Alex Wheatle shows us that history is not enough

Steve McQueen’s fourth Small Axe film recounts the political journey of the writer Alex Wheatle from custody to consciousness. But the ex-taboo images it brings us also reflect the present we need to see.

Sheyi Cole as the eponymous Alex Wheatle

▶︎ Alex Wheatle broadcasts on BBC One and iPlayer from 6 December 2020 and streams on Amazon Prime in the US.

The takeaway from the Small Axe series is surely this: Steve McQueen is doing the cultural work of narrating the histories of Black British people that for too long have remained in a cultural embargo. But what is happening now, in the current moment, that is too taboo, too hot, too politically charged, too dangerous to be shown on screen?

While watching the episode about the writer Alex Wheatle, and his journey from care home to Brixton to prison to political consciousness, I was struck by the character of Dread. He’s an older Rastafarian man serving a six-month prison sentence for declaring he was going to destroy the tomb of Edward the Confessor with a pickaxe – revenge for the British empire’s destruction of cultural artefacts around the world. He delivers one of my favourite lines: “Unlearn what you’ve learned.”

For a boy like the film’s Alphonso (he changes his name to Alex Wheatle later), this advice is rooted in him learning to recognise that he is Black, and Blackness is not a skin colour but a set of social conditions designed to place you at the bottom of the pile socially, and re-enforce the idea of your inherent inferiority. It’s a realisation that all Black children in majority white societies must undergo, and you can have one of two reactions: resist the reality of the situation and accept the dominance of white cultural narratives, or accept the fact that there is another story and resist the idea that white, European culture is the apex of humanity itself.

Robbie Gee as Simeon in Alex Wheatle

The conclusion that Dread comes to – that he must stand up for himself and learn the truth – culminates in a brilliant scene in which he recommends C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins. This is some hardcore socialist analysis of the Haitian revolution (which is why everyone should read it), but it’s the magic act of a book passing from hand to hand that got me; the cultural transmission of powerful ideas from mind to mind. What I saw in that scene was a profound comment on the importance of knowing one’s history. But deeper than that, Dread acted as curator, librarian, programmer – he was doing the work of ensuring Alphonso knew the intense, radical history of Black people, a history that has been deliberately kept out of schools and off our television screens.

Recently, I have been watching old BBC Arena films, courtesy of the Ilkley Literature Festival and Speaking Volumes. The episodes cover topics such as the social history of carnival, the working-class roots of the steel pans, radical Black poets. At the end of the most recent instalment, the academic Max Farrar notes how important this kind of programming was, and how we no longer see this happening.

This struck a chord, as the struggle for Black cultural production has been characterised by censorship, avoidance delays and underfunding. Indeed the first Black British feature film, Horace Ové’s Pressure (1976), which looked at a boy not dissimilar to Alex Wheatle, was shelved for at least two years by the BFI before its release because it showed police violence. The matter was too current, too politically charged. I am also thinking about Blood Ah Go Run (1982) by Menelik Shabazz, which directly questioned media, state and police indifference towards the 13 dead in the New Cross Fire of 1981.

Alex Wheatle (2020)

In another scene in Alex Wheatle that I really appreciated, a group of young people discuss the deaths in the fire, with fear initially, but then Alex writes a song in response, and we see those same young people dancing and singing, “Uprising! Uprising!”

The irony of these lyrics is that we see Alex on the floor of a cell several times in the film: once, in a straitjacket after being dragged out of his classroom having been racially abused; then again when he is arrested in Brixton. I thought of Ken Fero’s recent film Ultraviolence, which looks at the horrendous deaths of Christopher Alder and Brian Douglas, both of whom died on the floor of a police station – Alex was lucky to live to tell the tale.

It’s as though history is not enough. We must see literal death before we can hold our institutions to account. But even then we still see corrupt judges, murderous police officers, faceless bureaucrats who call the shots and are never held to account.

And so I return to my initial question: what are we not seeing? We believe we have progressed as a society, yet films, histories and even TV programming from the 1980s still have the power to shock us. So what is happening today that is too taboo, too difficult, too confronting? Do we have the courage to confront it?

  • Jay Bernard’s poetry includes Surge (2019), an exploration of the New Cross Fire of 1981.

Further reading