Friday, 1 April 2011

British Urban Warfare

Adam Deacon's urban comedy Anuvahood did monster business at the UK box-office a fortnight ago. Despite a relatively slim 149-cinema rollout, the film achieved healthy debut takings of £537,000, delivering the top 10's highest screen average (£3,603). To date the Anuvahood has earned over £1.2 million and is still pushing on strong.

So, it seems that UK urban cinema is now a bonafide success story. British urban cinema has come a long way since Isaac Julien's Young Soul Rebels. Isaac's 1991 film was made at a time when releasing a British film that starred a predominantly urban cast was unheard of. Most executives would have told you there isn't an audience out there to justify such a thing. The chances are that a snooty panel of elitist posh commissioning executives would've shit their pants at the thought of a black person coming into their office and pitching an urban story about inner-city characters doing inner-city things.

Over the proceeding 20 years British urban cinema languished. Unlike British Asian films such as East is East and Bend it Like Beckham, urban cinema lacked the alluring draw that cute ethnic comedies about characters from the Indian subcontinent have for UK audiences, making it a wiser proposition for film producers to invest in. The last few years has seen movies like The Guru, Bride and Prejudice, Slumdog Millionaire and West is West deliver brawny results.

On the other hand urban cinema was not worth the attention. Even major American movies made for urban audiences were released directly on to video, the assumption being the British audience for such films was negligible.

Even up until 5 years ago most naysayers of British urban cinema had a valid point in dismissing the profitability of such films. Saul Dibb's Bullet Boy and Richard Laxton's Life and Lyrics died on arrival, neither one scoring more than a few hundred grand each. Then in 2006 came Menhaj Huda's Kidulthood, which was more importantly written by Noel Clarke. Kidulthood had a so-so cinema release but its saving grace was DVD. The results were good enough to prompt investors into greenlighting a low-budget sequel called Adulthood, this time both written and directed by Noel Clarke. Adulthood played like gangbusters despite only showing at 157 screens. Launched during summer 2008, Adulthood held its own against expensive summer blockbusters like The Incredible Hulk and Speed Racer and Iron Man, earning well over £3.2 million at the box office.

Since Adulthood the UK urban cinema canon has been rich in plenitude. There's been Shank,, Street Dance 3D and TV movies like West 10 LDN, most doing alright business. Indigenous production companies have been keen to get in on the act because these films are cheap to make and distributors are finally aware there's a keen young audience for them, the kind of audience that actually goes to the cinema on opening weekend. Furthermore, the British urban scene is exactly that: an urban landscape populated with numerous cultures existing within one setting. It is not simply a black and white situation.

With this in mind it would seem that British urban cinema is fertile ground for creating complex stories about a plethora of cultures bound together in the backdrop of poverty. Some of these stories could be funny, thrilling, romantic, horrific or dramatic. It offers a vast canvas of opportunities to present levels of storytelling plurality conventional British cinema lacks.

Unfortunately, this hasn't been the case. There is nothing that is compelling about contemporary British urban cinema. Take for instance Anuvahood, which is basically a low rent retread of F. Gary Gray's 1995 U.S. comedy, Friday. It explores no new ground other than taking the model of something that already exists and transporting it to inner-London. Even the films of Noel Clarke are lackadaisical interpretations of American ghetto dramas of the early-1990s. Rather than creating a distinct urban cinema the way in which France did with La Haine or Brazil did with City of God, the UK has produced a series of paltry products that fail to leave any indelible impression. The British urban film scene is a joke that will impress only the most undemanding audiences, primarily poorly educated inner-city kids who are in fact being insulted by the current films targeting their cash.

Cast your minds back 20 years ago when the U.S. saw releases like Do the Right Thing, New Jack City, Boyz in the Hood, Menace II Society, Juice, South Central et al. These were commercial hits yet were also recognised as works of distinction by critics and award bodies. Boyz in the Hood got an Oscar nomination and Menace II Society won the 1994 MTV Movie Award for best film, beating Spielberg's Schindler's List. American urban movies made serious statements about the worrying plight of its poor and black communities. They were serious bodies of work, challenging audiences and playing with notions of virtue. They were stylistically ghetto-fabulous but never lost sight of conveying a compelling story. The films often focussed on black characters but they channelled depth, presenting a misunderstood community that comes in many different guises. These movies were masterworks, viable stories, never failing to make you think about what it means to exist in such challenging circumstances.

The chances of anyone saying such positive things about British urban cinema in two decades time is pretty slim. The British urban scene is largely lacking in quality and integrity, meaning it will leave no lasting impression. That seems wrong when you consider that the kitchen-sink films of the 1960s were also about misconstrued characters coming from poor backgrounds, yet they were rich in humanity. Much like urban fare, the kitchen-sink tradition was very much of its time but remains important. Films like Saturday Night Sunday Morning, This Sporting Life and A Taste of Honey were amazingly well crafted stories that featured impeccably layered characters. I challenge anyone to say the same about British urban cinema.

There is something else that concerns me about contemporary British urban cinema and that is the lack of strong talent being discovered to act in and direct these pictures. Also, it's worrying that British urban films are not being made by filmmakers who come from urban backgrounds. Saul Dibb who made Bullet Boy is a university educated middle-class white guy and Richard Laxton who helmed Life and Lyrics is the same. The industry remains reluctant to invest in talent who come from the backgrounds better served to tell the types of stories being told. The American urban movies mentioned above were directed by the likes of John Singleton, Spike Lee and the Hughes Bros. – filmmakers that came from urban backgrounds. They were the most appropriate individuals to handle the material.

Americans have been hawkish in terms of protecting their stories and the types of filmmakers granted permission to tell those stories. For example, Norman Jewison was originally contracted to direct Malcolm X but he had to withdraw from the project when outside pressures demanded that the film be helmed by a black director. The gig eventually went to Spike Lee and resulted in a terrific movie. It was important to African Americans that one of their own is given the chance to tell an important story about the struggles and empowerment of a black icon. It made sense and the finished movie seemed all the more powerful and compelling because of it. It's hard to think that the British film industry would have presented comparable arguments when they were putting together director lists for Ghandi and Cry Freedom.

Britain does at least now seem to be trying to evolve the urban genre. Joe Cornish's sci-fi comedy Attack the Block will be released in next month and is attracting strong buzz. It's a story that ticks most of the boxes in that it's an urban set picture but produced with greater care and on a better budget. Nonetheless, Attack the Block has been put together by an almost entirely Caucasian team, most coming from backgrounds of great privilege. Joe Cornish was educated at Westminster School in central London which is one of the most expensive private schools in Europe. The producers are from equally comfortable backgrounds too. There is something inherently wrong about how British cinema is going about making these types of films and the way it selects advantaged personnel to create them. If urban cinema is such a viable entity then surely the British film industry has a responsibility to encourage and develop young creative voices that originate from the types of environments being depicting on screen.

This is a complex argument and I'm sure there are many out there who may accuse me of being anecdotal in order to present things my way, but we have to remember that "advantaged" filmmakers will always have greater scope in terms of crossing genres and telling varied stories. Filmmakers from more difficult beginnings will not get such opportunities. After all, Saul Dibb went from Bullet Boy to historical English drama The Duchess. It seems reasonable to assume that Joe Cornish's next project will be equally dissimilar to Attack the Block.

I would argue that Adam Deacon, Menhaj Huda and Noel Clarke will not go on to make anything other than what the industry perceives they are worthy of, and that will most likely be pedestrian urban shit. It can be argued that perhaps these filmmakers are not talented or creative enough to tackle anything else, but that isn't a good enough defence? Actors and filmmakers from urban backgrounds are already displaced by the panoply of period dramas Britain makes which has no room for such people. I can't see the British film industry doing anything to resolve this. Even the new Martin Luther King biopic Memphis is being directed by Paul Greengrass, though most will argue that he's a better choice than pretty much anyone else out there for such a film.

To counteract the claim that black filmmakers in Britain are relegated to insipid urban fare one only has to highlight the career of British filmmaker Steve McQueen who is making serious dramas starring high calibre white thespians, though he does seem to be a rare exception. Having one Steve McQueen doesn't really absolve the systematic failings of an entire film industry.

I am not an ardent supporter of hiring someone for the sake of creating a more level work force. It should always be based on talent and ability, but it's very unfair to exploit stories of a minority culture when the powers that be have no intention of nurturing the talent that is best positioned to tell those stories. There is the additional problem in that the current crop of apocryphal British urban fare is so crap that it will never make any profound impact no matter who tells the story. This is a quick cash-grab by the British film industry and nothing more.


  1. It's about time UK got a little hood.

  2. i love spike and the film adulthood? ... great post! ..Please check out my blog, lets follow each other....

  3. Thanks for the info and for stopping by my blog. =D

  4. You've kind of intrigued me to check some of these out. I love that the urban film scene is growing in the UK. The world is changing and film execs NEED to understand that!

  5. While it’s always pleasing when a post garners comments, I just want to say that my intention writing this was to, in a way, address the poor craftsmanship and absence of intelligence of the current British urban movie scene.

    I re-watched Spike Lee’s CLOCKERS this weekend and was struck by how brilliantly plotted, scripted, acted and directed the movie is. It’s a movie that is as much a reflection of America as it is a gripping thriller about the death of the American dream.

    I can’t hold up any British urban film and say equally positive things about. It just does not exist. That isn’t to say Britain doesn’t know how to create those types of stories, they just don’t want to because it would take effort and may financially backfire. I want to see a British urban scene that goes down in film history as an important cinematic movement, not merely a fad that was briefly profitable.

  6. Thanks for stopping by my blog and for your kind comment.

    I love "Slumdog Millionaire." What a great movie!!!


  7. This was a fantastic and compelling read. Very thought-provoking.

    I'm not overly educated on the mechanisms that dominate British Urban Cinema (as I have a more robust awareness of US film), but I am always looking to "expand my horizons," so to speak. Your piece definitely provided me with a great deal of practical insight.

    It strikes me as counter-productive and quite parochial that the British film industry steadfastly ignores opportunities to allow "those best positioned" to spearhead these "urban" stories. This kind of regrettably regressive, insular mode of filmmaking shall never be staunchly championed. And thankfully, you shrewdly debase this narrow-minded approach.

    Nicely done!

  8. Thank you Matthew.

    I think you said it best in acknowledging the regressive and insular nature of the British film industry when it comes to urban cinema.

    I think America has a culture of making movies. That isn’t the case in the UK where we’ve often been more compelled to pick up a guitar and sing about an issue raher than make a film about it. We’re not a natural filmmaking country the ways say India, China or the U.S. is. To think that the Hughes Bros. were only 20 when they made MENACE II SOCIETY and John Singleton was barely out of college when he made BOYZ IN THE HOOD: both hugely powerful and complex films. I can’t think of a comparable figure coming out of the British film industry.

  9. I'm not well-versed in British cinema, but it is a damn shame that more urban talent isn't recruited to film the urban experience stories. Menace II Society and Boys N The Hood were a major part of my younger days and I can't imagine anyone else telling those stories.

    Provocative and intriguing post.