Alex Wheatle: Crucial Rocker, by David Bax
We’re four movies into Steve McQueen’s film anthology Small Axe, about the lives of Black Londoners in the latter half of the twentieth century, and, as an outsider, I am still unable to parse all of the heavily accented and Patois-inflected dialogue, which only makes me enjoy the series more. Because even when I can’t tell what words are being spoken for lengthy clips of time, I never have trouble following what’s going on. McQueen has created–or, rather, recreated–a place and time so fully and lovingly detailed that it makes itself understood whether you speak the language or not. Alex Wheatle, the newest Small Axe film, contains the purest distillation of this approach by spending so much of its time exploring how the community simply proceeds day to day.
Alex Wheatle the person is a novelist and playwright but that’s not what Alex Wheatle the movie covers. As played by Sheyi Cole, the Alex we get to know is a young man just who has just relocated to London after growing up in a Surrey orphanage. He sticks out like a sore thumb with his very English accent and his stiff walk. But his love of reggae propels him deeper into the local culture, eventually aligning him with his neighbors against the police in the 1981 protest known as the Brixton uprising.
In January of that year, thirteen Black people died in a fire at a house party. A refusal on the part of the police to investigate the incident as a case of racially motivated arson led to a march and demonstration. In this section of the film, McQueen cuts in archival photographs of the actual event, in aspect ratios that break the previously understood boundaries of the film’s frame, literally giving the truth more room than the dramatization.
Small Axe seems to represent a turning point in McQueen’s output, especially aesthetically. His use of long takes and unconventional framing are finally enhancing verisimilitude instead of precluding it.
That said, there are still some parts of Alex Wheatle that are hard to believe. The Alex who has just arrived in London is almost impossibly naïve, insisting to his newfound friend and mentor (Jonathan Jules) that the police can be trusted because, “They’re here to help.” But just when we want to scoff, the horrific flashbacks we get of him being abused as a child engender deep sympathy.
In any case, the small suspension of disbelief required is more than worth it when compared to the unvarnished honesty with which McQueen presents Brixton. The strut past the street vendors, the beautiful din of voices and music at the record store, the squabbling over extra pieces of chicken at a family Christmas… Alex Wheatle may end before its hero puts pen to paper but it gives us a rich foundation from which to imagine what he might write about.