The title of fourth of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe films, Alex Wheatle, practically begs of an addendum: It could just as well start with The Miseducation Of. Or, rather, reeducation. The Alex Wheatle that we meet up top, played by Sheyi Cole, is a man who at one point knew almost nothing. He doesn’t know how to take care of his hair. He doesn’t know about Babylon — which is to say, a Britain whose prime quality is its imperial evil. He doesn’t know about cops and why to avoid them, about the discretion one needs to buy guns on the street, about how to walk — his chin high — like a proud black man. What he doesn’t know could fill a book. What he learns is the subject of McQueen’s movie.
Alex Wheatle, based on the early years of the living author, who now specializes in young adult literature, opens with the kind of right-hook, left-hook devastation McQueen’s been cutting his teeth on for some years now in his movies. Rarely has that skill been as honed as it is here; within five minutes, the film says more than most other films say in two hours. It’s as simple as cutting back-and-forth between two formative periods in Wheatle’s life and building an unmistakeable thread between them.
There’s the nearly adult Wheatle in prison suffering the grunts and aromas of his hunger-striking, diarrheic cellmate Simeon (Robbie Gee), who’s the first (but not the last) person in this movie to ask Wheatle who he is — that is, who he is as a man. And then, in alternating scenes, there’s Wheatle as a child, in another institution: an orphanage. Wheatle the child wets the bed and gets his underwear stuffed into his mouth for it, turns a corner and gets slapped, gets called racial epithets in the classroom. An impersonal voice tells us his life story: of his being abandoned multiple times, first by his parents and then by a foster mother, of his multiple stays in council care, of the hopelessness that landed him here. The Wheatle we see again in prison is thus somewhat clarified. Still the question remains: Who are you?
That’s just the first five minutes. Its climax is a long shot of Wheatle, straightjacketed, on the ground, dead in the eyes, in a long shot that tracks slowly toward him, then fixes on that face with equal stillness before tracking away. The stillness lasts just long enough for you to wonder if something is wrong with your WiFi. Something is wrong, alright. And in the hour to go, McQueen, again working with writer Alastair Siddons, goes some way toward exploring exactly what.
This is where the education comes in, where the plot, which shows Wheatle learning (from, among others, his new friend Dennis, played by a great Jonathan Jules) to get in touch with his roots, as a young black man born of Jamaican parents. He falls in love with reggae; learns how to steal without getting caught; learns, in so many ways, how to survive. And picks up some swagger on the way.
For Wheatle to be the subject of a film in the first place is poignant. The real-life man has been putting these experiences to paper for some time now, in autobiographical fiction which, he has said, received little recognition from the literary establishment. (This explains his switch to the more diverse terrain of YA.) The real-life Wheatle was also — as is depicted here — imprisoned after participating in the Brixton uprising of 1981, an angry, grief-stricken crying out against needless black death and police brutality in the wake of the New Cross house fire, a massacre that stole 14 young lives (one of them after the fact, to suicide). McQueen’s way into this is a wonder: a painful montage of photography from the protests enlivened by the voice of the great dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, who’s reciting his seminal poem “New Crass Massakah,” a commemoration of that tragedy that plays like a wizened reality check, a forceful lifting of the veil from over peoples’ eyes. (Menelik Shabazz’s short documentary Blood Ah Go Run, from 1982, is an unmissable, live document of the ‘81 Brixton uprisings that’s equally hard to shake; more recently, the poet Jay Bernard explored them in their 2019 volume Surge.)
If Alex Wheatle proves less powerful than the other films in this series, that’s in large part because of the strengths of the series. Every entry in Small Axe is a study in expansive miniatures. None of these films flexes its muscle by way of length. They burrow. Alex Wheatle’s primary imperfection is that it almost doesn’t burrow enough. The intricacies of Wheatle’s inner life feel almost rushed through or limited in their illustration. I wanted to know more about this young man — which is also a sign that the film is doing something right. Wheatle is commanding, convincing proof and summary of so much of what McQueen intends to accomplish in the Small Axe series, which, for all the ways it attempts to understand black British life of a particular era — with a heavier focus on men than women, no less — is also committed to complicating and seeing beyond the broadness of very category. Each of this films dwells in specificity; their composite is an aperture, not a final word or a full summary. What Mangrove, Lovers Rock, the John Boyega-fronted Red, White, and Blue, and now Alex Wheatle all explore are the broad variety of attitudes, politics, lifestyles of a people, with lines drawn along class, circumstance, generation, and so much else. A good many of them play like conversion narratives — like wake-up calls. This latest film is no different.
The film is a striking effort to chip at away at one young man’s seeming naiveté — a naiveté which, as the film takes care to document, is born in part of a life spent institutionalized, be it prison or an orphanage. A life, an upbringing, that divorced him from who he was in that same moment that it firmly doubled down on what Britain perceived him to be. It is not the most exceptional film in this altogether exceptional series. But it is just as indispensable as everything else here.