Alex Wheatle, the fourth film from Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology centres on the true story of award-winning writer, Alex Wheatle MBE, chronicling his early years, being thrown in prison during the Brixton Uprising of 1981 to finally discovering his passion for the written word.
Introducing Sheyi Cole as Alex Wheatle, the film also stars Robbie Gee in the role of Simeon (a mentor figure Alex met while in prison) and credits Alastair Siddons and Steve McQueen as co-writers.
Interestingly, the real Alex Wheatle was involved in the Small Axe project as part of the writer’s room, when his inspiring real-life story became earmarked as one of the five standalone films in the anthology.
Alex Wheatle, also fondly known as the Brixton Bard, is a world class novelist today who has penned well-loved novels such as Brixton Rock and Straight Out of Crongton, but his beginnings were a far cry from who he is today.
Alex Wheatle, also fondly known as the Brixton Bard, is a world class novelist today who has penned well-loved novels such as Brixton Rock and Straight Out of Crongton,
Belonging is a recurring theme in Alex Wheatle, whose overwhelmed Jamaican father gave him up at the age of three. Alex certainly did not have any sense of belonging at the Shirley Oaks children’s home, where he and other youngsters suffer physical and emotional abuse. The film shows Alex’s harrowing time at the predominately white home and his eventual arrival at a social services hostel in Brixton as a teenager. It is in Brixton that he develops a sense of identity and community with other Black youths.
At 16 years old, under his DJ name, Yardman Irie, Alex co-founds the Crucial Rocker sound system and writes lyrics about everyday life in Brixton. He soon feels a sense of home and camaraderie. However, when 13 young Black Britons aged 14 to 22 are killed in the now infamous New Cross Fire (also known as the Deptford Fire), which the community believe is racially motivated, Alex is devastated.
The New Cross Fire wasn’t the only factor that led to the Brixton Uprising. High unemployment rates among young Black men also contributed to growing tensions as did the community’s worsening relationship with police due to constant harassment and an ever-increasing Stop and Search policy, allowing officers to frisk and question anyone they deemed suspicious.
“People sometimes forget that this was so shortly after what happened in Deptford, where 13 young Black people passed away and died – you know, a terrible fire – that has never really been resolved.”
Tensions rise when the police fail to make any arrests in the case, leading to the Brixton Uprising aka the Brixton Riots three months later in April 1981. Alongside his friends, Alex participates in the protests and is arrested and ultimately imprisoned for four months.
Wheatle, now a husband and father, commented that McQueen’s recreation of the Uprising was frighteningly accurate.
“I was observing those scenes in the director’s tent, and as I was watching the monitor it all brought it back right home for me. Not just the excitement, but the fear as well. The panic, the pounding heart. That was all captured so beautifully.”
Conveying how frustrated members of the Black community had become was also crucial.
“And the rage as well,” Wheatle says. “That was very important for Steve to capture. And he caught that beautifully, I felt, because there was a lot of rage, a lot of anger. People sometimes forget that this was so shortly after what happened in Deptford, where 13 young Black people passed away and died – you know, a terrible fire – that has never really been resolved.” Déjà vu anyone?
In prison, Alex shares a cell with the erudite and more mature Simeon (played by Robbie Gee). At first, the two are at odds, with the young and brash Alex finding fault with Simeon’s quirks. Over time, the cellmates develop a mentor/mentee relationship and Simeon teaches Alex the importance of literacy, education and self-awareness. Under Simeon’s guidance, Alex begins reading everything from The Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James to Homer.
“As a society, we’re not used to seeing the likes of Simeon, having his views and his advice,” says Alex Wheatle. “We’re not used to seeing strong Black men who can advise the young and help them along and introduce them to their culture.”
Watch the trailer…
Alex Wheatle, the fourth film from Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology, comes to BBC One and iPlayer at 9pm on Sunday 6 December.