The penultimate film in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology series is named after a prominent figure of the Brixton riots that took place in 1981. Alex Wheatle sees the titular character (Sheyi Cole) serving a sentence after partaking in the riots and connecting with his roommate, Simeon (Robbie Gee) as he shares his story from his troubled upbringing in the system to adulthood where he starts to learn his roots and how that fits into the modern day society where the police are constantly mistreating minorities on a regular basis. Just like the other films in this series, Alex Wheatle is another unflinching look into the ordinary life of a black man.
Like the previous installment, Red, White and Blue, Alex Wheatley decides to chronicle a specific person’s experience rather than an event as found in the first two films. Where Alex Wheatle differs from its predecessor is it goes into detail of how racial prejudice is evident in the social services system. From the moment he is put in social services’ care, it is clear that Alex has entered a system that doesn’t care for him. From the constant physical abuse and daily beratement, Alex’s struggle to fit in at school and have a healthy home life is basically impossible from the outset. McQueen shifts between the present and past so we can see the parallels between Alex’s child and adulthood even if the events are different.
Sheyi Cole is fantastic as Alex, playing him from his teenage years to adulthood. With the film itself being named after his character and being onscreen for the majority of the time, it could be easy for a newcomer to struggle to remain consistently captivating but Cole does a brilliant job. From Alex’s time during childhood in a foster home where he was abused and picked on constantly by the matron because he is black to his time among the black community as an adult where he is an outcast as he doesn’t acknowledge his blackness or know his roots. Alex goes on a journey to find his identity and over time he is shaped by the people around him becoming more comfortable in himself and aware the political climate.
As Alex’s cell mate, Simeon, Robbie Gee also pulls off a flawless performance. Simeon acts as Alex’s polar opposite. A Rastafari who is completely aware of himself and his identity, Simeon encourages Alex to read a wide range of literature to better himself when it comes to his views on the world. Acting as the inspiration for Alex to become a writer, his presence is so integral to the plot and development of Alex’s character. He is also the catalyst to Alex’s built up tension and anger as his ongoing hunger strike leads to a bout of diarrhea which causes Alex to lash out due to the smell. Naturally Simeon manages to calm Alex and ask him to share his story. Simeon is a character created from Wheatle’s memories as he acted as a consultant for the script meaning that you get the full story from his perspective.
Reaching into another area of London, Alex Wheatle shows that these communities are connected by the thread of racism and prejudice that is thrust upon them by systems that are meant to serve and protect them. Focusing on the person rather than the riots also made sure that the audience fixation remains on Wheatle whereas in Mangrove, the actual protest is such an important part of showcasing the injustice the whole group faced. Another interesting choice by McQueen was not immediately divulging what Alex’s crime actually was so we can naturally see the events of Alex’s life unfold without actually knowing what to expect except for the fact that he ends up in prison.
What did you think of Alex Wheatle? Let me know in comments below!
Alex Wheatle and the rest of the Small Axe films are available to watch on BBC iPlayer now!