It’s not often I come back to work after my day is over to write something – and by not often, I mean never – but when the credits started rolling on the new gang film Blue Story, I ran to the nearest bus stop. After 90 minutes of smiles and tears, it was obvious that the adaptation of director Rapman’s popular YouTube series was just too important for me to wait. This charmingly (and somewhat sickeningly) real film had shaken me to the core.
I’ll admit, I didn’t know what to expect when the lights went down. I’d heard mixed reviews: many had cited the fights that had broken out at the film screening in Birmingham to claim it was “dangerous” and promoted violence – others told me to arm myself with tissues to prepare for the inevitable tears. When voices of the families of gang violence victims called out in the darkness, I immediately knew what kind of response I was going to have – and the chills didn’t stop until I was alone in the cinema after everyone had left, and then some.
"You know how it goes in the borough, they be sending wreaths to your mother"
I’ve never personally witnessed gang violence, but volunteering as a youth worker in south London, I’m very aware of how close it is to home. On my way to our Friday night youth group at church, I’ve been asked on more than one occasion by police passing from the nearby shopping centre if I’ve seen young people running from a knife-point stand-off. Near my home, I’ve walked past enough groups of young boys reeking of weed on dark streets and exchanging bags of drugs and wads of cash. One of my biggest concerns, and one of my most frequent prayers, is that the young people in my youth group don’t get caught up in the kind of brawls seen in Birmingham. And the scariest thing for me is that many of the film’s characters remind me of the same young people I pray for.
Whether or not our daily lives operate so closely to gang activity – we all know what’s going on. Gang violence, county lines and needless teenage deaths pepper the news week on week. We know the need could not be greater for someone to tackle the issue head-on, illuminate the problems within society that cause young men (and women) to join these violent groups and wield machetes and guns, and encourage those already involved to step out into a better and safer lifestyle. For we “know how it goes”, we know mothers are seeing their children die – but we’re not connecting with these young people, we’re not opening ourselves to them – we’re doing very little to understand the narrative. To be educated is to be able to make changes. Blue Story could do this effortlessly if we allowed it to.
"Man are out here fighting for what?"
If there’s one thing that most people don’t understand, it’s that the gang culture can’t just ‘stop’. I’m not making myself exempt from that mistake: I’ve been misinformed – and I’ve done my best to change that. This teaching comes at the end of Blue Story. I won’t spoil exactly what happens up until the final curtain, it’s worth going to experience the emotions for yourself, but as the film draws into its final moments – following fights, brawls, shootings and on-screen deaths – the camera pulls to the next generation of young gang members calling out for revenge. They can’t just sit back and watch, they just have to strike back.
Revenge against what? I hear you ask. I think it runs deeper than just for the deaths of their friends and loved ones caught up in the violence – it’s more than drug money, YouTube grime fame, street respect and postcode ‘ownership’. I’d push to say these young people are taking revenge against a society that doesn’t care enough about council estate children, that writes them out of success and that holds them back from moving forward. It’s a loud, difficult, painful rebellion against the state of the world – as Blue Story explains – where to stay alive in some areas of London, you ride with the gangs or you die. If young people have little choice, what are we doing to provide an alternative? If we know that we are doing little, we need to start doing something. A start could be as easy as watching this film and setting your heart on fire for young people again.
"Remember how those men turned out"
Spoiler alert: young people die in this film. And there is no dwelling on it either. Part of the struggle of this film is the brutality of watching young men cough up blood only to have to forget about it for the next scene to take place before your eyes. But Blue Story is only capturing the truth – because, Captain Obvious alert: young people are dying on our streets. While I’d been so caught up in following the action, in the end, as I sit here and muse over an emotional hour-and-a-half, all I can think about is those who are dead, the fictional reminders of real people.
Rapman’s voice chillingly rings out in his final freestyle interlude: “Remember how those men turned out.” But do we? Or do we overlook it all in favour of focusing on the fear of an isolated brawl in a cinema between children of God who have strayed from the way? Are we blindsiding the poignant message of Blue Story to sit, think and act on the everyday tragedies of gang violence to instead cower, hide and distract ourselves from the real problem at hand? Let’s be countercultural. Remember how these men turned out in the past, but think harder about what you can do to change the future. Watch this film without fear, let it pull on your heart strings and help in Rapman’s ultimate cause: to have “these young’uns wake up and start seeing the light”.