By Cassie Smyth, with contribution from Karen Nkala
In my previous role, I spent the last couple of years working with young people to make social action films, allowing them to talk about issues that are important to them. When developing their skills and talking about films with a message someone always mentioned 'Shiro's Story'. This is the first I'd heard of this quiet phenomenon and another reality check that I am now old.
A tale of betrayal, love and rivalry, Rapman's three part drama uploaded to YouTube has collectively amassed over 20 million views, offered interesting roles for young actors as well as having cameos from Headie One, Not3s, Ashley Walters and the late Cadet. Rapman subsequently signed with ROC Nation (Jay Z's label) and Paramount Pictures and BBC Films bought the rights to the follow up feature 'Blue Story.' This should be celebrated and recognised as the achievement it is, but we can't have nice things, can we?
We are all aware of the incident at Star City this past weekend; a situation involving up to 100 teenagers, some wielding weapons, escalated to an all out brawl in the foyer of the Vue Cinema on a busy Saturday evening and required a large police response. There were arrests made, including a thirteen year old girl and a photo circulating online of young boys I would guess to be around 12 years old with one of them holding a machete. THIS IS NOT OK. Of course it's not and that's not what this post is about; we want to talk about the fallout from the situation.
The Vue, in what feels like a knee jerk reaction, has pulled Blue Story from all of their cinemas nationwide, with Showcase Cinemas following suit (the latter has now reinstated the film to it's screenings but with added security), despite the police confirming that this is not based on official advice. West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner David Jamieson told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that "officers were attacked by quite young children" including "12, 13-year-olds who were there in quite large numbers".
Despite the incident involving children not even being old enough to have gone in to watch the film, which is rated 15, the Vue has taken the extraordinary step to pull it nationwide.
This feels not only disproportionate, but unfair in the face of such achievement. Despite being pulled from 2 major chains over it's opening weekend it still managed to come in 3rd at the Box Office with £1.3 million and positive reviews with 83% approval on Rotten Tomatoes and yet the focus and ongoing association for the film is unrest and violence, despite that being the antithesis of the film's purported message. It feels so unfair and unjust for those who worked on the film and those who were excited to see it. And quite plainly, it feels racist. Assumptions by some on Twitter about those who would go watch the film, about our diverse city and the Star City complex are dripping in prejudice. People who haven't watched the film and never had any intention of watching the film are now passing judgement on it, as if it is dangerous - too dangerous for consumption by the youth, lest it set them wild. I honestly wish the motivations of those who disrupted the Vue was as easy to fix as blaming a film, but it's not and now the wheels are on this moral panic and the brakes are off.
The following morning I saw this headline, which in it seems to infer that this outbreak of violence is linked to the film and the earlier incident, but if you read through to the bottom of the article it states "West Midlands Police say the latest Cineworld fight was an 'isolated incident' which spilled from the street into the foyer."
Oh, so nothing to do with the film at all? Ok then.
So the film looks now to be linked with violence, whether warranted or not, and have an alternative narrative pushed upon it to be sidelined, vilified and put in a box as a dangerous film, regardless of intent and with a focus solely on actions outside of the filmmakers control. As social commentator and former director of Media Diversified Maurice McLeod says " The idea that this film is so exciting that a group of black kids will start stabbing each other is just insulting,” continuing, " There are lots of films or TV shows that are much more violent, like Game of Thrones, but it’s understood that people who watch those films are sophisticated enough to not act on it. But that’s not the perception with culture consumed by young black people.”
Dr Clive Nwonka, who is a LSE Fellow in film studies and has authored the upcoming book 'Black Boys: the Aesthetics of British Urban Cinema,' has spoke of recent gang dramas such as Bullet Boy and Top Boy having issues during filming in certain areas of London and have difficulty in gaining permits to film; “Authorities have often seen black urban film as having some sort of potential to influence black people in a negative way. The decision is rooted in the idea that black people are unable to distinguish between fiction and reality.”
So why is this important for BYFN? This network was set up to create a community outside of traditional paths, so that those who might be less comfortable or feel less welcome in the creative industries can gain experience, confidence and a support network so they can walk into those spaces and feel like they belong. We want everyone to feel like if they make it into these spaces that they deserve to be there and the stories they want to tell deserve to be heard. The reactions to this weekend's incident make us feel that not everyone shares in that belief.
Update 28/11/2019: The Vue has now reversed it's decision and is planning on screening the film again with increased security. However, they do not plan on returning the film to Star City for any screenings.
Karen Nkala, 20
Karen is one of our network members and she has thoughts about the 'Blue Story' situation.
“Before I get into it, I want to send my prayers to anyone who was impacted by that devastating incident and commend the police department for serving the community well. This should’ve never happened but unfortunately it did. Secondly, I hope all those individuals who were involved in the incident serve their punishment right. It’s sad that they think they are “the Boss” just because they have a weapon or behaving like a criminal is the way to get respect and it’s just sad.
"Now, the ‘Vue’ decision to pull ‘Blue Story’. As it is my understanding the decision was taken to increase safety for the staff and customers, but personally I think it was really unfair to the film and creator of the film, Rapman. Despite, the success that Blue Story has achieved and continues to achieve, their decision was still ignorant and prejudice. However, people stating that the film promotes violence is also untrue. Even Rapman said it himself, despite how it was dramatised, he made this film to endorse love not violence. Films are made to tell stories no matter gruesome or violent they may appear but responsibility all falls on the people who committed the act. What it is more questionable is this latest report about recent incidents surrounding ‘Blue Story’. Either way, I don’t believe Rapman’s film should’ve been pulled.
"And as Black Woman who also aspires to follow the same footsteps as inspiring artists like Rapman, it is disheartening. It’s disheartening because I question, what if I were to work my ass off only for a cinema to pull it for unprecedented reasons. Like they didn’t do the same thing for the Joker or the Purge incidents. I even remember, hearing one about a man was influenced by the Joker character he walked into a cinema and killed people yet they haven’t removed the character. And I’m not stating they should. But, it’s disheartening to see this happen to Rapman. It’s adds on to that fear and self-doubt. As Black woman it’s gonna be hard for me to make it in the industry, especially when all my films are and will be BAME centred. This is just another layer."