In “Alex Wheatle,” the fourth of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe films, we meet a young man who seems, quite literally, to have come from nothing. Alex (Sheyi Cole), born to Jamaican parents in 1963, was abandoned by his mother, and his father gave him over to the British social-services bureaucracy — which means that he grows up, in essence, as a Dickensian orphan. We see him in a home for boys, run by an “auntie” who’s a nasty piece of work; she reacts to the fact that Alex wets his bed by shoving the urine-soaked sheets into his mouth. The cruelty is palpable, but it’s not until a scene or two later, when the 18-year-old Alex gets throws in jail, that we see what it truly means to be a lost soul.
Alex’s cellmate is a burly Rastafarian named Simeon (Robbie Gee), who seems friendly enough but is having intestinal issues, which drives Alex nuts. They get into a fistfight, which Alex doesn’t have a prayer of winning, and in between shouts of “Calm yourself!” Simeon attempts to subdue him, finally asking, “Listen, man! What is your story?”
“My story?” cries Alex. “I ain’t got no frickin’ story!”
It takes a moment for the terrible power of that line to sink in. Everyone has a story, but Alex means it. To him, life has been a blank, a negative, a series of situations so miserable that what they’ve defined is barely an existence. He’s a nowhere man. Yet “Alex Wheatle,” which might be described as a consciously scrappy hour-long verité biopic, is about the real Alex Wheatle, who became a writer of novels for young adults, and what we see in the film is a soul coming into focus, an identity being forged and discovered.
The heart of the movie is set in 1981 in Brixton, the South London district that was, at the time, extraordinarily down-and-out but also home to a vibrant community of West Indian immigrants. It was immortalized in the 1979 Clash song “The Guns of Brixton” (“When they kick in your front door, how you gonna come,/With your hands on your head or on the trigger of your gun?”), and the song’s mood of violent desolation is of a piece with the movie, which traces Alex’s haphazard attempts to fit into the neighborhood, a place both welcoming and threatening. McQueen turns Alex’s visit to a reggae record store into a stoned Proustian reverie. At the same time, the area is teeming with hustlers. At a government halfway house, Alex connects with Dennis (Jonathan Jules), a fellow of bellicose bluster who shows him the ropes — and speaks, I have to say, in the thickest Jamaican patois of any character I’ve seen in the Small Axe films. But Jules is such a buoyant actor that any missed words scarcely matter.
Dennis takes Alex to a Christmas dinner (where Alex scarfs down his food as quickly as an ex-prisoner), and he tries to put Alex together, teaching him how to dress, how to walk, how to be. The lessons rub off. Alex, who starts out as a polite kid from Surrey who speaks in a British accent, ends up becoming a weed-dealing rasta punk, and what makes the transition believable is that he’s building that personality on top of a void. Sheyi Cole, who has never been in a movie before, and has a brainy sullen sensuality that could take him far, makes Alex a glowering chameleon. At times he stares into space, and we can see how haunted he is. Yet his membership in the community, with its network of criminals who can coddle you or turn on you (Johann Myers is especially good as a drug dealer who suggests a thug Sacha Baron Cohen), is the closest thing he’s ever had to a family.
The clashes with cops — which are the epic motif of the Small Axe series, defining the lives of immigrants who are tolerated but not wanted — are as unavoidable as they are scary. Alex gets caught up in the 1981 Brixton riots, which were ignited by the New Cross Massacre, a birthday house-party inferno — likely caused by a racially motivated bombing — that killed 13 young people, to the shocking indifference of the local white community.
The riots, which McQueen depicts in a montage of true-life photographs, get Alex arrested and sent to jail, and it’s there, inspired by his Rasta cellmate, that he undergoes an awakening reminiscent of Malcolm X’s. Yet we only get to see a short chapter of it; such are the verities of a capricious hour-long drama. What McQueen is out to capture is the moment when lightning strikes — when a book, an idea, the weight of history, or the promise of a donated typewriter can pave the road that you didn’t know was there.
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