Writer-director Shola Amoo’s second feature is a semi-autobiographical ‘coming of age’ tale of a black lad who lands in an urban environment after the idyll of a Lincolnshire upbringing. The trope of bad-town versus good-country, inflected by race, are hard to avoid but Amoo deftly challenges some expectations. When we meet young Femi he is being fostered by Mary, superbly played by Denise Black who subtly conveys the conflicts that must be experienced by foster carers: the love and care as well as the pain of departure. It’s no surprise that Femi, when he is moved to Brixton, South London, in the care of an inadequate mum, suffers from the change.
Much of the film focuses on the 16-year-old Femi, approaching his GCSE exams, and his conflicts with local gangs, peer group and teachers. As Akala’s brilliant Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire shows, there are real tropes involved in growing up as a black lad in an inner city environment; they are not simply generic. The need to act ‘tough’ and portray a hard image, that Akala describes, is superbly showed in the film when we’re party to Femi listening to The Cure on his headphones but tells his mate it’s Tupac. Sensitivity in males is not much of an option, neither are Femi’s dalliances with crime, another accessory of the poverty-stricken environment. Sam Adewumni brilliantly portrays the conflicts that lurk beneath his tough demeanour. Amoo strikingly uses extreme close-ups, and the soundtrack, to create expressionist moments that emphasise it’s Femi’s experience we are sharing.
Nicholas Pinnock is suitably charismatic in the role of a sympathetic teacher and, generally, I found the classroom scenes authentic (I am an ex-teacher) which is not my usual experience. However, I’m not sure how many teachers go ‘above and beyond’ the way Pinnock’s does but this is melodrama so exaggeration is more than acceptable. I couldn’t work out the symbolism of ‘the last tree’; though trees are often present in the mise en scene; then again, trees are often present wherever you are (apparently there are more trees than people in London).
If there is a false note in the film then it is the concluding scenes in Lagos, Nigeria. Femi is introduced to his father and while it is clear that Amoo is not suggesting that going ‘back to Africa’ is a solution, I was slightly puzzled by the ending on the beach. Maybe it’s not about Africa but a reference to Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (France, 1960), the classic nouvelle vague ‘coming of age’ film. Regardless, The Last Tree is well worth seeing and Amoo is a talent to watch.
It is surprising that there are so few films dealing with the Jamaican-UK connection in the last 30-40 years, so Yardie is very welcome. The film is an adaptation of a popular ‘street novel’ that circulated within London’s African-Caribbean communities in the 1990s. Written by Victor Headley, who arrived in the UK from Jamaica aged 12 in 1971, it struggled to find a publisher until it was taken up by X Press, a two-man operation set up by Dotun Adebayo and Steve Pope of The Voice black newspaper. Yardie was the imprint’s first publication in 1992 and it became a cult novel, selling through non-traditional outlets. During the 1990s the novel was popular but also controversial. Several different definitions of the term ‘Yardie’ are in circulation. It is a Jamaican term originally and I think I first heard it used to describe Jamaican gangsters/criminals coming to the UK and that’s certainly its meaning in the film. A ‘yard’ in Kingston refers to ‘government housing’.
Yardie is Idris Elba’s first attempt to direct a feature film and it may be that Elba’s fanbase is the reason that the film was funded by StudioCanal and produced by Warp Films – and then supported by BFI and Screen Yorkshire (Warp Films is based in Sheffield and London). I realise that I’ve only seen Idris Elba in small parts early in his career but I recognise that he is now a star. He worked on the film with John Conroy, a cinematographer he knew well from the TV series Luther and he had experienced producers like Robin Gutch and Gina Carter working with him. Elba himself was born in London to African parents but he was a young man in Hackney when the novel was first circulated. He therefore had a handle on at least the Hackney end of the story. I was intrigued to note that Headley’s novel appears to have been adapted by Martin Bellman, part responsible for the scripts for the terrific Babylon (1980) and Queen and Country (1988), the latter, which I haven’t seen, featuring Denzel Washington as a British soldier back on civvy street after the Falklands War) and Brock Norman Brock writer on Bronson (2008). So, overall the film should work even if Idris Elba is inexperienced as a director. He does have plenty of experience as an actor to fall back on and he is credited as ‘Camera B Operator’.
The narrative outline is relatively simple. ‘D’ (for Denis) grows up in the hills above Kingston. In 1973, as a 13 year-old he ponders advice to choose the ‘righteous path’ rather than the road into criminality, but fate will push him into the ‘wrong path’ when his older brother is killed. When several years later he has become a ‘soldier’ for one of Kingston’s gang leaders he is still being visited by the ghost of his brother and is liable to become violent looking for his killer. This causes his despatch to London by the gang leader ‘King Fox’ (“to avoid war ina Kingston”). But in Hackney it is clear that the violence will continue until his brother is avenged, although D’s task is actually to shift drugs. Inevitably film critics have made comparisons with films like City of God (Brazil 2002) and London gangster films but I think it is more interesting to try to think about Jamaican and Black British films. These too are conventional but they are also much more specific in cultural terms. 1973 when Yardie‘s story begins was the release year of The Harder They Come co-written and directed by Perry Henzell and the most celebrated Jamaican film to date, based on a legendary ‘rude boy’ figure whose story was also told in a deeply researched book by Michael Thelwell in 1980. This film about music and criminality with its use of Jamaican patois and Rasta philosophy is a rich source which Yardie draws on, but only to a limited extent. Babymother (UK 1998) is also about rival performances in the later dancehall culture of North West London, but not the same level of violent behaviour. However, it is the brief ‘family’ moments in Yardie which give it some cultural depth and that’s where the link to Babymother is so important. When D gets to London and once again starts to cause trouble, the only one he can turn to is Yvonne who we have first seen as a schoolgirl in 1973. later she became D’s babymother but has taken their small daughter to London and found work as a nurse. Yvonne and her daughter have the potential to ground D and he is indeed welcomed by Yvonne’s church.
But D is also more vulnerable because of Yvonne and their daughter and this in turn plays into his criminal activities in London. This major part of the film is more conventional and less interesting for me but it too is bolstered by the authentic touches supplied by Headley’s novel and Elba’s research. I was especially impressed by the Jamaican actors Shantol Jackson as Yvonne and Sheldon Shepherd as King Fox. In the Jamaican context we see a Chinese-Jamaican character in the crime/music business and in London Stephen Graham plays a bi-racial British Jamaican gangster ‘Rico’. Several reviewers have been bewildered by Graham’s switch from Jamaican patois to more or less Standard English in the same few lines of dialogue. But I think this is authentic. Graham himself has a Jamaican grandfather. The whole of Yardie is dependent on Aml Ameen as the grown-up D and I think he does a great job. He first came to notice as one of the leads in the 2006 film Kidulthood, the first of the so-called ‘urban films’ in the UK. These films target a broader audience of multi-racial urban youth and therefore not the same investigations of Jamaican ‘roots’ – and consequently the music background is very different. The music in Yardie is mainly ‘dancehall’ for the London scenes and I didn’t recognise much, though there are legendary performers featured such as Yellowman, Black Uhuru and snatches of Burning Spear, Dennis Brown and earlier ska bands. What sounded like a Marley song over the closing credits is I think by Skip Marley, Bob’s grandson.
Overall I think Yardie is a strong directorial debut. I would have liked more back in Jamaica, less violence and more family melodrama, but I’m not the target audience. The African-Caribbean couple in the seat in front of me clearly enjoyed the film which has done OK as a British film, but has struggled for screen space and possibly appeals to an older audience than the ‘urban films’. Ironically, it has also been up against both BlacKkKlansman and Denzel Washington’s Equalizer 2 in the last few weeks. I suspect that Yardie has played in specialised cinemas while Denzel was at the multiplex. But at least we’ve had three black films in UK cinemas at the same time. More please.
Richard Ayoade is a fascinating actor/writer/director. He is in some ways terribly English but also ‘international’ as someone with Norwegian and Nigerian parents deserves to be. The IT Crowd is the only half-hour sitcom I’ve followed in recent years and he was an integral part of it. His first film directing project was Submarine (2010), a successful comedy-drama adapted from a novel by Joe Dunthorne but clearly nodding towards its range of cinematic influences. The same is true for The Double. Again it is an adaptation – loosely so this time. Ayoade accepted a commission to work with Avi Korine (Harmony’s brother) to adapt the 1846 novella of the same title by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
The original story involves a government clerk who has a form of mental breakdown in which he sees a second version of himself taken on as a new employee. In Ayoade’s adaptation the central character is Simon James and his double is James Simon. Jesse Eisenberg plays the two roles convincingly. No one else sees the new employee as a double – they seem to treat him as a completely new and different person. James is everything Simon is not – confident, articulate and instantly successful in developing relationships with everyone he meets. He’s also adept at stealing all Simon’s work and ideas. A direct confrontation is inevitable.
Ayoade has assembled a star cast with numerous cameos by cast members from Submarine (Paddy Considine, Sally Hawkins, Noah Taylor, Yasmin Paige, Craig Roberts) plus comedy friends Chris O’Dowd and Chris Morris. Mia Wasikowska is the object of Simon’s romantic interest. Overall this is an American idea taken on by Ayoade and produced in the UK with a mainly UK cast and crew. Eisenberg and Wasikowska (plus Wallace Shawn and Cathy Moriarty) are there because they suit the roles but they will also help to sell the film in the US. The ‘fictional world’ that Ayoade creates is much less easily defined. Most of the film takes place at night or in the dark and depressing offices of a corporation run by ‘the Colonel’ (Edward Fox). Sets were constructed in a temporary studio space in London with a strong design idea utilising a subdued palette and low-key film noir lighting. This imagined world is timeless and without a specific geographical location.
As with Submarine, the main problem in writing about the film is to get past all the influences. It’s appropriate for me that one key influence I noted was Orson Welles’ film of Kafka’s The Trial (1962) with Anthony Perkins. The East European sense of paranoia in the face of ‘officialdom’ fits the Dostoyevsky story very well. The Press Notes tell us that Ayoade gave The Trial to Eisenberg as preparation. I’ve seen other reviewers suggesting that Orwell’s 1984 is another influence and also Gilliam’s Brazil. At first I did struggle to get beyond these references in an attempt to engage with the narrative. That I did so and ultimately enjoyed the film is down I think to the excellent performances and Ayoade’s preparation and direction. I must mention the music which seems to riff on East Asian pop music as well as Andrew Hewitt’s original score. I hadn’t heard Suikiyaki by Kyu Sakimoto for a very long time before it popped up here. The look of the film is also down to Norwegian cinematographer Erik Wilson (who also shot Submarine) and production designer Andrew Crank.
I’m thinking about using The Double with students, but I’m not sure yet how I’m going to approach it. It’s a brave film in many ways – challenging audiences, especially younger audiences, to accept something different. I don’t think it received all the support it needed to do well in cinemas. Some audiences won’t take to it, but others will and I’m sure that they will find it somehow. I’ve tagged the film as ‘Black British film’. I’ve not seen it described as such and I don’t know how Richard Ayoade might feel about the description but I think it’s something to explore.
Here is a film that will take two or three viewings to properly place so I’ll just make some tentative comments here. I went into the screening with the knowledge that some reviewers had said that it was a surprisingly ‘conventional’ film to have come from the Turner prize-winning artist Steve McQueen. I’m not sure that McQueen’s previous two films were that ‘unconventional’ as specialised films and I found 12 Years a Slave to be similar. I think now that some of the critical reviews have taken the narrative to be poorly constructed as a drama – partly because we are told in the opening credits what happened to Solomon. If this was a reference to a ‘conventional’ film narrative that would make sense, but this isn’t a conventional narrative, instead it is an exploration of what slavery means presented in the guise of a biopic/personal journey.
The most recognisable element of McQueen’s style is his patience in allowing scenes to extend with static or slow-moving pans/tracks (one of the reasons I need to see the film again is to focus on the camerawork). The new element here (in what is a longer film than the previous two) is the insertion of several images of landscape and skies. These are generally ‘beautiful’, representative of iconic images of the swamps, forests, fields and rivers of Louisiana. I’m not sure how they work in terms of the narrative but I kept thinking about the famous ‘pillow shots’ of Ozu (here’s one interpretation of what might be meant by a ‘pillow shot’). Apart from these landscape images, Sean Bobbit’s camera captures other compositions that in Barthesian terms are ‘symbolic’ – a musical instrument being smashed or a view across Washington with the Capitol being built as seen from a slaver’s ‘holding pen’. McQueen also represents the journey south from Washington simply by showing the water churned up by the paddles of a steamer – effective as a representation of the captured slave’s restricted view and also perhaps the emotional turbulence of capture.
These individual images are memorable partly because the pacing of the narrative and the time spent over scenes allows the whole film to breathe. My viewing companion suggested that the long running time had just flown by. I wouldn’t say that because I was conscious of the time, I did reflect on the slow pace as the scenes unfurled and I realised how effective McQueen’s film was in getting me to understand what slavery actually meant in terms of the psychological as well as physical terror that it created. I was never bored, always engaged. I felt that ‘moment’ of understanding and by the end of the narrative the tears were flowing freely. I should also say that I had to shut my eyes for some of the scenes of flogging, disturbed by the violence, the tearing of flesh and by the mixture of guilt, terror, love and eroticism in the climactic flogging.
The key to the ‘conventionality’ of the film is perhaps the fact that this is a film based on a true story as told to a journalist by the central character Solomon Northup played so well by Chiwetel Ejiofor. I’ve read several interesting pieces on the film including those by Jonathan Romney in Sight and Sound and Thomas Doherty in Cineaste alongside interviews with Steve McQueen and the film’s historical adviser Henry Louis Gates. I gather from these sources that Northup’s account is very accurate and supported by the historical records even if the voice in the original published story belongs to a journalist. I mention this because the story is a different narrative to those that were popular in the North in the years before the Civil War. Most such stories were about slaves who escaped and made the journey northwards. Northup instead was kidnapped and taken to the South. He experienced slavery as someone who had been free all his life until that point. We should as audiences today be able to identify with Northup at the point of his capture. It’s then McQueen’s task to use what happens to Northup to tell us as much as he can about what slavery meant and how it destroyed the humanity of all those involved.
Perhaps because of the unusual narrative, McQueen ‘makes strange’ the early scenes in which the narrative switches backwards and forwards in time, seemingly arbitrarily. The film opens with Northup as one of a group of slaves being instructed on how to cut cane for what turns out to be the fourth ‘owner’ he is assigned to. My confusion in these early scenes means that I can’t easily remember the transition between flashforwards and flashbacks. There are probably different ways to read this series of time-jumps. Possibly what is being represented is Northup’s memories of how he got into this situation. What the disjointed narrative suggests is that slaves were not people as such but commodities moved between owners like livestock. These time jumps are mostly early in the film before the narrative settles into the longer stretches of routine and they must make the film more difficult for audiences used to more direct Hollywood openings. The ending of the film is much more conventional – but it is a true story and Northup was ‘rescued’ and did return home. However, there are titles at the end which say a little more about what happened in the years that followed his return – don’t miss these!
12 Years a Slave offers something akin to ‘event cinema’ in the sense that it is almost as interesting and important to reflect on what audiences are saying about the film as it is to analyse the film itself. This can only increase with the focus on Awards ceremonies over the next few weeks – whether the film/filmmakers win or not. Much of the discourse focuses on the fact that McQueen is British and so are many of the leading players – Ejiofor, Fassbender, Cumberbatch. American opinion on this is divided as to whether it is a useful or presumptuous intervention. I think this tends to overshadow the excellent work by (African-American writer) John Ridley who adapted the original book. In the UK the film has prompted calls to have more cultural output covering the British responsibility for the triangular trade that depended on slavery. I’d support those calls, but also point out that there have been some films that deal with the British colonial experience of slavery. Someone might think about releasing a restored version of Pontecorvo’s Queimada (Italy 1969) in the UK – not a film about slavery itself, but a useful discourse about the political and economic importance of slavery in the Caribbean. One of McQueen’s achievements in 12 Years a Slave is to show the routines of the slave plantation and to emphasise its importance in agriculture and the Southern economy in which slaves are commodities, treated like livestock, but also as part of the social hierarchy of the South – something emphasised by the focus on the cruelty of Master Epps’ white wife who abuses Patsey, but whose own status is below that of the men. Much discussion has also focused on the arrogance of the slave-owners and their complete lack of guilt or unease about what they are doing to slaves. Some commentators have suggested that for contemporary audiences this is more shocking than the actual brutality meted out to the slaves. This needs to be explored further. I’m shocked that audiences wouldn’t already know about this lack of guilt. Watching the film, I thought about the ‘banality of evil’ explored in Hannah Arendt. After the screening I discussed with my colleague why there weren’t more slave revolts in the South. In fact there were many small revolts and three major uprisings, but nothing sustained along the lines of the Haitian and Jamaican rebellions. I think that is down to the stronger institutional roots of slavery in North America where the slaveowners identified themselves as ‘Americans’ rather than settlers or colonists with a different relationship to their ownership of land.
There are several scenes in the latter half of 12 Years a Slave which very effectively bring home the process through which Solomon has to go in order to gain some control over his own situation – involving his sense of guilt, frustration, anger, need to survive – and crucially to understand the collective strengths and weaknesses of the slaves in a household. The matching scenes of hangings and floggings in front of the other slaves are the most obvious visual representations but the scene in which Solomon eventually begins to sing with the other slaves is very moving. Hans Zimmer’s score for the film is impressive. I also thought that Alfre Woodard’s role as the freed black woman who has married a slaveowner was important in detailing the complexity of the plantation communities. I can’t complete these notes without mentioning the stunning performance by Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey. We are going to hear a lot more from this young woman and I’ve added a link to a long interview with her on YouTube (on the same page there are interviews with other cast and crew from the film). I’m definitely going to watch the film again in the future. I hope it becomes a film that stays in the memory.