The Pitch: Before he was an award-winning author of books like Brixton Rock and Island Songs, Alex Wheatle (Sheyi Cole) spent a short time in prison following his involvement in the 1981 Brixton riots, an explosive confrontation between the police and the neighborhood’s Afro-Caribbean community.
There, with the help of his Rastafarian cellmate Simeon (Robbie Gee), Alex looks back on his life — a childhood marred by mistreatment in foster care homes and bolstered by his budding career as a DJ in Brixton — and tries to figure out what to do, and who to be, next.
Short But Sweet: Of the five films in writer/director Steve McQueen‘s anthology about the West Indian communities of London from the ’60s to the ’80s, Alex Wheatle is by far the shortest (clocking in at 65 minutes). Three of the films — Lovers Rock, Mangrove, and Red, White and Blue — have aired already, powerful tales of the struggles of Black Londoners at a contentious time in British history, and the rare spaces that kept them safe. They’re some of the most riveting, vibrant pieces of cinema this year, but against those incredible highs, Wheatle admittedly pales in comparison.
In practice, Alex Wheatle feels like a meld between the reggae-loving nirvana of Lovers Rock and the urgent need for community and resistance to white authority engendered in Mangrove‘s DNA. McQueen (and co-writer Alisdair Siddons) do the typical biopic thing of introducing our hero in their darkest moment — in this case, his dehumanizing stay in prison — and (figuratively) record scratching to let him ask, “How did I get here?” It’s an old formula, but McQueen and Siddons use it to decent effect in charting Alex’s transformation from disaffected youth to a young man proud of his music and his community.
Crucial Rocker: Despite the shortcomings in the script, the look and sound of Alex Wheatle at least fits the vividness of the rest of the anthology. Like its titular subject, Alex Wheatle is obsessed with reggae, the soundtrack drenched in it, whether through his budding vinyl collection (Rupie Edwards’ “Irie Feelings”, for starters) or the works he produces himself under the moniker Yardman Irie.
DP Shabier Kirchner, McQueen’s collaborator for all five Small Axes, captures the tremendous alienation and isolation Alex feels through small but effective choices in framing. Kirchner squeezes Alex into the rear-view mirror of some coppers after they pick him up, shoots him through the barbed-wire fence of his prison yard, and even irises in on him through the gap in a vinyl record. This is the tale of a boy struggling to break out of limitations set on him by the white establishment, and it’s in his Brixton community — and his music — that he can find that.
Uprising, There’s An Uprising: More than Wheatle’s life story, Alex Wheatle functions well as a snapshot of Brixton in the early ’80s, the English-taught Wheatle becoming a conduit for us to enter the specificities of Brixton’s Afro-Caribbean rhythms. “I might be Black, but I’m from Surrey,” he says defiantly to new neighbor and best friend Dennis (Jonathan Jules), with whom he’d later form Crucial Rocker. “You have to find your roots,” he’s told shortly afterward; with the help of Dennis, the community, and his love of reggae music, he seeks to do just that.
Of course, as his voice gradually shifts from posh Londoner to a thick Jamaican patois, and he finds a sense of community in his new home, he’s soon drawn into the Brixton riots of 1981, here rendered in an uncut, four-minute montage of real photos from the scene. It’s a powerful moment of documentary that punctures the otherwise-strictly-narrative proceedings, but it also can’t help but feel abrupt and out of place (especially since it’s immediately followed by a scene detailing Wheatle’s own involvement anyway). What’s more, non-Brits are given little background as to the actual context of the riots; we can glean through context clues, but the hour-long runtime doesn’t give them much room to break down specifics. Instead, we’re left with both a figurative and literal snapshot of the even that would land Alex in prison, and therefore to his ensuing epiphanies.
What Is Your Story? What shoots Alex Wheatle in the foot, ultimately, is the rather scattershot nature of its presentation. In offering us a kaleidoscopic look at Wheatle’s life, it ends up throwing us from milestone to milestone with a little less elegance and depth than his story deserves. McQueen warps us from his time in prison to his foster experiences, to his struggles adjusting to the West Indies-infused culture of Brixton, to his music, to the riots, with little time to soak in the details. At times, it feels like the Cliff’s Notes version of Alex’s story, which seems a bit of a disservice to such an influential figure. (We learn all about his life before becoming a writer, but basically nothing about his writing after that.)
Perhaps the too-short runtime is a hindrance; at 65 minutes, it’s hard to encapsulate all of Wheatle’s multitudes — outsider, DJ, delinquent, rebel, resister — in a way that registers a lot of depth. Cole offers up a powerhouse turn, all vulnerability and youthful rebellion, but he’s not given the time to really dig deep into what makes Wheatle tick. The prison framing device is particularly unhelpful; while Alex’s enlightenment about class consciousness courtesy of a Rastafarian cellmate is taken from Wheatle’s real life, it feels a bit rote in execution. “It’s not about race, it’s about class!” Gee’s Simeon shouts with tragic obviousness. It’s a correct assessment, but it doesn’t need to hammer home the point so obviously when the groundwork has been laid far more subtly in the film thus far.
The Verdict: On balance, Alex Wheatle is one of the weaker Small Axe entries — as biopics go, it’s relatively straightforward, and its handling of issues of race, class, and identity are eclipsed by the stronger efforts he’s made this year alone. But a middling McQueen is still gripping cinema, and even at a painfully-short 65 minutes Kirchner’s cinematographer and Cole’s wounded lead performance take hold of you. You may not come away feeling like you know much about Wheatle himself, but you get to spend an hour in his shoes. Even this brief stumble doesn’t take away from the power of the rest of Small Axe; let’s see how it closes out in its fifth and final installment.
Where’s It Playing? Alex Wheatle hits Amazon Prime Video on December 11th.