On Saturday evening, a fight broke out at the Vue cinema at the StarCity complex in north Birmingham. It was claimed that it had started at a screening of the new Rapman-direct film, Blue Story – centred on a postcode war between two gangs in south London – before spilling out into the main foyer area, where families were queuing to see Frozen 2. According to a BBC report, several of those involved held machetes.
In response, Vue decided to pull the film, citing a further 25 violent incidents that it claims have taken place at screenings across the country. Showcase cinemas followed suit. The decision has since been reversed by Vue, which will continue screening the film – albeit with increased security – thanks to pressure from director Rapman, who has questioned the credibility of the cinema’s claims given a lack of photographic or substantive evidence. It’s hard not to share his scepticism. Tense as the events in Birmingham were, Blue Story exposes the poverty, inequality and racism that contribute to gang warfare, and stands as one of the most poignant and sobering British films I’ve seen in years.
Set between Deptford and Peckham in south east London, the film tells the story of best friends Timmy, played by Stephen Obudola, and Marco, played by Michael Ward. Timmy and Marco are dragged into oppositional factions out of a sense of loyalty to their families and local communities. The story spans several years, relaying the vagaries of gang warfare and the forces that divide people. It’s an exploration of love and friendship, but also the need for protection in a community that knows it can never rely on the fair hand of the police, or the support of the state.
Script, direction and acting are all on-point, and Obudola and Ward deliver performances of emotional complexity. There are a few touches that will invariably offend the orthodox tastes of the mainstream commentariat – montages and rap interludes that give the film pace and cut through the more violent scenes with pause and reflection. At the screening I went to at the PeckhamPlex cinema in south-east London – coincidentally also a location in the film – the crowd delivered a standing ovation. It is hard not to feel angry that Vue was poised to prevent thousands of people from seeing the film, and could have seriously stalled the profits of the cast and crew.
The censorship of black and working-class stories belies a tendency on the part of the cultural establishment to deny these communities mainstream representation and refuse works that reflect upon the dynamics of power and elitism. In blaming the film, which really only serves as a mirror to society, it allows the establishment to point the finger while never having to confront its own role in a society that continues to undervalue and mistreat black lives.
StarCity has long been a site of gang trouble. Situated in the Nechells area of north Birmingham, it serves some of the city’s most deprived areas, including Handsworth and Lozells. It stands just ten minutes south of Goosemoor Lane, where in 2018 a 23-year-old was shot in a gang-related incident, and about ten minutes east of where Charlene Ellis and Letisha Shakespeare were killed in a clash between two of Birmingham’s longest-standing and most notorious gangs, the Burger Bar Boys and Johnson Crew. These gangs didn’t appear out of nowhere, but sprung from the same communities that suffered police brutality and racism during the 1980s. And in fact, their stories have also been closely entwined with the world of cinema and film.
The artist John Akomfrah’s film Handsworth Songs centres on the Handsworth riots in 1985 and remains one of the most important documents of black people’s lives in the area during the Thatcher years. Filmmaker Penny Woolcock’s documentary One Mile Away brought the Burger Bar Boys and Johnson Crew together, in a bid to reconcile their differences. She, along with the documentary’s two leading figures and representatives from the gangs, Shabba (Johnson Crew) and Dylan Duffus (Burger Bar Boys), is credited with having at least temporarily put a stop to their warring. Far from exacerbating tension, these films have become important landmarks in the cultural heritage of a community and a region that the establishment has always derided and ignored.
If violence has returned to the area then it’s as a result of worsening poverty, limited services and a sense of despair, created, in part, by ten years of government austerity. North Birmingham’s local authorities, which were responsible for providing community outreach and youth programmes, have faced crippling cuts. A walk through the area confirms what most local newspapers are reporting on an almost weekly basis: that rubbish is not being collected frequently enough, leading to vast pile-ups on the sides of roads and in the alley-ways serving pedestrians under the city’s vast road system. Morale is low and hope is absent. If we are to interrogate the unrest in our society, it’s these factors that we must examine. Which is exactly what Blue Story does, and why its message should not be silenced.