The latest film in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series tells the story of award-winning writer Alex Wheatle, but the lessons learned are not about literary greatness. They’re about dealing with history
Alex Wheatle has written 16 young adult books, been awarded an MBE for his service for literature, had his work adapted for stage at the Young Vic and even written and performed his own one-man play about his life, Uprising. But none of this is shown in “Alex Wheatle”, the fourth and penultimate film in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series. You don’t typically get a biopic made about you if you’re not successful, but Wheatle’s success isn’t the real story here. Instead, it’s the strife and struggle that came beforehand, without which the success may have never come. Small Axe is, after all, a film series about resilience, taking its title from the Bob Marley song of the same name. “If you are a big tree, we are the small axe / Sharpened to cut you down / Ready to cut you down,” sings Marley over its chorus. “Alex Wheatle” is a biopic about the author’s sharpening process.
We meet Wheatle in prison, after he becomes one of the 82 people arrested during the 1981 Brixton riots. There’s nothing to do in the cell that he shares with a Rastafarian but reflect, so we’re told his story through a series of flashbacks, prompted by his cellmate who asserts that moving forward is an impossible task if we are unable to also look back. Played by Sheyi Cole, Wheatle’s rage and hopelessness as he stares blankly at his new home is not a new emotion, we soon realise, inspired by this particular low point in his life; the prison is just another place where he doesn’t belong.
“You dirty little bastard,” screams the owner of the children’s home in Surrey that Wheatle was put in after his parents abandoned him. “What have I done to deserve this?” A young Alex is quiet and unassuming, but that doesn’t stop him being picked on and singled out from the other white children in the home. Life at school isn’t much better. As a teenager, when he retaliates to other white students’ racist abuse, he’s the only one who is put into a straight jacket and flung into the school’s gym as punishment. And when he eventually moves from Surrey to Brixton, where for the first time in his life he’s around a majority of black people, Wheatle is confronted with codes of blackness that make him an outsider. The products of his upbringing around white people – his clothes, his hair, his accent – are all wrong and a cause for suspicion among his new peers. All the tools he’d used to blend in and protect himself in his old environment are now unfit for the job. He commits his worst crime in a barbershop when he announces, “I may be black, but I’m from Surrey.”
The good thing about codes is that they can be learned. Before long, Wheatle picks up the local slang, updates his garms and becomes a part of the community, launching his own sound system, Crucial Rocker, and, for the first time in his life, settling into his new position as an insider. Life is still a struggle, but he smiles much more than before. There is a sense that had a suspected arson attack not killed black youths at a house party on 18 January 1981, and had Wheatle not rioted and gone to prison, that his life would have continued on its gradual, testing incline.
But there’s no point in trying to chop down a tree with a blunt axe. Until then, Wheatle patched over his pain with new ways of talking and dressing, with tears only slipping out in privacy. In prison, he’s forced to address it head on, with a straight-talking Rastafarian in lieu of a therapist and no one to reconcile his trauma with but himself. His own personal history isn’t the only one he has to grapple with, though. After telling his story, Wheatle’s presented a reading list by his cellmate to get him clued up on the UK’s relationship with race and class as well.
By the end of “Alex Wheatle”, its titular character resolves to find his parents and write a book, but those conclusions about his future may have never been reached had he not been forced to confront the past. Sound familiar? It should do. In the debate around what aspects of British history should be taught in schools, which statues deserve to torn down, and how society should move forward from its current state of division, this is the central argument, the idea that without sharpening our knowledge and understanding of the past, we will never be able to chop down the oppressive trees rooted in dirt that now block out the sun for so many.
You can’t rewrite history, but you can’t patch over it either, be it with a new accent or a black square posted on Instagram. As Wheatle learned and as we as a society are currently learning, sooner or later, the pain will catch up with you – even if, sometimes, you’re the one inflicting it. McQueen leans on the dramatic irony of his audience potentially already knowing that Wheatle will one day become an award-winning writer with an MBE, but when it comes to the fate of British society, there are still clearly many unknowns. Instead of dramatising the majority of the Brixton riots in “Alex Wheatle”, McQueen instead shows photographs of the house fire that started them and the events that unfolded in the aftermath. “The whole of black Britain did wrack with grief, the whole of black Britain come over with a melancholy gloom,” narrates a powerful poem. This year, we felt that grief and gloom once more. We can only expect to see history repeat itself again and again and again if society continues to refuse it as history. It’s time to sharpen up.