On the surface Alex Wheatle fits harmoniously within the greater thematic landscape of Steve McQueen’s anthology series Small Axe. Similarly to Mangroveand 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.
“Big change… that is a slow-turning wheel”, says Ken Logan (Steve Touissant) in the final scene of Red, White and Blue. He says it to his son, Leroy (John Boyega) and the two men share a moment together where they both acknowledge the burden of responsibility they carry, the crosses they both have to bear. Leroy’s cross is that of stalwart resilience as he fights against institutional racism deeply seated within the police force he is a part of. Ken’s cross is that of unwavering support for his son’s quest for change. They both realize the gravity of their undertaking as they raise their glasses before the scene cuts to black.
Lovers Rock, Steve McQueen’s ode to a subgenre of reggae, can be discussed as just that – a nostalgic anthem for a very specific point in time at the precipice of the 1980s, which he may have briefly brushed against as he was growing up himself. In fact, this is how this film is often reviewed: an experiential play on the spirit of cinéma vérité celebrating a shared legacy of Londoners of West Indian descent and paying due homage to a transcendental power music holds over people’s souls. But is so much more than that.