Alex Wheatle (4 stars)

Alex Wheatle

The life of the Black British author is the subject of the fourth of Steve McQueen's Small Axe films

'If you don't know your past then you won't know your future,' Alex Wheatle's Rastafarian cellmate Simeon (Robbie Gee) tells him, in a moment that seems to hit home hard. The early life of the Black British author and eventual MBE recipient forms the basis of the fourth part of writer-director Steve McQueen's landmark Small Axe series but, as ever, McQueen makes the film about so much more. Questions around identity are at the heart of another gripping piece of drama.

Abandoned by his birth parents, Alex is raised in institutions in predominantly white areas, including the notorious Shirley Oaks children's home, where he is stigmatised and brutalised because of his racial background. Played first by Asad-Shareef Muhammad, then Sheyi Cole, Alex has almost no sense of who he is until he arrives in Brixton as a young man; as he drives through its streets, his eyes light up with recognition and the sheer possibility of it all. Moving into a boarding house, Alex is immediately taken under the wing of Dennis (Jonathan Jules), who can't stop laughing at how odd Alex seems, with his bland, slightly prim accent, scarecrow-like awkwardness and unfashionable attire he's clearly in need of some tips.

Alex undergoes an evolution into a more cocksure Afro-Caribbean Londoner, with a strong connection to his culture, particularly music – which he starts to make himself – and an affected accent, that at least suits him better. He also comes to know his natural enemy – the ferociously racist British police force, who he was naively trusting of until life teaches him otherwise.

Alex becomes politicised by his experiences and the traumatic episode of the New Cross fire in January 1981 – a catalyst of the Brixton uprising a few months later, which Alex gets personally caught up in. McQueen relays the impact of the tragedy through the shellshocked reactions of characters, and through archive photographs of the aftermath, victims' funerals and the protests which followed, accompanied by a moving poem.

This impassioned film, co-written with Small Axe regular Alastair Siddons (Tomb Raider, Trespass Against Us), reaches out beyond Alex's specific experiences to show how he's affected by and caught up in seismic events in Black British history, how his personality is shaped by them, as well as the influence of those around him, after being erased by the state as a child. It also illustrates how people are so much more than their labels. Through the teachings of a man many would dismiss as a criminal, Alex gains an education in the kind of Black history that's only just being acknowledged as important, allowing him to see beyond the limited horizons on offer to him, and to go on to inspire others.

Available to watch on BBC One at 9pm on Sun 6 Dec.

Alex Wheatle

  • 4 stars
  • 2020
  • UK
  • 1h
  • Directed by: Steve McQueen
  • Cast: Elliot Edusah, Sheyi Cole, Jonathan Jules

Part of director Steve McQueen's anthology series Small Axe, which centres upon life in London's West Indian community in the '50s through to the '80s.