On Sunday 24th November, Vue Cinemas and Showcase Cinema decided to ban all future screenings of Blue Story – the debut feature film by Andrew Onwubolu, aka Rapman – after a confrontation at a cinema in Birmingham. Six teenagers were arrested on suspicion of violent disorder, while seven officers were injured at the scene in an attempt to de-escalate the brawl.
Following a huge social media backlash, later the same day Vue Cinemas issued a follow-up statement to justify their decision. A representative of the chain stated that “during 24 hours of the film, over 25 significant incidents were reported” and the decision to withdraw Blue Story was “on grounds safety alone”. They also claimed that “this is the biggest number [of crime] we have ever seen for any film in such a short time frame”. The controversy around Blue Story spotlighted many truths about Britain – one of which is the unfair suppression and scapegoating of black stories in Britain.
Dubbed the British Boyz n the Hood, Blue Story tells the story of two best friends as their friendship becomes severed in the midst of a postcode beef in South London. Reflecting the cultural relevance of the film, the soundtrack features major UK acts like Giggs, Krept & Konan, Jorja Smith and Digga D.
In the film industry, only 2.6 per cent of directors come from a black, minority and ethnic background, 59 per cent of UK films feature no black actors in a named character role and black British acting talent show frustration at Britain’s lack of accommodation for their stories. In 2018, Rapman, a musician and film director from Deptford, released the ambitious, self-funded Shiro’s Story – a three-part YouTube series that depicts the friendship of Shiro (Joivan Wade) and his best friend Kyle (Percelle Ascot) as they grow up in South London and are affected by gang culture. The buzz for Shiro’s Story was so big that Rapman subsequently signed a deal with Jay‑Z’s Roc Nation and Island Records. Paramount and the BBC then bought the rights to Blue Story, Rapman’s first feature film project. As young black British people feel the impact of rising knife crime, gang culture and poverty in their postcodes, authentic, nuanced storytelling on these themes continues to gain significance.
Before the brawl in Birmingham, Blue Story was impeded during production as south London local councils prevented filming violent scenes in their areas. The media’s eagerness to blame a film that Rapman insists is about “love, not violence” is ironic, and it further feeds into the rhetoric that black stories such as Top Boy are a primary concern rather than, let’s say, cuts to youth services, police, social care and mental health services.
Following Vue’s initial announcement to ban Blue Story, it transpired that the brawl happened during a screening of Frozen 2. In tandem, when an alleged photo from Snapchat revealed a group of Asian teenagers at the brawl with one of them holding a machete, the optics got even murkier. Why is a black British film taking the blame while Frozen 2 continues to screen in Vue Cinemas, and why must the film be punished under the conflation of BAME identities?
Ultimately, the Blue Story controversy exposes the dominating whiteness of the British film industry, the volatile environments that young people are forced to grow up in and the loaded expectations Britain enforces on black British people. Amidst the controversy, celebrities such as Tion Wayne, Oloni, One Acen and Not3s offered support for the film and Birmingham’s very own Jaykae even offered to pick up 80 people to watch it with him. Following the true fashion of the black aphorism “We Move”, Blue Story was a success despite the scapegoating, with Rapman announcing that his film earned £1.3 million in its opening weekend. The film is currently #3 at the UK box office.
If anything, the support Blue Story gained proves black perspectives are too rare and must be cherished. Top Boy made its return this year on Netflix, black-led shows/web-series like Chewing Gum, Famalam, Youngers, Ackee and Saltfish, and Wicked and Bad show a rise in black-led media. In front and behind the camera, it’s important that we resist censorship and support these stories. Otherwise we’ll end up watching a version of Britain that isn’t familiar to us at all.