Alex Wheatle: Steve McQueen’s Portrait of the Writer’s Formative Years

Alex Wheatle
Will Robson-Scott / Amazon Prime Video

The young titular protagonist prompts derision from a barber shop full of Londoners of West Indian descent by revealing that he doesn’t consider himself African. “I might be Black, but I’m from Surrey,” says the Brit abandoned by his Jamaican parents, who has grown up in the loveless Social Services foster-care system.

The words of his cellmate toward the end of the film come as a direct rebuke to his unformed cultural identity: “Education is the key. You see, if you don’t know your past then you won’t know your future.”

Wheatle, played in his childhood years by Asad-Shareef Muhammad and as a teenager by Sheyi Cole, is the author of more than 15 novels for young adults, awarded an MBE in 2008 for services to literature.

His story of finding a path forward from his troubled beginnings fits within the frame of McQueen’s Small Axe anthology for Amazon and BBC, about the self-determination of London’s West Indian community, rising from under the marginalizing thumb of a society of racism, classism and cruel injustice.

Co-written by McQueen with Alastair Siddons, who also scripted Mangrove and Education, Alex Wheatle focuses on a chapter of the protagonist’s life. It moves gracefully back and forth among his traumatized early childhood, the teenage years in which he discovered a community and his incarceration after participating in the Brixton Riots of 1981.

The film doesn’t match the narrative scope of Mangrove or Red, White and Blue. Nor does it have the intimacy of Lovers Rock, the only Small Axe entry not based on a true story.

But its understated celebration of resilience and hope makes the snapshot fit with the personal nature of this project for McQueen.

66 minutes