Noel Clarke (left) and Adam Deacon in Adulthood
So, here’s the story. In 2006, a new UK distributor, Revolver, released a film targeted directly at the ‘urban’ youth market. ‘Urban’ in this context means the 15-24 market in the UK’s major cities, where there is a common interest in hip-hop, rap and other forms of urban music. It implies a black, white and Asian audience. Kidulthood saw Revolver clean up in just four weeks on a limited distribution that garnered a box office of £400,000. When the DVD was released it soon captured a wider audience, so that when the sequel, Adulthood, was released in 2008 it stormed to over £3 million in four weeks – in its first week outperforming Hollywood blockbusters on a screen average basis. How do we explain this?
Kidulthood is a straight genre film – a UK ‘youth picture’ par excellence. Going directly for ‘street cred’, director Menhaj Huda and writer/star Noel Clarke (both experienced in UK TV drama) pack as many genre set pieces into a 90 minutes running time as possible. The plot focuses on a West London comprehensive school and seven main characters – three boys and three girls from Year 11 (15-16 year-olds) and an older youth played by Clarke (who was actually 30 in 2006). Youth pictures have a compressed narrative – here just two days. On the first day, a school student plans a party and a girl is mercilessly bullied at school. That night she kills herself and the next day the students are given the day off. The plot driver is a pregnancy and wrangles over paternity, which together with subplots about drug dealing lead inevitably to disaster at the party, which goes ahead despite the suicide.
Kidulthood in a sense sidestepped mainstream media and caused remarkably little fuss. Only Noel Clarke had any profile, having played a leading role (as Rose Tyler/Billie Piper’s boyfriend in the new Dr Who TV series) but the film did nod towards a whole range of ‘media panic’ issues in the UK with gun and knife crime amongst teens as well as teen pregnancy and drug use. It was noticed certainly, but tended to slip off the mainstream radar.
The film was well made, making excellent use of West London locations around Ladbroke Grove/Latimer Road/White City/Hammersmith as well as the West End. This is an interesting area that takes in one of the first areas of London to be settled by West Indian migrants in the 1950s, but also borders some of London’s more affluent areas such as Chelsea, South Kensington etc. With cinematography by the legendary Brian Tufano it was always going to look good and for me the editing style with its accelerated pacing through jump cuts and extensive use of split screen works well (although several reviewers don’t like it). The music is an important element and is used extensively. I can’t comment on individual tracks, but I get the impression that there are important tracks by artists well known to the audience. The playing by the young cast is generally very good – there are many excellent young actors in London and much of the time there only chance of a role is in TV serial drama such as The Bill, Holby City etc. which tend to have more diversity in casting.
To appreciate the effectiveness of Kidulthood, I think an audience needs to embrace the idea of genre. There is nothing ‘original’ about the film’s narrative – much of it is familiar from TV drama (except in language use and overall presentation, which is much stronger). I was struck by how many scenes seemed to be inspired by La Haine – three youths going ‘up West’, arguing with a taxi driver, chatting up an older, middle-class young woman, visiting middle-class drug dealers etc. and were also mirrored in Tough Enough. It may be that the original model is the African-American cinema of the 1990s (Juice etc.) which was in any case a source for La Haine. It doesn’t matter – Kidulthood takes these familiar scenes and re-imagines them in a fresh and lively way which is all we can ask of a genre film. What is interesting is that whereas all the films mentioned above have a discourse about race and culture, it is much less evident in Kidulthood (it is there, but most of the time it doesn’t drive the narrative). For instance, most of the youth shown at home are part of single parent families, but this isn’t developed into any kind of issue and certainly not to specific issues in London’s black communities. The contrast is made on class grounds, so that it is the ‘complacent white middle-class parents’ of the girl who takes her own life who are critiqued. Compare this to the film which Kidulthood followed into cinemas – Bullet Boy (2005 release).
Bullet Boy is set in North East London – a rather different locale, further away from the West End/affluent areas. It is much more of a family melodrama than a ‘youth pic’ (even though it focuses on gun crime amongst black youth) and was initially targeted at an older, more middle-class audience. It didn’t reach that audience, but fortunately the distrib. put it in multiplexes and the younger audience found it. Bullet Boy was a much more ‘prestigious’ film which attracted attention in the broadsheets and was held up as both ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ in terms of representing London’s black community. It made around £500,000 and was held up as the most successful ‘Black British’ film to date. Kidulthood nearly matched that total without any of Bullet Boy‘s more mainstream promotional push (by UKFC and BBC)
Following Kidulthood‘s success, Clarke and Huda next collaborated on a TV pilot, set in the same locale and with the same basic ingredients, W10 LDN for BBC3 (digital channel for the 25-34 demographic) and made by Kudos, the independent company responsible for the BBC hit series Life on Mars. Clarke has clearly been networking very effectively and earlier this year he joined a group of leading British ‘black creatives’ on a ‘meet and greet’ visit to LA. This was the ‘Breakthrough Brits‘ trip organised in conjunction with the UK Film Council.
The UKFC also supported the release of Adulthood, enabling a much wider release than Kidulthood on 179 prints from Pathe at its widest. Adulthood has many of the pluses from Kidulthood, but I think it suffers a little from Clarke’s ambition to make it a more philosophical film than its predecessor. There is nothing wrong with such an ambition, but for a first time director it is a bit more of a challenge. Clarke is much more the focus himself as an actor in the sequel and it must be difficult to write, direct and act in front of your own camera. I think he might best have been advised to use a different director (Huda is credited as an associate producer – why didn’t he direct?). I think a more genre-based film might have been tighter and more coherent – but then I would probably prefer the overall message of this film (breaking the circle of violence) rather than the typical genre film. In narrative terms, this takes place six years later (thus enabling the actors to play closer to their real ages). Sam (Noel Clarke) is released from prison and is immediately threatened with revenge for his actions at the end of Kidulthood.
There are some interesting aspects of the second story, some of which are from Clarke’s direct experience – one of the characters starts a law degree and meets a more sussed and assertive woman. Some of the earlier characters are missing or under-used (the three girls from Kidulthood) and my heart sank when I saw Danny Dyer (a central figure in a swathe of Brit gang/gangster films) but fortunately he makes only a fleeting appearance.
In short, I was a little disappointed in the sequel, but it was still a worthwhile effort. For me, the most revealing part of this is the difference that promotional push and a developed profile via DVD distribution can do for a film. Adulthood will end up making some 8 times more at the theatrical box office than Kidulthood. There is some form of lesson about distribution here. More importantly, perhaps, the success of the film blows sky high the industry belief that ‘black films’ don’t sell in the UK. Bullet Boy made £0.5 million, Boyz ‘n the Hood around £1.3 million (admittedly this was in 1991 – so at least double in 2008 prices) but Adulthood has topped that whilst not directly addressing cultural concerns. A wider audience seems to have had no problems with the film. The next step is to see whether Adulthood is sold overseas in cinemas. Kidulthood only seems to have got out of the UK on DVD or TV in the US. Surely the pair could be sold to France, Germany etc.? I’d rather they were exported than a Richard Curtis comedy.