“A tree with strong roots laughs at storms.”
On the surface Alex Wheatle fits harmoniously within the greater thematic landscape of Steve McQueen’s anthology series Small Axe. Similarly to Mangrove and Red, White and Blue it uses a historical figure as an anchor to which he tethers a politically-relevant discussion about the trials and tribulations of black Britons. However, underneath the epidermis of its poignant social commentary, McQueen has hidden a tangential theme that gives the film a slightly different thematic hue.
Accordingly, the life of Alex Wheatle (portrayed by Sheyi Cole), a novelist who was once sentenced to prison for his participation in the 1981 Brixton Riots, is used in this context. Just like Leroy Logan in Red, White and Blue, Wheatle is both a character upon whom McQueen’s gaze is focused, and an element of framing guiding the camera to look past him and encompass his surroundings. This time instead of a look at the systemic racial prejudice ingrained in the police force, McQueen’s film uses a more structurally diverse, composite background to bring attention to the thematic core of the story.
Because Wheatle grew up an orphan and his formative years thus ended up captured by the system of social care, the film takes a long hard look at the utter horror of growing up parentless in the UK, especially as an ethnic minority. Nevertheless, looking for systemic oppression or examples of blood-curdling prejudice is not the main mission of the film. Make no mistake, they are important parts of the picture, but Alex Wheatle is using these observations to make a more elaborate point. Racism the film is teeming with is a backdrop to a conversation about cultural belonging. It is a story about understanding one’s identity that goes well beyond the monochromatic interpretation of growing up black in a racially prejudiced environment.
On many occasions, the filmmakers drop subtle hints about this being their main mission. Alex doesn’t have a strong West Indian accent like people he is surrounded with and, at least initially, he doesn’t seem to understand or care too much about his cultural roots. He is Alex. From Surrey. He knows he is black and even though he is an orphan, he is perfectly aware of his lineage connecting him to Africa, but he sees himself as British. He feels like a third wheel when he is invited to family functions at his friend’s house and his profoundly Southern accent attracts unwelcoming looks. This is also where the film becomes even more interesting because McQueen uses this wrinkle in Wheatle’s character to nest a much deeper commentary – and one that could lead to provocative and charged conversations in its own right – about the racial dynamic between different communities in Britain. This is because Wheatle’s worldview is immediately challenged by his peers and eventually he succumbs to the pressure to conform to a set of cultural principles guiding the West Indian community that has absorbed him. He is taught that the continual mistreatment and injustice he experienced as a child was a product of racism and that he is better off ‘staying with his own’.
Being an orphan and having been deprived of the true knowledge of his roots which is an integral part of socializing and raising a child in a family environment, Alex eventually imprints on this community and adopts it as a disperse family in its own right. However, not really knowing right from wrong and navigating the world based on loose principles dished out occasionally by his friends, Alex is easily led astray. All he knows is that he is angry at the hand he was dealt in life, which is a dangerous position to be in because it is left for his environment – and other people – to direct this anger; which lands him in prison for taking part in a riot.
Again, under a different set of circumstances I would fully expect Steve McQueen to use this chapter in Wheatle’s life to stab at the oppression embedded within the British establishment and maybe unsettle the viewer with historically accurate brutality, but he doesn’t pontificate over these subjects. He does not dismiss them either as the film commits some of its resources to bringing attention to such terrible events as the New Cross fire or the aforementioned Brixton Riots with the use of archival photographs and newsreel footage, or with his visceral approach to re-enacting scenes of police brutality. But McQueen is perfectly aware that Wheatle’s story is an opportunity to use these historical facts, frightening as they are, to tease out what made him stand out from the crowd of thousands of other kids who grew up facing similar adversities.
Guided by his cellmate who introduced him to books, Alex was able not only to gain control over his own rage, but internalize it and – most importantly – dismantle it. His example shows just how crucial it is to understand one’s own roots to navigate the treacherous waters of life and become a sentient part of the culture at large. Even though the film seems as though it wanted to follow up on the furious energy embedded in Mangrove, Red, White and Blue, and even Lovers Rock for that matter, Alex Wheatle gives the entire anthology series a whole new dimension of intellectual analysis. It is still angry and unwavering when it needs to be, and McQueen never allows the viewer to look away from unsettling imagery, but it is equally enlightened and hopeful in the way it depicts Wheatle’s transformation from a victim to a directionless berserker and finally to a fully-formed human capable of laughing at storms.