Review: Rapman makes bold, startling feature film debut with London-set 'Blue Story'

Kevin Crust
Micheal Ward, left, and Stephen Odubola in the movie "Blue Story."  (Nick Wall/Paramount)

In "Blue Story," British rapper-turned-filmmaker Rapman (a.k.a. Andrew Onwubolu) wields words and images the way his young characters use weapons and fists to taunt, cajole, provoke and hurt one another. It’s a Shakespearean rhapsody in indigo where love, friendship, betrayal and revenge swirl and blur with life-changing consequences.

Based on Rapman’s life in South-East London and his 2014 YouTube series, it’s a cautionary tale of two boys — Timmy and Marco — who are fast friends from the first day Timmy’s mom sends him from their home in Deptford to a better school in Peckham. When the boys rocket from age 11 to 15 before the end of the opening credits, we know we are in for a wild ride and a different style of filmmaking.

As Timmy (Stephen Odubola) and Marco (Micheal Ward) navigate typical aspects of high school — homework, girls, hanging out — they are buffeted by larger forces, namely the daily clashes of the Caribbean and African gangs that rule Peckham and nearby Lewisham. The boys’ friendship is further challenged by their close ties to that decades-old conflict through Timmy’s old primary school friend Kiron (who now goes by Killy and is played by Khali Best) and Marco’s brother Switcher (Eric Kofi-Abrefa), both upper echelon gang members on opposite sides.

This is not just an area where black lives matter, they are virtually all that exist, save for the occasional police raid. The rival gangs identify targets based simply on the shade of skin — light vs. dark — and for crossing into the wrong postal code. The violence happens quickly, flash decisions causing repercussions that ripple across families and neighborhoods.

“Blue Story’s” cast, including a standout turn by Karla-Simone Spencer as Timmy’s sweet love interest Leah, brings a fierce, adrenaline-fueled authenticity to their roles. Odubola and Ward are asked to walk a fine line, just as Timmy and Marco do, between innocence and experience. Their downfalls are both credible and heartbreaking.

Though in English, the film is subtitled to convey the heavily accented patois spoken by the characters. It lends a musicality that makes the entire script feel like it’s in verse. Food and culture — both pop and local — are also used to bring the streets alive as a place people actually live … and die.

As the onscreen, rhyme-slinging narrator, Rapman layers tragedy upon tragedy, with the localized authority of a Bruce Springsteen. Where Springsteen injects his songs with a cinematic quality, Rapman does the reverse, using the beats of his music to propel the visuals and storytelling style.

In the end, it’s the underlying inevitability of the violence that feels like the real crime. Chronicling the factionalism, the posturing and the never-ending cycle of reprisals, “Blue Story” is really just asking, is any of it really worth dying for?