Rapman’s ‘Blue Story’ battles #BAFTAsoWhite and coronavirus on the way to the screen
Rapman’s feature debut, “Blue Story,” met its share of hurdles on the way to the screen. The film, adapted from the writer-director’s three-part 2014 YouTube series of the same name, nearly lost its star weeks before production, was pulled from theaters in the U.K. last fall following a lobby brawl, got overlooked at the BAFTAs and lost its shot at a U.S. theatrical premiere due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But for Rapman, née Andrew Onwubolu, these challenges have only made the film’s success all that sweeter.
“I actually believe going forward people will start their own drama to get onto the news,” the London-based director reflects on the film’s controversial opening, speaking via Zoom alongside star Micheal Ward after the U.K. lockdown was put in place. “We were on the news every day for a week. ‘Blue Story’ was everywhere. It was the talk of the city. You couldn’t buy that type of press. It will go down in history. It was a blessing in disguise.”
For Rapman, who based the story of two best friends living in rival gang territories in South-East London on his own upbringing in Deptford and Peckham, “Blue Story” is ultimately about finding the light on the other side of overwhelming darkness. Looking back now, the director isn’t that concerned that the movie lost 30% of its screens during its first weekend in the U.K. thanks to a mass fight at a theater in Birmingham. The response from Vue and Showcase cinemas was criticized as an aggressive overreaction, with tinges of racism, but “Blue Story” came out the other side with a passionate audience.
“I always wanted to know what our opening weekend would have been,” Rapman notes. “Even though we probably made the numbers up because there was so much hype after that, I want to know, fair play, what would we have done that first weekend?”
Originally, Rapman’s aim was simply to depict the tragic reality of gang life in South London and to showcase how easily teenagers can get sucked into that culture based solely on their home address. His tale of two friends, Timmy and Marco, who are embroiled in rival gangs, reflects on a larger problem but refuses to be didactic. The director has left that lifestyle — and that neighborhood — behind and hopes others can do the same, but he also knows this is everyday life for a lot of young Londoners.
“That was my childhood,” Rapman says with a shrug. “When I was adapting it to the screen I still wasn’t thinking about international. I was thinking, ‘We need to make a real hood movie that is a bit more grounded in our time.’ Nothing’s been modern. [Other movies] don’t even mention Instagram. That’s what was missing to me. I just wanted to give the U.K. something classic. I knew, no matter what, with this film it was my destiny to tell that story.”
The director put up-and-comer Stephen Odubola in the role of Timmy and centered on Ward, who had recently been added to the cast of Netflix’s “Top Boy,” to play Marco. Two weeks before production was set to start, Netflix and the production company behind “Top Boy” refused to let Ward join the cast, fearful that the stories and roles were too similar. To persuade them, Ward wrote an impassioned letter that finally allowed for some flexibility in his contract with Netflix.
“I’m just so happy to be part of both,” the actor says. “I was able to tell real stories rooted in a real place that I’m from and I’m so proud of that. [‘Blue Story’ is] representing something that people know that they didn’t really have a voice for before. No one can really say they’ve seen something like ‘Blue Story.’ This is a lot more raw and — I feel — a lot more real than what’s come before. So the whole time you’re filming you’re thinking, ‘This is bigger than me.’ For me, it wasn’t just my first movie — it was bigger than that.”
The film, shot over 23 days for a modest budget of $1.6 million, substituted North London for South London because the actual boroughs refused to issue filming permits. It was the first feature for all of the main cast members. The budget was bigger than anything Rapman was used to, but it was still restrictive and the production ended up unable to do reshoots. Instead, Rapman edited in actual CCTV footage of gang fights found in the BBC archives, which augments its sense of realism. It’s the kind of movie that rarely comes out of the U.K., a film industry that’s not particularly known for its diversity — especially after January’s whitewashed BAFTA nominations — but already Rapman sees the change that “Blue Story” has brought.
“I’ve already heard about films getting greenlit on the back of the success of ‘Blue Story,’” he says. “I know people who have made a film and the studio said, ‘We’re ready to go ahead now because we’ve seen what “Blue Story” [had] done.’ Before this, they didn’t think these types of film have an audience or make money, but it’s all changed now. I think going forward loads of people are going to get their ‘Blue Story.’”
It’s also shifted things for Ward, who is patiently waiting for the lockdown to end so he can start filming the next season of “Top Boy.” Earlier this year, Ward won the BAFTA Rising Star Award, an accolade that was especially notable due to the lack of diversity in the other BAFTA nominees and films. The British Academy Film Awards failed to nominate “Blue Story” for best British film despite its box office success and strong reviews (and a lot of expectation from the press).
Rapman moves from YouTube to feature films with “Blue Story,” a tale of two South-East London friends living in different neighborhoods torn apart by gang violence.
“We don’t have a voice in these rooms so of course we’re going to get shunned,” Ward reflects. “I don’t know who in those rooms could have watched ‘Blue Story’ like that, but regardless if we had more people in that room who were, not even black, just people who were interested in different topics and realizing how powerful other people’s work can be, then it would have been a different story.”
“I was upset by that, but it also didn’t matter,” Rapman says. “It didn’t take away from the success that ‘Blue Story’ has had. Micheal won and that win is connected to ‘Blue Story.’ And ‘Blue Story’ was in the conversation. I don’t live for the awards, but I do feel like it deserved it only because we went through so much. We done the numbers. We made the money. We got good reviews. What else does it have to do to make it? But it can’t take away from what the film achieved and a BAFTA did come out it.”
Now “Blue Story” gets to add to its legacy by traveling to the U.S. as well as Canada — on VOD rather than into theaters as planned. It’s a story that’s inherently specific to London, but its emotions and feelings are universal.
“Americans can look at this now and see a slice of life that they never really witnessed before,” Ward says. “That is a beautiful thing.”
“It’s the same reaction for the movie everywhere,” Rapman adds. “It’s a proud thing to see that our cultures are so close together. We might sound a bit different, we might use different slang, but Crips and Bloods, Ghetto Boys and Peckham — street gangs are street gangs. I think everybody can relate, man.”
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