After many false starts, we are now in the thick of a fascinating black film movement, which has not only boosted legendary filmmakers like Spike Lee but also carved spaces for newer storytellers like Dee Rees and Barry Jenkins to bring forth stories that are personal to them but can also touch wide audiences. Such is also the case for British writer-director Andrew Onwubolu, aka Rapman, who has delivered a portrait of his youth in a street-gang-riddled London with the singular drama “Blue Story,” which is available digitally on May 5.
But is “Blue Story” too outside the box to connect with audiences? The short answer is not really. We’re saturated with so much content these days that a narrative needs to stand out in order to get recognized above the fray. There’s also an abundance of black films with villainous gangs (“Boyz n the Hood” and the upcoming “Charm City Kings,” to name two), so the question “Blue Story” has to answer is how to make it different. Onwubolu’s response is to add rap, as he interrupts his narrative intermittently to offer a rap narration of what just transpired and why it matters.
But while that choice utilizes Onwubolu’s natural skill as a popular lyricist who got his start on YouTube, his carefully curated interludes take away from the flow of the otherwise compelling, Shakespearean tragedy that is elevated by two solid performances. When we meet Timmy (Stephen Odubola) and Marco (Micheal Ward) at the top of the film, they are the very best of friends who attend high school together in Peckham, a neighborhood in South London.
They riff off each other, talk about girls together, and have each other’s backs — unequivocally. Marco even brags to their other friends, “I love this boy so much,” as he pulls him in for a big bear hug.
There’s one major problem, though: Timmy and Marco are from two different neighborhoods run by dueling gangs. Marco’s brother, Switcher (Eric Kofi-Abrefa), oversees his area, while Timmy’s primary friends are now deeply embedded in a rival gang. For a while, that information is a foreboding shadow as Onwubolu takes time to establish the innocence and youth of these two boys. Timmy has a crush on a girl named Leah (Karla-Simone Spence) and, of course, Marco and their other pals tease him about how he clams up in front of her. They all go to a party held by a fellow student whose parents are conveniently out of town. You know, typical teenage shenanigans.
Things start to shift when Marco gets jumped by some of the gang members Timmy knows. For the first time ever, Marco turns his back on his longtime friend. The sudden switch in tone and demeanor is brought into razor-sharp focus by editor Mdhamiri Á Nkemi, and it immediately feels like a light goes out between the two. What happens is palpable enough that it doesn’t need Onwubolu’s rap explaining why the severing of this relationship is so significant, especially as we watch Marco threaten Timmy and eventually Leah in the park in front of all their peers.
The rap, as novel as it is, is just not necessary. Further, it shows a lack of confidence in the audience to discern the relevance of the plot on their own.
But by the time Timmy and Marco’s relationship evaporates and swirls into a violent beef where both gangs are involved, blood is drawn and lives are lost, you’re so invested that Onwubolu’s raps, while still a nuisance, are easier to ignore. The film’s “Julius Caesar”-inspired climax far supersedes the bonds of friendship. No one is safe; not families and certainly not allies.
While Onwubolu updates a classic story of revenge and gang violence, bringing special attention to black young in South London, he also details the struggles of the socioeconomic system and how it particularly impacts black families in the area. Early in the film, we are introduced to Marco’s mother (Jo Martin), who works long hours so that she can relocate her family to a district that has a better school. She wants to set up Marco for university, without understanding that the new neighborhood is rife with street violence. And her virtual absence from home means Switcher is free to run the streets unchecked.
There’s a sense of inevitability, at a time when young boys are struggling to learn what it means to be men, that is crushing to watch. It’s a life that Onwubolu knows intimately, and it will undoubtedly hit home for some audiences.
“Blue Story” doesn’t reinvent the wheel when it comes to films about turf wars, but its personal, humanizing themes about friendship, love, youth, and black masculinity keeps you riveted, Onwubolu’s lyrical respites aside.