Asad-Sahreef Muhammad) after he was separated from his Jamaican parents. Eventually, he’s tossed into the care of a Brixton hustler (Jonathan Jules) who gets Wheatle into weed and reggae, and the boy becomes a rebellious young man at one with the culture around him. McQueen and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner excel at tracking Wheatle’s steady immersion into the late ‘70s milieu where he finds his way, but their best sequence arrives early on: Wheatle wanders into a record shop, the camera slowly drifts through as the music swells; by the time it completes the journey, he’s become a regular.
Such are the joys of the episodes of “Small Axe” to date as a whole: McQueen oscillates between decrying the race and class warfare of the setting even as he celebrates the ability to welcome us into a delectable community. Wheatle is surrounded by a range of boisterous figures, some more flawed than others, and he risks destroying whatever potential is percolating in his head with a detour as a drug dealer. He has no interest in the set of institutional problems that led him to his predicament, shrugging off a barber’s attempt to refer to him as a person of African ascent. “I may be Black,” he scoffs, “but I’m from Surrey.”
But as he slowly wakes up to his surroundings and discovers his talents, “Alex Wheatle” comes alive with his revelations. Initially launching the reggae group known as the Crucial Rocker sound system, Wheatle goes from giddy street kid to activist-artist, so when the character finally gets his big performance scene, it’s loaded with purpose. Echoing the pivotal “Silly Games” dance number in “Lovers Rock” (albeit without quite the same narrative ambition), Wheatle’s performance for a crowd of eager young people provides a remarkable foundation for his eventual emergence as the “Bard of Brixton.”
In prison, Wheatle completes his journey simply by getting pressured by his cellmate to read a book and learn about society’s ills. The ending of that journey arrives as an abrupt afterthought. But the process of getting to that point gives McQueen plenty of excuses to stuff his filmmaking ambition into every corner of the story: The riots themselves unfold in a beguiling documentary-like montage of still frames from the era set to Wheatle’s own writing, and when the character first encounters police corruption, he’s glimpsed in the receding rearview mirror of a departing police car, encapsulating the alienation that ultimately compels him to take action. Rather than dwelling on the bloody showdown with the Metropolitan police over street protests from African-Caribbeans who have had enough, “Alex Wheatle” reveals just enough to show how an angry ne’er-do-well found a constructive outlet for his rage — and, later, the temperament necessary to tame it.
“If you don’t know the past then you won’t know your future,” Alex is later told. It’s something of a heavy-handed assertion, but Cole’s face gives it depth as he thinks through his options right down to the final scene. As a biopic in miniature, “Alex Wheatle” begs for more chapters; as a footnote to the broader purpose of “Small Axe” to celebrate the resilience of its subjects, it’s another rousing snapshot.
“Alex Wheatle” is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video on December 11, 2020.