The Movie Waffler New Release Review [BBC] - ALEX WHEATLE | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review [BBC] - ALEX WHEATLE

alex wheatle review
The youth of writer Alex Wheatle.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Steve McQueen

Starring: Sheyi Cole, Jonathan Jules, Asad-Shareef Muhammad, Robbie Gee

alex wheatle poster

I knew nothing about British writer Alex Wheatle when I sat down to watch the fourth instalment of Steve McQueen's 'Small Axe' anthology that bears his name. When the credits rolled a brief 66 minutes later, I still didn't know a whole lot about Wheatle. The first misstep in McQueen's otherwise impressive compendium of films exploring London's West Indian community in the fraught years from the 1960s to the '80s, Alex Wheatle offers little more than a rushed overview of the author's youth.

alex wheatle review

Opening in media res, we find Wheatle (Sheyi Cole) beginning a short prison term, punishment for having been arrested while partaking in the Brixton riots of 1981. There he meets his cellmate, Simeon (Robbie Gee), a towering Rastafarian whose ongoing hunger strike has filled the small cell with the odour of diarrhea. Wheatle is angry at the world, and tries to take it out on Simeon, who easily overpowers him and gradually teaches him to channel his frustration into reading and autodidactism.

Through flashbacks we see Wheatle as a boy (Asad-Shareef Muhammad), placed into a prison-like orphanage where he is bullied by both his adult supervisors and the other, predominantly white kids. Turning 18, Wheatle is transferred from rural Surrey to the London borough of Brixton. Having spent all of his life standing out because of the colour of his skin, he now stands out in the largely Black borough because he speaks and acts like a middle class White boy.

alex wheatle review

Wheatle is taken under the wing of Dennis (Jonathan Jules), a fast-talking Jamaican who teaches the young man how to fit in with his new surroundings. The relationship between Wheatle and Dennis is largely reminiscent of that between Jon Voight's naive hick and Dustin Hoffman's streetwise New Yorker in Midnight Cowboy. Dennis is initially exploiting Wheatle's innocence, but the two come to share a genuine friendship.

At just over an hour in length, and ending before Wheatle has ever sat down at a typewriter, McQueen's film plays more like the first act of a more in-depth biopic than a standalone film. The writer's youth is thinly sketched in vignettes that might feel more at home in generic urban crime dramas. Halfway through, Wheatle becomes a drug dealer, something the film never grapples with, likely for fear of painting its subject in a negative light. His arc from cardigan clad, wide-eyed innocent to leather jacket wearing tough guy never quite convinces because McQueen and co-writer Alastair Siddons skip too many rungs of Wheatle's climb ascent on this narrative ladder.

alex wheatle review

Of the four chapters of 'Small Axe' that have thus far debuted, Alex Wheatle is the first that looks like it was made specifically for TV. There's little of McQueen's visual mastery on display here, with only an extended shot of a young Wheatle lying on a floor while confined in a straitjacket reminding us that this is the work of one of the best filmmakers of his generation. Too much of Alex Wheatle relies on crudely written speechifying from supporting characters lecturing the title character on how to fit in or stand out. As a biopic of a literary figure, it's far too literal in its storytelling, the weakest point in McQueen's stellar career to date.

Alex Wheatle
 is on BBC iPlayer now.

2020 movie reviews