U.K. YouTube star Rapman, born Andrew Onwubolu in South-East London, makes a sensational feature debut as writer, director, and actor. His trilogy of short films dubbed Shiro’s Story went viral in 2018 and that energy continues to combust in Blue Story, his first cinema calling-card. On the surface, the plot seems stale: high-school gangbangers go to war in the London projects. But with Rapman (who’s signed to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label) interrupting the action with long-form raps that comment on the plot like a Greek chorus, Blue Story doesn’t look or sound like anything you’ve ever slammed into by choice or accident.
Just to let you know how serious thug life is, the film begins with scary, real-life footage of teens with machetes and news reports that knife crime in London is up 34 percent. The plot spins around a friendship between two boyz in the hood: Timmy (Stephen Odubola) and Marco (Micheal Ward) go to the same high school in Peckham, but live in different neighborhoods marked by class warfare. It’s Peckham versus Deptford’s Ghetto Boys, and you can’t so much look at someone the wrong way without risking retaliation. Marco lives with his mother and older brother Switcher (Eric Kofi-Abrefa), a Peckham gang leader who kills a Deptford rival in a graphic scene of spurting blood that still manages to shock even those of us numbed by the proliferation of violence. The binge-watching teens argue about the exaggerated gore on Game of Thrones while the real-thing sprays like shrapnel in their faces.
Timmy, wearing his school blazer and tie, is a straight-arrow bound to be corrupted and led into gang culture by Marco, who mocks his friend’s old-school, hand-holding crush on Leah (a striking Karla-Simone Spence). It’s that ill-fated romance, as familiar as West Side Story (and before that, Romeo and Juliet), that drives the story into a tragedy that the filmmaker invests with rap rhymes and flashes of Shakespearean poetry.
The film’s standard-issue contours are mitigated by Rapman’s explosive direction and musical interludes that include him sitting in Timmy’s family kitchen and using hip-hop beats to bring mythic weight to what lies ahead. The family lives of both boys figure crucially in the story, especially in the case of mothers forced too soon to bury their children. Though Rapman’s reach sometimes exceeds his grasp, his talent and ambition are undeniable. And the performances he gets from his two leads are nothing less than electrifying. Odubola infuses nuance and raw emotion into Timmy’s journey from sensitive friend to hardened killer. And Ward, whose role deservedly won him the Rising Star award at the British Oscars, delivers a blazing tour de force with a sting you can’t rub away even when the film is over. The London-and-Jamaican-accented dialogue may come as a barrage to our American ears, but Blue Story is a 91-minute assault of sound and image that leaves no doubt about the vicious cycle of gang violence it presents. Prepare to be wowed.