Review: ‘Blue Story,’ starring Stephen Odubola and Micheal Ward

May 16, 2020

by Carla Hay

Micheal Ward and Stephen Odubola in “Blue Story” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

“Blue Story”

Directed by Rapman

Culture Representation: Taking place in southeast London, the drama “Blue Story” has an almost all-black cast representing the working-class and criminal underworld.

Culture Clash: Two longtime best friends from school end up becoming bitter enemies in a gang war.

Culture Audience: “Blue Story” will appeal mostly to people who like gangster stories to have a high level of emotional drama as motivation for the brutal violence.

Stephen Odubola (center) and Khali Best (far right) in “Blue Story” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

Movies about black gang members have primarily been the domain of American filmmakers, but the British film “Blue Story” (written and directed by Rapman) takes an unflinching look at gangster life from the perspective of young black men living in southeast London. Although there are many similarities in how black gangs are portrayed in American and British films, there are some noticeable differences. For starters, there’s less use of the “n” word in British films. And because British police do not carry guns, tales of black men being gunned down by police are far less prevalent in the United Kingdom as they are in the Untied States.

At the heart of “Blue Story” is the relationship between Timmy (played as teenager and adult by Stephen Odubola) and Marco (played as a teenager and adult by Micheal Ward), who first meet when they are 11 years old. Timmy is a “good boy” from Lewisham who has reluctantly transferred to a school in Peckham called Borough High. His mother has enrolled him in the school because she thinks it’s a better academic environment for him and because she wants Timmy to get away from a friend called Kiron, whom she thinks is a bad influence on Timmy.

On his first day at his new school, Timmy is rescued from a schoolyard fight by “bad boy” Marco, who steps in to protect Timmy. It begins a friendship that’s so close that Marco and Timmy are practically inseparable and they have a brotherly bond. By the time they are teenagers, Timmy is doing well academically, but Marco is a delinquent student who’s in danger of being expelled for failing grades. Timmy offers to help by doing Marco’s homework for him.

There’s a fierce rivalry between the gangs of Lewisham and Peckham (the movie portrays a lot of this real-life tension), which often results in violence with guns, knives and other weapons. Timmy (who’s an only child) and Marco frequently encounter Peckham gang members when they’re close by their school. Peckham is often referred to by the nicknames Vietnarm, Pecknarm or Narm, because of the war-like violence in the area. Timmy’s loyalty is constantly questioned by these gang members, who are suspicious since he doesn’t live in the area, but Marco is usually there to step in and protect Timmy from being attacked.

Two other boys who hang out with Timmy and Marco are bratty Dwayne (played by Rohan Nedd) and plus-sized Hakeem (played by Kadeem Ramsay), who live on the edge of gang activity. They aren’t Peckham gang members, but they do what they can to make it look like they’re on the gang members’ side, when push comes to shove.

However, Marco has real connections to the Peckham gang: His older brother Switcher (played by Eric Kofi-Abrefa) is a high-ranking member of the gang, which gives Marco and his friends a certain level of protection (or danger), depending on which gang territory they’re in at at the time. A protégé of an experienced and influential gang member is called a “younger.” Marco hasn’t become a full-fledged gang member yet, but he’s considered to be Switcher’s inevitable “younger.”

Although there is a constant threat of gang violence, the teenagers are also preoccupied with dating. Timmy has a crush on a fellow student named Leah (played by Karla-Simone Spence), but so does Dwayne. However, Dwayne sees Leah as more of a sexual conquest, while Timmy wants to have a real romance with Leah. Timmy’s friends tease him about his shy and romantic nature, but he takes the taunting all in good stride.

When Leah invites the four friends to a house party that she’s hosting, they all eagerly accept the invitation. Dwayne makes the first moves on Leah at the party, but she’s more interested in Timmy, and she asks him to dance. They have an instant connection, which leads to them dating and falling deeply in love with each other.

Around this time, Timmy runs into his former school friend Kiron (played by Khali Best), who now goes by the street name Killy. Timmy and Killy are happy to see each other, but Killy is part of the rival gang that clashes with Switcher’s gang. Marco is very suspicious and uncomfortable with Timmy’s friendliness to Killy, but Timmy swears his undying loyalty to Marco. Timmy tells Marco that he’s only nice to Killy because Timmy and Killy knew each other when they were kids. But that was in the past, and Timmy reassures Marco that Marco is still his best friend.

Meanwhile, a vicious gang fight breaks out between Switcher’s gang and the rival gang, which is led by a ruthless thug named Madder (played by Junior Afolabi Salokun). During the fight, Switcher deliberately guns down someone in Madder’s gang named Gyalis (played by Andre Dwayne), who was Madder’s younger. In a panic, Switcher goes back home and asks Marco to be his alibi. The murder of Gyalis sets off a chain of events that leads to violent acts of revenge, more tragedy, and the souring of Timmy and Marco’s longtime friendship.

In an overabundance of movies and TV shows that portray black men as criminals, “Blue Story” sets itself apart by having well-developed characters and believable acting that give this story more depth than the run-of-the-mill gangster film. The motivations for the revenge violence in this story isn’t about greed but more about personal loyalties, however misguided those loyalties might be.

“Blue Story” is the feature-film directorial debut of Rapman (whose real name is Andrew Onwubolu), who shows that he has talent for weaving together a cohesive story involving various characters caught up in dangerous and complex situations. “Blue Story” was clearly influenced by writer/director John Singleton’s 1991 debut film “Boyz N the Hood” (set in South Central Los Angeles), another coming-of-age drama about young black men affected by gang violence. Although “Blue Story” won’t be an Oscar-nominated classic like “Boyz N the Hood,” it compellingly addresses the deep-rooted problems behind gang violence in London.

“Blue Story” also has a unique narration technique, by having Rapman occasionally appear on screen to rap some of the movie’s plot. (Before he became a movie director, Rapman was also a rapper who conceived and directed the three-part YouTube musical drama series “Shiro’s Story,” which led to him making “Blue Story.”) This one-man rap chorus doesn’t come across as an annoying gimmick, mostly because the lyrics are on point, and Rapman’s screen time only takes up a few minutes of the movie.

There are some elements of “Blue Story” that are like a soap opera—not in a overly melodramatic way or in a way that’s too exploitative, but in a way that shows that the cycle of gang violence will keep going as long as revenge is a motivation. Yes, the violence is brutal, but the message of the movie is that gang culture is built on a false sense of pride and nobility. After all, there’s nothing noble about being locked up in prison or dying for crimes that end up destroying friendships and lives.

Paramount Pictures/Paramount Home Entertainment released “Blue Story” in the U.S. on digital and VOD on May 5, 2020. The film was already released in the U.K. in 2019.