CAST: Sheyi Cole, Robbie Gee, Jonathan Jules, Elliot Edusah, Fumilayo Brown-Olateju, Ashley Maguire, Asad-Shareef Muhammad, Leah Walker, Johann Myers, Louis J. Rhone, Riley Burgin, Zakiyyah Deen, Khali Best, Dexter Flanders, Xavien Russell, Cecilia Noble, Ross Cahill, Lennox Tuitt, Shanelle Young
RUNNING TIME: 65 mins
BASICALLY…: Alex Wheatle (Cole) finds his cultural calling in Brixton during the lead-up to the 1981 riots…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
For the fourth film in his Small Axe anthology, director Steve McQueen has chosen yet another real-life figure to tell the life story of, amidst the rampant racism and injustice against black civilians in 20th century England. It’s the second biopic in a row for McQueen’s series, which last week saw John Boyega take up the role of policeman Leroy Logan in Red, White and Blue, but Alex Wheatle is also perhaps the most conventional entry in the anthology thus far, hitting many of the typical tropes of a biographical film while additionally exploring certain avenues of their most notable achievements.
McQueen’s film also examines the tense lead-up to the 1981 Brixton riots, which the titular figure was arrested and imprisoned for due to his role in the stand-off between the repressed black community and the police. It is there where Alex Wheatle truly stands out, as a raw and sobering depiction of the cruelty and discrimination that people of colour faced during this difficult time, all through the eyes of a young man simply trying to find his place in the world.
We first meet Wheatle (Sheyi Cole) as he’s being guided to his prison cell, where his Rastafarian cellmate Simeon (Robbie Gee) constantly has the runs from his ongoing hunger strike. It is this incontinent but understanding person whom Wheatle relays his life story to, beginning when he was horrifically abused as a child (Asad-Shareef Muhammad) by his care mother, having been abandoned by both his parents at an early age. After growing up in a predominantly white Surrey community, a teenage Wheatle moves to Brixton where at first he feels extremely out of place; everything from his PVC clothes to his polite middle-class British accent does not match the community that’s proud and open about their African heritage, but under the wing of his streetwise new friend Dennis (Jonathan Jules) he soon embraces his roots, drugs, and a taste for music (even co-founding the Crucial Rocker sound system where he performed his own lyrics). However, it’s not until 1981 when, in the wake of the devastating fire in New Cross and the growing police brutality reaching boiling point, Wheatle’s part in the Brixton uprising becomes solidified.
There’s quite a lot of story to get through in just over 60 minutes, more so than last week’s Small Axe biopic of similar length, but Alex Wheatle does well to tell as much as it can without feeling too overstuffed, thanks to McQueen and co-writer Alastair Siddons’ script which puts its focus on the right things with a fair amount of strong character work. McQueen, as ever, directs with quiet power, letting scenes and even certain shots linger on to ensure they land that crucial blow; for instance, an early scene where a young Wheatle, having had a violent outburst in the classroom, is placed in a straightjacket and left to calm down on the gymnasium floor is accompanied by a slow zoom that goes in and out of his inanimate face while silence surrounds him, which goes on for at least a couple of solid minutes. Under a lesser filmmaker, this kind of scene could easily have been unnecessary and padded out, but McQueen makes it work to highlight the sorrowful, lonely young boy underneath the rage, a theme which carries on well into his adulthood as he continues to struggle with his inner anger and resistant attitude like it’s Raging Bull in Brixton.
Sheyi Cole, in his first ever on-screen performance, is a remarkable find who inhabits both the reserved and sensitive soul of the young man that first enters Brixton, his well-spoken and – for lack of a better term – white mannerisms stemming from a childhood environment where black culture was simply not as vibrant, and the strong-willed, anger-driven activist who eventually finds his footing in the community. He easily carries the film as the complex lead figure, as do the disturbing actions that slowly led to the 1981 clashes, which again McQueen handles with great sensitivity and powerful conviction. A high point of the film is when the film suddenly turns into a slideshow of archive news photographs depicting the New Cross fire aftermath, the funerals of the young people who lost their lives, and the subsequent protests that sparked the riots, all set to poet Lynton Kwesi Johnson’s reading of his poem “New Crass Massahkah”. It is here where we really get a feel of the anger and the sorrow felt by the community, as represented by both Johnson’s staggering wordplay and the heart-breaking images in this sequence, and a sentiment that Cole carries on in his ever-dedicated lead turn, where his character finds himself bearing the brunt of police cruelty from being violently apprehended, left to lie in the back of an empty van, and then dumped in the middle of nowhere for him to then walk home – all after being called a racist name by a passing officer.
So far in this Small Axe series, Steve McQueen has leant into several topics surrounding the prejudices and intimidations that black civilians had to face in that time, and in many ways still do today. For each one, though, the filmmaker has found new and interesting ways to get these themes across, and with both last week’s Red, White and Blue and now Alex Wheatle he has combined traditional biopic fare with some genuinely powerful messages about the injustices people suffer from those in power. Both of these strictly biographical entries, particularly this one, are solid representations of individual lives challenged by those systems, as well as powerful and timely films in their own right.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Alex Wheatle is another solid entry into Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology, this time taking a look at the titular figure’s life story in powerful ways that overcome its more traditional biopic structure, led by a stunning debut lead performance by Sheyi Cole and some truly heart-breaking displays of imagery that led to the Brixton riots of 1981.