Andrew Onwubolu – who works under the name Rapman - has always done things his own way. The South London filmmaker initially used YouTube as a tool, with his three-part online drama Shiro’s Story shining a light on aspects of life in the capital that some would rather keep hidden.
A powerful, unvarnished look at gang culture, love, and friendship, the astonishing success of the series – it has been viewed more than 20 million times – saw BBC Films and Paramount Pictures combine to work on the full length cinematic project Blue Story.
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Launched to widespread acclaim – the Guardian praised the “clarity, energy, and rhythm” of the film making; Empire called it a “hard-hitting, semi-autobiographical morality tale” – the film now faces being shut down following an appalling incident of violence at a cinema in Birmingham.
Police were called to the Star City Multiplex in Birmingham on Saturday – November 23rd – with up to 100 youths becoming involved in the fighting. Film and photography quickly went viral, a cruel and savagely ironic echo of Rapman’s YouTube success, before police restored order in uncompromising fashion.
No one can excuse violence. Gang culture provides a sense of identity and belonging for many young people, but its inherent violence is ruining lives and damaging communities. What happened in Birmingham is appalling – and no one feels this more intently than Rapman himself.
"Blue Story is a film about love not violence,” he said in a statement. "I hope that the blame is placed with the individuals and not an indictment of the film itself. I pray that we can all learn to live with love and treat each other with tolerance and respect."
But yet authorities are already using this isolated incident as a means to shut the film down. In the hours following the Birmingham fight Vue withdrew the film from more than 100 cinemas nationwide. Showcase followed suit, stating it would not show the film at 21 cinemas around the country. Odeon issued a statement explaining that while it would not be banning the film, “a number of security measures” were in place for screenings.
It feels like an over reaction to an incident of isolated violence, one with worrying echoes of similar clampdowns on black creativity in other areas of popular culture. After all, Form 696 – used by London’s Metropolitan Police to shut down shows it deemed a societal “risk” – still lingers over relations between UK rap artists and authorities, despite being “discontinued” in 2017.
Nowhere is the disintegration of this relationship more apparent than the treatment of drill artists. An astonishingly creative underground scene that refuses to flinch from the violence afflicting everyday life for many young people in this country, the Metropolitan police have reacted with typical lack of foresight, removing upwards of 100 videos from YouTube, severely impinging the careers of many young people in the process.
Indeed, such is the heavy-handed tactics of authorities that drill duo Skengo x AM were actually given suspended prison sentences purely for performing their own music.
“We’re being treated as gang members,” AM told Channel 4 News recently. “We have a new set of rules that’s just gonna make it harder for us to manoeuvre in society.”
He added: “It’s not up to us to determine how you’re gonna respond to our music.”
This seems to be the crux of the way authorities are treating black British creativity right now. There’s a sense that anything that reflects gang culture in any way – in spite of it being an absolute reality for a generation of young people – needs to be shut down, a convenient scape-goat, a ready-made solution for the police – themselves suffering from the impact of austerity-driven Tory cuts – who are struggling, or even unwilling, to enact any help on the ground.
Those kids in Birmingham weren’t carrying weapons because Blue Story told them too – that shocking incident was simply everyday violence bursting forth in front of mobile phone cameras.
Since 2011 more than 43 youth centres and projects run by Birmingham City Council have shut down; young people in Birmingham suffer with one of the country’s highest rate of youth unemployment. These are the factors that fuel a rise in gang culture and youth violence – not what they choose to watch in the cinema.
For Rapman, though, there remains another clear, polarising example. When The Joker was released to a massive wave of hype, the media seemed to use the lingering threat of white terrorist violence almost as a means to promote the film itself.
With Blue Story, though, there is no debate, no moralising, and no conversation – it is simply another example of black British artistry being shut down and side-lined.
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Blue Story is out now.
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