Cast: Stephen Odubola, Micheal Ward, Khali Best, Eric Kofi-Abrefa, Kadeem Ramsay, Karla-Simone Spence
Every so often, a film comes along that is an effort to represent reality, for better or for worse. And, arguably, the more indie a film is, the less ‘mainstream’, the more likely it is to represent that reality accurately, due to less need to impress a wider audience (and studio). This is what UK rapper, writer and director Andrew Onwubolu, aka Rapman, has aimed for with Blue Story, a rap-musical retelling of his personal experiences of gang violence on the streets of London to show the futility of it all. It’s a touchy subject, particularly when cinemas start banning it for, arguably, no good reason, but it’s an important one. Has Rapman done a decent job of letting us know the reality of the situation? Does it speak to those involved, those thinking of getting involved and those in danger of getting involved? Or is it another convoluted issue that we’re too familiar with for it to have any real impact?
Timmy (Odubola) is from Deptford but moves to an Ofsted-accredited school in Peckham. Gangs in Deptford and Peckham are in the midst of a ‘post-code war’, which puts Timmy in a difficult position. He continually professes his loyalty to his best friend, Marco (Ward), and the lads in Peckham, but there’s always some underlying tension. Events escalate to the point where Timmy and Marco become enemies, and things get even more than personal. When guns and knives are involved, lives are lost and anger grows, forcing the former friends further apart and further into the depths of the gang war.
In all honesty, I am not the right person to pass full judgment on this film’s story and its impact, because I am a white lower-middle-class female who grew up in a place where murders are extremely rare and gang violence almost non-existent. The closest I’ve come to understanding a world where gangs exist is spending nearly four years living in Manchester. I cannot relate to Timmy’s story, and highly doubt I ever will, so I can’t really comment on how far the film’s message will go. It also proved difficult to understand the dialogue much of the time, with the use of slang and the dialect being almost like another language entirely. It’s completely fair to write the script in this way, but it does make it difficult for Rapman to pull in a wider audience beyond his target if the dialogue can’t be universally understood. But as an average cinemagoer, did Blue Story ultimately get across to me the atrocity and level of violence that occurs in many cities across the world? Yes. Did it help me to understand why young people get involved in gangs? Yes. Did it really make me feel like it was an entirely pointless endeavour? Not exactly. Why? Because of the film’s framework and the story’s angle.
Overall, the story is nothing new – we’ve seen multiple films made, both short and feature length, that depict the hellish ordeal and futile consequences of gang violence (and in a much more impactful way), but Blue Story really enforces how a lot of the violence stems from loyalty and a ‘family’ dynamic, both very important attributes for any human being, good or bad. Rapman doesn’t really impress how it’s a bad thing to want to protect your own and belong to a community, even if that community is hellbent on continuously breaking the law. Add in the framework that consists of Rapman’s musical interludes in which he narrates through rap, and it basically becomes a musical. What genre do musicals generally all have in common? Fantasy. People do not randomly burst into song (or, in this case, rap) or have an unseen figure hanging around that breaks the fourth wall, and so it can make the story feel somewhat removed from reality. Look at West Side Story, a similar story of gangs and violence interspersed with music (and dance). Viewers usually come away from WSS loving the music and the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ story of Tony and Maria, but does anyone actually remember the violence and the horrible ending as much as they do the rest of the story? Not so much. Even Blue Story contains elements of a ‘Romeo and Juliet’ theme, between Timmy and his love interest. Just as you may want to support Romeo or Tony in their endeavours, despite them being good men who venture down a dark path, you may want to support Timmy when things start to go awry. This does not bode well for ensuring the message that gangs are not good ‘families’ to be a part of.
Of course, this is just a personal opinion from someone who relies on mediums such as film to inform and educate me on things going on in the world that I’ve never been a part of. It’s an entirely different thing to hear the opinion of someone who lives in that world, or on the periphery of it (it’s worth checking out an article from the Guardian about the reactions of such people). It would be ignorant not to take onboard the thoughts of those this movie is really aimed at. It’s also worth perhaps checking out where Rapman began with Timmy’s story through the original Blue Story on YouTube. Additionally, it’s worth watching his other similar videos for his lengthy rap ‘Shiro’s Story’, in which he does an arguably better job with his storytelling, in that the pacing, performances and structure are, again arguably, superior to Blue Story. All involve Rapman’s rap narrative in varying degrees of usage, and this is perhaps one of the better aspects of his storytelling – it’s a fresh and welcome change of pace in how a story is told. It would maybe even be interesting to see something like this performed in a theatre, as that can really change the dynamic between audience and story, sometimes much for the better.
As performances go, some are stronger than others. Odubola starts off relatively reserved, making Timmy less of an innocent figure and more a passive character amongst stronger personalities. As his story grows, however, Odubola does grow into Timmy, and does what he can with the material he’s given. Timmy’s descent into gang violence is a quick one, and more could have been shown to express his emotional decline as well, rather than a skip in the time period. Ward’s Marco is the stronger character of the two, a performance that often overshadows Odubola’s and probably represents the brainwashing that occurs within gang culture more accuratenly. Spence’s performance as Timmy’s love interest Leah felt a bit out of place, as she was the one character who was easy to understand when it came to dialogue, which made her feel like she was from another world to the males in her life. However, this could be seen as a positive for her characterisation, considering she was one of those orbiting gang culture, not directly part of it but who socialised with those who were, and as someone who could be that little but more relatable to a wider audience. One thing is for certain though, and it’s that all the performers, young and adult, have done a great service in trying to encourage other young people (and older, really) to step away from violence – just like Rapman, their intentions are in the right place.
Blue Story’s themes make Rapman’s intentions undeniably clear, in showing how unglamorous, dangerous, pointless and very real gang violence is. What it doesn’t make clear, however, is how it’s a bad thing to want to protect your own and to belong to something. Maybe if Timmy’s story had gone the way of making it clear that there is a way out of the violence, that it doesn’t have to end in ruined lives, then the futility of it all could have left a more profound mark. Of course, the reality is that not everyone makes it out to tell their story, or they continue on for the sake of their pride, but clearly Rapman is the exception to the rule – he has been able to tell his story, and if he wants to be the role model to those involved or considering getting involved with gangs, he needs to shine that light at the end of the tunnel. Rapman himself has said the film is “about what people do for the people they love, and how love can make people make the wrong decisions – and the right decisions sometimes” (from the BBC). But does it really make clear what the right and wrong decisions are? Perhaps it’s subjective, but for me, the line in Blue Story is a blurred one, and the story overall so familiar and repetitively done that I’m almost numb to it. However, Rapman’s, and his cast’s and crew’s, good intentions couldn’t be clearer, and he does deserve plenty praise for that.