Odds Against Tomorrow: McQueen’s Anthology Explores Tribulations of Famed Novelist
For the fourth installment of his five-title Small Axe anthology series, director Steve McQueen recuperates the experiences of the famed British novelist in the eponymously titled segment Alex Wheatle. From a childhood spent in the toxic environment of white, institutional home care through his young adulthood, which resulted in a prison sentence leading to an auspicious rumination, McQueen’s portrait leans more into an impression of a particular overlooked experience than a biopic. While the film posits Wheatle’s development as a universally familiar scenario regarding the unfortunate reality of Black children dependent upon social services, it’s also an exceptional portrait of resiliency bolstered by and through uncommon kindness in the most discouraging environs.
Born in 1963 to Jamaican parents, Alex Wheatle became an immediate ward of the government, raised within the indifferent world of social services, spending most of his childhood in the Shirley Oaks children’s home. As a young adult (Sheyi Cole), he was transported to a social services hostel in 1980 Brixton, South London. At odds with many of the customary realities of both the West Indian community and the struggles of the street, he would eventually participate in the 1981 Brixton riots, the consequences of which would seem him imprisoned, wherein he was fortunate enough to be paired with a cell mate (Robbie Gee) who introduced him to the importance of educating himself.
Wheatle’s narrated introduction into the world, born in 1963 and abandoned by his parents into barren institutionalization, wherein the erasure of his cultural identity was one of many neglected aspects, plays like a contemporary Dickensian parable. Verbally and physically abused, snapshots of a lonely boy punished for bedwetting and defending himself against the rampant racism of his white peers, he grows into an aimless man seemingly doomed to be a statistic.
Like a man without a country or a culture, he’s tossed into social services housing in Brixton, South London, wherein other Black youths are nearly as careless and cruel thanks to behaviors which prove his upbringing alienated him from the history and experiences of his own culture. His insistence on claiming a Surrey identity and not African results in a barber berating him, one of several public humiliations he faces in his early days in Brixton. Every interaction is a reminder of his social estrangement, neither street nor book smart, and defenseless against guarding himself from either racist law enforcement or the hard realities of his neighborhood. Lensed by Shabier Kirchner, who served as DP on all five installments in the anthology, this is another specific portrait of a particular time and place in the late 70s and early 80s, with a much less prolific soundtrack than the three chapters preceding it (only The Pretenders’1979 track “Brass in Pocket” standing out as a contemporary musical selection).
Newcomer Sheyi Cole makes his debut as Wheatle in a sensitive, understated performance. Finding escape through is love of Reggae and an interest in DJing, his friendship with Dennis (a patient, if ultimately flawed mentor played by Jonathan Jules) provides some necessary respite. Ultimately, it would be the influence of his Rastafarian cellmate Simeon (a warm Robbie Gee) who would introduce him to discovering his roots, and the importance of education. “If you don’t know your past then you won’t know your future,” becomes the powerful takeaway, foisting literature upon the younger man, such as The Black Jacobins, the 1938 book by Trinidadian historian C.L.R. James.
Switching back and forth from the prison sentence served following the 1981 Brixton uprising, the snippets from Wheatle’s traumatic childhood are just enough to convey his trenchant isolation as well as presenting another horror story of Black lives continually abandoned within the confines of an uncaring, inhumane system. Stealing his personal file from social services plays like the bleak counterpoint to a similar instance in last year’s Joker (2019), all the more troubling because this isn’t the romanticized nihilism of either that film or something like Dickens’ Oliver Twist. McQueen sails us off into Wheatle’s later literary accomplishments in the title cards prior to the credits, but his Alex Wheatle ultimately serves as an introduction to the impressive and important oeuvre of his subject.