To have a Black British film told from the Black perspective is rare. To have a Black British film get a wide release and be backed by a major studio like Paramount is almost unheard of. It’s one of many reasons why there was a lot of excitement surrounding the release of Blue Story, the debut feature from Grime artist-turned-YouTube-sensation Andrew Onwubolu, aka Rapman. But instead of being able to bask in his tremendous achievement, the director has seen his movie be the subject of controversy after multinational chain Vue pulled the film from their cinemas.
The decision initially came amidst conflicting reports of an incident that took place at StarCity multiplex in Birmingham on Saturday, which saw five teenagers aged between 13 and 14 arrested and several brave police officers injured. The other important detail is that the skirmish had nothing to do with Blue Story – it’s been reported that the fight broke out while cinemagoers were queuing for Frozen 2 – and yet Rapman’s film was the one being punished, which prompted a lot of understandable backlash online. Vue have since released a statement stating that there were “over 25 incidents across 16 cinemas” reported during the first 24 hours of Blue Story’s release, though the lack of social media receipts and conclusive evidence of those incidents seems strange.
- Read more: Rapman on gritty crime drama ‘Blue Story’, and how to solve London’s gang violence problem and knife crime epidemic
Still, even if that is true, Vue pulling Blue Story from their cinemas feels like a drastic overreaction, especially when you consider that no such action has been taken for incidents which were arguably more serious. No showings of The Dark Knight Rises were cancelled back in 2012 when 12 people were killed at a Colorado screening. Joker wasn’t immediately penalised when a fight broke out during one of its showings in Burbank. And the plug certainly wasn’t pulled on Mary Poppins Returns when a gang fight broke out after a screening at Vue’s Princes Quay branch in December. In fact, it’s hard to imagine Vue taking a similar action for 99% of the films that have been released in the past 12 months, and the cinema chain has now set a shaky precedent for future scuffles.
As such, it’s not hard to see why people are connecting the dots and concluding that there’s a racial element at play in Vue’s decision, which implicitly links the Black community with crime and reinforces false stereotypes. It sends all the wrong messages about a film which is brimming with the right ones. To quote Rapman, Blue Story is about “love, not violence”, and while gang violence is depicted it’s never glamorised. At a time when London is in the midst of a knife crime epidemic, this is exactly the type of powerfully authentic filmmaking that could prove educational and make an impact in young people’s lives.
Unfortunately, Vue’s actions mean that a lot less people will be able to see Rapman and his crew of homegrown talent’s good work – and the fact that this decision was made on opening weekend could have yielded even more harmful consequences in the long term. The first three days of release are especially vital for films like Blue Story because it’s those numbers that backers and distributors will be focusing on the most when it comes time for Rapman and other minority creatives to get their projects green-lit.
- Read more: Micheal Ward on gritty postcode war drama ‘Blue Story’: “We’re not glorifying anything – we’re just showing how it is”
Thankfully, despite the controversy, Blue Story – a film which has no recognisable stars – still wound up taking £1.3 million at the UK box office, which is double the amount of the Chadwick Boseman-starring 21 Bridges, also in its first week of release. That’s a major signifier that the film has really connected with its core, underserved audience, in addition to being yet another undeniable example of the rewards that can be reaped when big studios put their money and influence behind filmmakers with diverse backgrounds. It’s an achievement that’s all the more impressive when you consider the barriers that Rapman has had to overcome to get his vision to the big screen. Fortunately, you’ll now be able to support his endeavours at Showcase Cinemas, which reinstated the film after pulling it from their cinemas over the weekend. Here’s hoping Vue follows suit.