The Movie Waffler New to VOD - A BRIXTON TALE | The Movie Waffler


a brixton tale review
An affluent vlogger is drawn to a shy young man from a working class estate.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Darragh Carey, Bertrand Desrochers

Starring: Ola Orebiyi, Lily Newmark, Jaime Winstone, Craige Middleburg

a brixton tale poster

In the years following World War II, Britain was on its arse. Major cities had been bombed and the loss of life caused by global combat had resulted in an injurious labour shortage. Consequently, the British government urged mass immigration from the former countries of the British Empire and Commonwealth to fill the gaps. Fortuitously, many West Indians were attracted by better prospects in what they had been conditioned by imperial propaganda to recognise as their mother country. Almost immediately, however, Atlee’s cabinet started to get itchy (racist) feet, with a committee established to restrict international movement: it was refused, as in actuality there were loads and loads of jobs to fill, and, in fact, if it hadn’t been for the hard-working immigrants putting in the hours at the rail network, the NHS and public transport, fuck knows what state post-war Britain would have been in. Didn’t stop a significant portion of the British public treating their now fellow countrymen with prejudice though: aside from the misery of everyday racism, there were institutional barriers too, with trade unions often refusing to support black workers, and not only entrance to public spaces such as pubs declined, but also access to housing, private or otherwise refused (for further reading regarding the legacy of the Windrush generation, pick up Rachel Edwards’ superb new thriller novel 'Lucky', which touches upon the scandal, or simply watch the news).

The nearest labour exchange to where passenger ships docked was in Brixton, and the new arrivals were given local accommodation in this district. Today, the borough of Lambeth has the largest black population in London. And perhaps you would hope that in 2021, the country may have developed and grown, and prejudice and division would be ghosts of the past. I dunno: ask the Unison Black Workers Group who believe that redundancies from Lambeth council are due to ‘victimisation on the grounds of race’; ask BLM protestors; ask Meghan Markle.

Or take in Darragh Carey and Bertrand Desrocher’s (directors) and Rupert Baynham and Chi Mai’s (writers, along with Carey) A Brixton Tale with its beautiful, doomed black boy Benji (Ola Orebiyi), a kindly resident of Brixton who meets-cute with pale and interesting Leah (Lily Newmark), a rich kid who is making digital content based on urban culture for some sort of narrowcast media publisher.

a brixton tale review

Leah falls in love with Benji while concurrently making him her subject. And as you watch the opening of the film, allow the by-now-over-familiar ‘hey guuuuuyyys’ mode of address in the early YouTube scenes, ignore weed as a visual shorthand for proles (all classes do it, surely), and don’t fear a potentially heavy-handed morality, either, as A Brixton Tale is one of the most quietly commanding British films of recent years, providing an intelligent look at racial identity in the capital.

The primary power of A Brixton Tale comes from the central performances. As a character who is positioned to react to the various forces and situations that act upon him, Orebiyi is magnetic, with a heart-breaking stoicism compelling us as his counterpoint Leah (or, as her parents call her, Ophelia - yikes!) draws him into her world of leafy suburbs, lovely thick rails of cocaine and an unwanted starring role within south London’s cottage art industry.

a brixton tale review

A Brixton Tale’s overriding theme is obviously the exploitation of perceived black authenticity via privileged white media, yet the film never patronises us or its representations by drawing  simple binaries. When Benji and Leah are on screen together, there are sparks enough to power all of Electric Avenue for one thing, and for another there is Newmark’s performance. Leah is gnomic, haunted, and in her own way compelled by circumstances (this is, after all, the generation where something must be mediated via a video or camera filter for it to have any weight in their estranged, insubstantial digital existence: a condition which causes specific issues for Leah in the film's gloomy last act). Newmark is something else - at around the 40 minute mark, there is a close up of her eating spaghetti, and, somehow, it’s the most mysterious and fascinating shot I’ve seen all year.

Coercion for Leah comes from her boss, played by Jaime Winstone, who encourages Leah to push for more vivid scenarios when recording Benji, inviting the implication that media representations are not only constructed but incited by the form. The casting of Winstone (who it’s always nice to see) is shrewd, too. With A Brixton Tale released a generation after her instrumental roles in the similar narrative circumstances of Kidulthood and Bullet Boy there is an implied meta-textual contrast between what has stayed the same in the youth cultures of urban London, and what has since mutated.

a brixton tale review

Another instructive distinction is drawn between Benji and his oppo Archie (Craige Middleburg), a white lad who represses his sexuality beneath increasingly dangerous drug use and macho posturing, which seems to rely on an exaggerated, self-conscious mimicry of black patois and posturing. ‘Where you man going bruv?’ he yells, his voice pitched slightly too high for his bravado to convince as genuine idiom. Archie’s assumption of a stereotype is one of the subtle instances of othering which the film explores, along with inevitable police racism and the divisions within divisions which make up yute territories. The pigs are on to Benji because they want his big man ting cousin, they drop him off in a rival estate to shit stir, while his cousin himself is against his relationship with Leah from the off: pressure from all sides.

To match the superb character work, the subtle but insistent thematic probing, the filmmaking itself is a wonder. In a 70 minute or so runtime, no minute is wasted. The narrative seems to skim along towards important moments - Leah’s gallery debut (this film shares ideas and, indeed, specific imagery with Nia DaCosta’s Candyman – there must be something in the air), a revenge porn subplot, a criminal destiny - with the camera weaving, spying, and at times holding back when it isn’t getting in someone’s face: a mise-en-scene which, in its intrinsic momentum, lyrically captures the fleeting experiences and vulnerabilities of youth.

A Brixton Tale is on UK/ROI VOD now.

2021 movie reviews