British writer Alex Wheatle has published 15 novels since his debut, Brixton Rock, in 1999 and he was awarded an MBE for services to literature in 2008. His books aimed at young adults are remarkable in chronicling British life from a Black perspective. The writing is rhythmic and sharp. Despite the acclaim and awards, the chances are you haven’t heard of him: Being a Black British author is a niche living, no matter your level of success. Hopefully, the name recognition should change now that he has become the title character of a Steve McQueen film.
For Alex Wheatle, McQueen and his co-writer Alastair Siddons have taken a leaf out of Brixton Rock and told the story of the 1981 Brixton uprising, through the real-life experience of the author. Wheatle was amongst the 82 people arrested following days of demonstrations and resistance by Afro-Caribbean residents against police failings, violence and discrimination. However, it's first and foremost a teenage coming-of-age tale, 65 electric minutes packed with financial hardship, racial demonisation and reggae.
The film focuses on the writer’s formative years, judiciously avoiding explaining how and why he became a great novelist. In fact, until the credits roll, the uninitiated would have no idea that he's a fledgeling author at all. In the early days of Thatcher’s Britain, it was the emerging reggae scene that was Wheatle’s passion. He went by the DJ name Yardman Ire and was a founding member of London’s Crucial Rocker soundsystem.
We first meet Alex entering prison, where he’s immediately at odds with his Rastafarian cellmate Simeon (Robbie Gee), who has stomach issues. A fight ends with Wheatle asked what’s fuelling his ire. This question gives the film a framing conceit, within which the story unfolds in time-jumping flashbacks. For the most part, these scenes centre on the time after Alex leaves Shirley Oaks children’s care home in Surrey, landing in Brixton with the wrong patois, fashion and walk to be a small-time drug runner. Debutant Sheyi Cole, with his angelic smile and slight frame, plays Wheatle as a fish out of water in prison, uncomfortable in nearly all his surroundings, whether it’s being bullied at school, eating with the family of friends or at the barbershop.
The recurring leitmotif is the dominating, heavy-set frame of Shirley Oaks’s matron-like carer Beverley (Ashley McGuire), whose right hand lands on Alex (played as a child by Asad-Shareef Muhammad) like a caveman’s club. Her actions also serve as the film's understated but powerful punchline, as the protection the authorities afford her is in sharp contrast to how the meek teenager gets imprisoned for four months for his ‘involvement’ in the Brixton riots.
But the most powerful moment in Alex Wheatle comes when it highlights the power of words in telling histories, as Linton Kwesi Johnson reads his own poem New Crass Massakah over photographic images of the fallout from the arson attack in New Cross that left 13 Black people dead in January 1981. It’s a highpoint of another essential watch in the Small Axe series. In a short space of time, McQueen has become as important a chronicler of British life as Spike Lee is for America.