Most of us probably don’t think about how lucky we are, which might seem like a perverse thing to say during a pandemic. But even so, the friends we’ve made, the opportunities we’ve enjoyed and the life we’ve had is, in no small part, a product of fortuitous timing and good fortune. As much as we like to think we’re the captains of our own ship, well, we are… but in some important ways, we’re not. The ball has to bounce the right way, too. And sometimes we need a helping hand from those around us.
I wasn’t familiar with Alex Wheatle, a successful British author of young adult novels, before watching the latest film in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology. Premiering Friday on Amazon Prime Video, Alex Wheatle (like the previous installment, Red, White and Blue) focuses on the early days of a real-life individual, hinting at who he would become but leaving his greatest achievements to occur long after the end credits. But not knowing Wheatle ends up giving the film additional power. For many viewers, especially in the U.S., he might as well be any regular bloke, and Alex Wheatle illustrates how easy it could have been for Wheatle to have amounted to nothing. At the mercy of racism and a callous social-services system, Wheatle had to learn to rise above. He did it because of his drive and his talent, but he also needed a bit of luck, too. Without that, things might have worked out much differently — and more tragically.
Running just barely over an hour, the film stars newcomer Sheyi Cole as the teenaged Wheatle. In Alex Wheatle’s opening moments, he’s entering prison in the early 1980s, meeting his imposing bunkmate Simeon (Robbie Gee). Wheatle looks like a kid — what could he have done so wrong to end up here? Soon, McQueen flashes back to when Wheatle was eight (and played by Asad-Shareef Muhammad), and we learn that he grew up in Shirley Oaks children’s home — essentially, a U.K. orphanage that’s been rampant with accusations of racial and sexual abuse — which left him feeling brutalized and marganalized. In a few short scenes, Alex Wheatle illustrates how he’s picked on by the impatient white caretakers, his discomfort intensified by the embarrassment of his constant bedwetting. McQueen paints Wheatle as just another castoff stuck in an uncaring, bureaucratic system — a loner with health issues who doesn’t seem to have much potential. Who’d give him a second thought?
But if our lives are shaped by luck, they’re also proof that one phase doesn’t have to be a permanent state. Eventually, Wheatle (now played by Cole) moves out of the care home and into a hostel, where he finds friends — in particular, Dennis (Jonathan Jules), who’s the kind of buddy we all need when we’re young to help pull us out of our shell and find ourselves. Of course, that friend is also the one who makes fun of your lame outfits; as such, Dennis hips Wheatle to British fashion and where to get a smart haircut. It’s not simply lessons in being cool that Wheatle needs — he’s seeking identity and community that he never got growing up in white environments. Falling in love with reggae, turned on to London’s best niche record stores, Wheatle gets the idea of co-founding the Crucial Rocker sound system, coming up with lyrics that allow him, for the first time, to express himself as a writer. Then, history intervenes.
After the stakes of Mangrove, the sensuous swirl of Lovers Rock and the grim urgency of Red, White and Blue, Alex Wheatle feels slight by comparison, no matter the trauma that young Wheatle experiences over the course of this hour. Refreshingly, McQueen ignores the typical ah-ha moments of divine inspiration that usually occur in portraits of artists. (There’s no scene where Wheatle realizes, “Wait a minute, I should be a writer!”) Instead, we get intriguing fragments of an adolescence, and we’re left to put the pieces together — not because it’ll form a complete picture, but because it invites us to wonder how our own childhoods contain clues of the people we’ve become. Maybe we had our own Dennis. Maybe we were the Dennis for someone else.
But although it’s not as momentous as its predecessors, Alex Wheatle belongs among the Small Axe films because it never forgets that Wheatle’s development was informed partially by the racism he encountered. Bigotry rears its head throughout this short movie, building to a climax that encompasses the 1981 Brixton Uprising, an angry response by the district’s Black citizens to, among other things, shoddy treatment at the hands of the local white police force.
McQueen films the riot scenes with a stunning economy — we understand Wheatle’s fury but also the electricity of the moment, the thrill of raising one’s voice against injustice — but when our main character subsequently winds up in prison for his involvement, there’s a sense that this young man is responding to racism, as well as something deeper that’s unresolved within him. As much as Wheatle is trying to find his artistic voice, he also needs to make peace with the feeling of being abandoned that’s been with him since boyhood. It’s not simply that London treats him hostilely because of his skin color — there’s a part of him that thinks of himself as unworthy and unlovable, too. And that part has to do with him never knowing his parents or where he came from. The Blackness that white Londoners hate about him is a core component of his identity that he himself knows nothing about.
In that light, Alex Wheatle can be seen as a drama about being an orphan, which would obviously have its share of challenges on its own — but the added wallop of being a young West Indian in a heavily white community only compounds his alienation. The real Alex Wheatle has gone on to great acclaim, but Alex Wheatle suggests that it wasn’t just artistry that got him there. As the film ends, Wheatle’s adulthood is still off in the distance. But, after an important trip back into his painful past, he realizes he now has everything he needs — friends, equilibrium, a confidence in who he is. Wheatle was dealt a tough hand as a kid, but the movie is an acknowledgement that, yes, even he was lucky. We don’t always realize it when good fortune has found its way to us — what’s touching about this film is it’s about a man who most certainly did, and made the most of it.