Alex Wheatle: The Sounds of a Life
For Alex Wheatle, music was the most important thing in life.
For Steve McQueen, music is life.
Alex Wheatle, the fourth entry in McQueen’s Small Axe series of films illuminating Black West Indies life in London in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, is (thus far) the most about music.
The film could crudely be described as a sort of origin story biopic, following the child- and young adulthood of Alex Wheatle, a real-life novelist who didn’t write his first book until more than 15 years after the movie finishes. Shifting between the lead-up to 1981’s Brixton uprising and Wheatle’s prison stint that came after his participation in said uprising, Alex Wheatle puts an emphasis on the role of music in the title character’s self-discovery. Echoing a scene from midway through McQueen’s Lovers Rock, Wheatle MCs a small house party late in this film, and the music dims low as the crowd screams back with him, “we’re riotin’ in Brixton.”
But for McQueen, it’s the music of the city - of the community - that defines not just Wheatle, but his entire series. As the Surrey-raised Wheatle transitions from country orphanage to city life, the sounds of the West Indie community threaten to overwhelm. The cacophonous soundscape includes fast-paced, overlapping dialogue, the horns and squeals of cars, and the yelling of street vendors. It’s the music of life, and it plays as large a role in Wheatle’s connection with his past as the Department of Welfare dossier on his childhood that bookends the film.
And though the film may resemble a biopic, nestled in the company of McQueen’s film anthology, its shape becomes clearer. Like its brethren, Alex Wheatle captures the alternating joy and frustration; the rage and passion; and the promise and suffocation of life as a Black immigrant in London. The threat of state-sanctioned violence lurking around every corner is both an inextricable part of Alex’s identity and an unparalleled obstacle in his path toward self-actualization. His music, and eventually his novels, are powered by his experiences, and yet just as he begins to find himself, the Brixton uprising and his subsequent prison sentence hit pause on the notion of turning inward. With the assistance of his Rastafarian cellmate, Alex puts the pieces together.
The uprising itself is limited almost exclusively to a short sequence of black-and-white still photographs. The focus is kept almost entirely on Alex, played with bottled-up frustration by Sheyi Cole. Jonathan Jules brings an unmatched verve to the film, serving as spiritual and literal guide to both Alex and the audience as we dive into the winding streets of London’s neighborhoods. Alex Wheatle may not rise to the cinematic heights of some of its Small Axe predecessors, but director Steve McQueen's ability to create music from the mundane makes this installment essential viewing.