I came to Blue Story with a pre-formed mix of admiration and expectation.
The admiration arises from Rapman’s meteoric rise as a rapper from ends being signed to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation – much on the back of Rapman’s music videos/online series, Shiro’s Story (UK, 2018).
Shiro’s Story involves some solid storytelling – with Rapman himself functioning as a kind of chorus over events as they unfold, involving love, betrayal, struggle and so on. I shall return to Shiro’s Story as a point of comparison to Blue Story later on.
The expectation that I had for Blue Story arises not only from the existence of Shiro’s Story as a decent piece of online media, but also from recent news stories that, for better or for worse, have helped to give the film a great amount of exposure in recent days, in particular a reported gang brawl involving c100 people at a Birmingham multiplex on 24 November 2019.
Not that the brawling has anything per se to do with Blue Story, but it nonetheless increases expectations about the timeliness and importance of the film. Indeed, the screen at which I saw the film (at the Odeon Covent Garden in London) was near-full (c160 tickets sold).
Furthermore, the vast majority of the audience were young and non-white – on a scale that I have rarely if ever seen at a central London theatre, suggesting that the film is connecting with an audience that otherwise does not often make the trip into such spaces. Clearly, London and the UK in general need more films like Blue Story in order to bring people together – especially to see demographics represented onscreen that all too often are overlooked, tokenised and so on.
Indeed, as has been reported, the decision by VUE to pull Blue Story from its screens (with Showcase having reinstated it shortly after removing it following the Birmingham brawl) is considered to have an element of structural racism associated with it: cinemas are white spaces where black and other non-white British (and other) people appear neither in person nor on screen.
And yet, if we are to have the wherewithal to recognise the importance of structures in the exhibition policies of British cinema chains, as well as perhaps in British cinema as an institution, then it is the absence of structures in Blue Story that constitute its most serious failings.
The film is not without many things to commend it: the performances are across the board intense, with leads Stephen Odubola and Micheal Ward clearly standing out; there are some moments that beautifully capture the awkwardness of youth (with audience members responding audibly about the familiarity of party and clinch situations during the screening I saw); and Rapman’s own appearances, rapping as if a Greek chorus in between acts. These latter in particular take the film into the territory of the musical that is fresh and engaging.
What is more, Blue Story clearly fits into a genealogy of black British and other filmmaking, with Noel Clarke looming as a key influence, even if Rapman himself first made a version of Blue Story for YouTube in 2014 – i.e. before Clarke had even finished his -hood trilogy, which culminated in Brotherhood (UK, 2016).
What is more, Rapman’s music clearly bears traces of what might seem an unlikely point of reference, namely Bruce Hornsby – he of ‘The Way It Is’ fame.
Except that Hornsby’s influence is not as unlikely as all that when we consider that ‘The Way It Is’ is a song about the American Civil Rights movement, with the song making reference to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as racial segregation in the form of the ‘color bar’ (‘When all it sees at the hiring time / Is the line on the color bar, no / That’s just the way it is / Some things will never change’).
What is more, Hornsby has been a regular collaborator with Spike Lee, writing music for nine of Lee’s films, including Clockers (USA, 1995), Bamboozled (USA, 2001), Chi-Raq (USA, 2015) and BlackKklansman (USA, 2018), as well as his Netflix production of She’s Gotta Have It (USA, 2017-2019).
In other words, Lee’s legacy is felt at least indirectly in Blue Story, suggesting that the latter wishes on some level to situate itself within a history of politicised and political filmmaking – and music.
But as Blue Story struggles to recognise structures, so does it struggle to render its story political.
Here I encounter some ambivalence. As a white male film scholar, I am wary that I should be moved to write a blog about a black British film, especially when I am going to be critical of it.
For, why should I critique a black British film when I let so many white British films go for being mediocre, troublesome or problematic (I simply don’t have time to write about all of the films I see)?
It is not that I consider Rapman to be under pressure to represent the totality of the black British experience. But while I want to be supportive of Blue Story (and I hope that in writing this blog at all, I am demonstrating that in many ways I am), I also cannot let the film go for deficiencies that would for me be problematic in any film (all the while acknowledging that I am perhaps ‘no one’ to be able to comment on a film at all).
A read of bell hooks’ wonderful Black Looks: Race and Representation (1992) would quickly highlight various of the film’s problems. As hooks takes none other than Spike Lee to task for the phallocentric nature of his cinematic universe, so, too, is Rapman’s cinematic universe one dominated by men, especially as mothers and girlfriends disappear over the course of the first half of the film.
Conceivably Rapman is commenting on precisely the issue of sexism and the toxic nature of masculinity. Nonetheless, his female characters become background over the course of the film (while also being referred to repeatedly – and with intended humour – as ‘tings’ by the male characters who basically stare at them at parties). As a result, women function here as excuses for the men to puff their chests at each other – with barely a nod to the queerness of such behaviour being allowed in such a film.
However, I remain unconvinced that Rapman is commenting and inviting us critically to reflect upon black British masculinity, since the writer-director does so little to engage with where it comes from, how it is constructed and so on. That is, Rapman does not engage with the structures that bring about the aggressive black masculinities on display here – and in this sense his film plays more for entertainment than it does for politics.
This is a pity. Because in Shiro’s Story, for example, we get to see Shiro (Joivan Wade) working in a warehouse before he is then offered a break as a drug dealer. While there is some mention in Blue Story about how Timmy (Odubola) is sold out by a bribe from a rival gang, the world of film is not situated in any economic reality at all.
Furthermore, while there is the odd mention that the threatened and real violence that we see in the film is pointless given that the gang members do not ‘own’ their postcode, there is no sense of history here: how is it that London has come to have ‘ghettos’ and how is it that many young black men (in particular) come to feel hopeless and/or disaffected in such a way that they join gangs.
Rapman is clearly astute to how violence can breed violence, but he barely does more than namedrop the bigger issues that bring about the violence that seems endemic in black British urban society.
Indeed, from Shiro’s Story we know that Rapman can contextualise his stories; and so that he does not here is not because he is a first-time writer-director and thus inexperienced. That is, I shan’t let him hide behind that excuse, especially as he is not as young as all that (in his 30s, apparently), and even if his film does have some dodgy plotting (would a van door really be so hot that one could not touch it even for a quarter of a second in order to open it, especially using, say, a sleeve over one’s hand?).
Rather, the lack of explanation as to why these men are engaging in this behaviour is a choice made by or imposed upon Rapman. That is, he chooses not to show us, for example, the mother of Marco (Ward) and Switcher (Eric Kofi-Abrefa) working two jobs, preferring instead to show us her two sons, who seemingly come only to care to seek ‘beef’ with the paigons (pagans) from another postcode.
I say ‘imposed upon,’ because Rapman possibly delivered a film that pleases not so much the audience of his film as a ‘white’ financing institution like the BBC. That is, a kind of structural racism might have been at play in bringing about the end result that is Blue Story in its current form – and one that Rapman has either not been able to criticise, or with which he is happily complicit.
However, the result is the same: without going into the underlying issues that bring about violence, Blue Story becomes little more than a showcase of black men arguing and trying to out-macho each other.
In making little to no attempt to tell us why what we are seeing is taking place, these black men become simply spectacles of violence – and the film reaffirms (I assume without wanting to) the (racist) message that ‘black men are simply like this.’ Or: that’s just the way it is.
However, when Hornsby sings how ‘that’s just the way it is,’ he is of course employing irony because history has shown us that segregation could not continue in the USA, even as racial inequality continues via what Angela Y. Davis has repeatedly identified as the prison industrial complex (including most recently here).
Rapman, meanwhile, provides no history (with the lack of history wrapped up here in the trope/cliché of the absent father, which is repeated across both Timmy and Marco’s families) and in some senses no irony – even if there is ‘dramatic irony’ in that good friends become worst enemies.
To be clear, I am not saying that Rapman needs to offer us a happy ending in which people overcome rivalries and enmity. Indeed, there is a strong tradition of pessimism in movies about race, including in now-classics like John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood (USA, 1991).
This in turns means that it is not quite fair to ask us to think about how Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet (USA, 2019) is playing on UK screens with very little fanfare when compared with Blue Story – since in its hopeful tale of historical female heroism it perhaps does not grasp a sense of despair that black and other non-white British audiences potentially connect with, rather than the white bourgeois sense of hope that a film like Harriet perhaps evokes.
But at least in Singleton’s film, the audience is constantly being reminded of a world beyond its Crenshaw setting, as well as the possibility of another world; there is always a choice, and there are economic, social and other structural pressures at work that make the personal lives depicted also political (even as Boyz n the Hood is formally quite conservative).
Notably, when Rapman’s film refers to anything beyond SE13 and SE15, it is generally to Rapman’s own music and/or the LinkUp TV channel that published his early work.
That is, Rapman foregoes political engagement for self-promotion. Again, this is Rapman’s choice; but as he prefers to promote himself over any genuine attempt to engage politically with the structural aspects of race and gang crime in the UK, so does he – in the language of the Dead Prez – choose a Lexus over justice.
Furthermore, as the film becomes repetitive in its succession of scenes in which black men argue, it conceivably ties into a history of what James A. Snead describes in his glorious essay as ‘repetition in black culture.’
But again, there is no motivation for this – meaning that gangs simply exist, without being concerned with territorial business interests connected to the grey or black markets, alternative economies, or social conditions. Apparently simply being born in Peckham will induce in black men a hatred for black men from Deptford – and vice versa, and that’s just the way it is.
Given the coverage that it has enjoyed, it seems a shame that Blue Story wastes a rare opportunity to offer up a scathing critique of structural racism in the UK.
In this sense, the coverage of the Birmingham brawl in fact becomes emblematic of the film as a whole: rather than making a film that incites audience members to take militantly to the streets in demand of social change, Blue Story instead becomes an excuse for young ethnic British people to fight each other.
Sure, this spectacle of self-destruction takes place in an otherwise white, consumerist enclave, and thus it does in some senses unsettle readers of national newspapers. But it also simply reaffirms and reinforces a white fear of a black Britain – reducing minority youths to hoodlums in hoodies who simply are violent, with no need for the rest of society to reflect on their own implication in this mess.
That is, blackness becomes a spectacle for white consumption.
The nihilism involved both in the brawl and in Blue Story is troubling – and in this sense there really is something to get behind here. What is more, there clearly is a British sensibility of nihilism, as we have seen in countless movies related to class (and now race): there is no way out of the British class system (meaning that the UK is truly corrupt since it sees change as impossible; history ended in the UK first, with numerous black and other non-white bodies being excluded from mainstream society).
Maybe it is my white sensibility that is at play when I say that I would hope for more, and maybe it is unfair to ask Rapman to be anything other than human, i.e. flawed and imperfect. But if we believe there is something wrong – as Blue Story would seemingly purport – then it is our duty (so say I) to understand why, so that we then might understand how to change it.
Without understanding why, and without any sense of history (because there is no history?), then it will simply perpetuate – as a spectacle as well as in the form of a reality that affects the lives of real people. The lack of critical engagement here is telling, but also self-defeating.
As Shiro’s Story demonstrates, Rapman can do better. Let us hope, therefore, that next time he will engage with a bigger picture and that he realises not just his commercial potential, but also the political and ethical potential of his considerable artistic talents.