The latest offering from Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series, Alex Wheatle (co-written with Alastair Siddons) features an impressive debut from Sheyi Cole in the titular role. The film follows the early life of the award-winning writer from his time in care, his love of DJ-ing to a short stint in prison where he was introduced to the world of books and resolved to write his own.
Alex endured a bleak and loveless childhood, a victim of Britain’s child welfare system. His mother, a married woman, deserted him at birth, while his putative father placed him with a private foster mother. Alex is shunted between council nursery, a children’s home and foster care, where he is bullied and beaten by the very people who are supposed to look after him.
Alex’s growing love of music is a refuge from loneliness as much as anything else. As he grows older, he endures racism at school and is treated with contempt and stark violence by his teachers, strait-jacketed and thrown onto the floor of an empty hall. McQueen lingers over this moment – the stillness of Alex, his loss of trust, his dead eyes – a bitter scene that is replicated in his later, equally brutal, encounters with the police.
When Alex arrives in London, he is given a room in a hostel in Brixton and is taken under the wing of Dennis (Jonathan Jules). Alex has been institutionalised and takes time to find his feet. Dennis teaches him the street lingo, how to dress and how to be cool. Soon enough Alex is hustling with the rest of them, DJ-ing and writing lyrics about Brixton life, until he is swept up in the anger of the Brixton Uprising in 1981, which lands him a stint in prison. There he meets Simeon (Robbie Gee) a great bear of man who he initially treats with open aggression, calling him a “dirty fucking rasta” as he jumps on him. Simeon offers Alex his friendship, listens to him and lends him books, telling him: “If you don’t know your past, you won’t know your future.”
Over a whirlwind 65-minutes, we watch Alex’s rite of passage in Brixton and his unexpected ‘awakening’ in prison. Remarkably, this is Cole first time in front of the camera. He approaches Alex’s emotional journey as a teenager with a sure touch, switching effortlessly between innocence and a gradual hardening. Cole conveys a range of emotions from shyness and disbelief through hostility to joy when he discovers a passion for music and a sense of community. In prison, Alex discovers a love of reading, the curiosity to explore his past and the courage to write about his experiences. The film ends just as Alex embarks on his career path, which will include an MBE for services to literature.
Alex Wheatle, the fourth of the Small Axe films created by Steve McQueen, airs at 9pm on Sunday 6 December, BBC One and BBC iPlayer.
Lucy Popescu | @lucyjpop