Official 'truth' being more dishonest as well as stranger than fiction, Tom Jennings looks instead at feral youth fairytales screened since last August's riots.
We Found Hope in a Loveless Place. Film review – Tom Jennings
Set in Forest Gate, around the corner from the epicentre of sickmaking Olympics jingoism, Ill Manors dissects hard knock lives and estates of mind among petty gangsters, drug dealers and crack whores – accompanied by musical persona Plan B's blistering soundtrack fulminating against lumpen demonisation and the inevitable consequences of increasing deprivation and brutal hopelessness. Authentic dialogue and appropriately appalling scenarios are convincingly delivered by pros like Riz Ahmed and Natalie Press as well as the director's acquaintances and discoveries familiar with the environs and themes depicted – with slick cinematography, structuring and stylistics influenced by Tarantino, Scorcese and the UK urban crime subgenre which since Kidulthood (Menhaj Huda, 2006) had grown increasingly stale . And, despite inexorable deceleration from manic verisimilitude toward soap-operatic contrivance, the film effectively conveys the grim determinism of limited horizons and Hobson's choices while still carving out space for gallows humour and unlikely altruism.
The film-maker's honesty and integrity in representing his native constituency shine through – himself narrowly avoiding their fates due to fortunate coincidences culminating in present multimedia stardom – helping Ill Manors benefit from sophisticated weaving of multiple strands and characters, with the latters' backstories illustrated in Super-8 flashbacks overlain with rap commentary. However, its principal effectiveness lies in the gaps and contradictions thus opened up, which simplistic moral, social or political just-so stories, let alone linear narratives, cannot resolve – and neither can Drew's own public statements. So early abuse and abandonment cemented by callous indifference and repression, bitter poverty and utter lack of prospects surely render anti-social delinquency exponentially more likely and hard to resist. Yet the film only locates hope in the ethics of individuals, which first marginally infect their peers and then dovetail with the genuine goodwill of the authorities – a suspiciously conservative stance for a hip-hop iconoclast supposedly speaking the truth to power.
As Plan B's lyrics ferociously emphasise, the entire political-economic apparatus surrounding poor neighbourhoods cripples their potential, excused in victim-blaming discourse flogged by the politicians, professionals and media he righteously, and rightfully, scorns. But this resonates throughout communities too, and indeed the film shows local small capitalists fully complicit in all levels of degradation while mouthing hateful clichés about the evils of others. Meanwhile Drew proposes charitably funded community mentors, or “vigilante social workers”  – not as temporary measures rescuing a few incipient lost souls, but long-term Big Society renewal tactics. Perhaps he too can't admit that his own material security and status precisely depend on the same rotten system, even though his spectacular entertainments help illuminate its baleful effects – as well as, arguably, reinforcing the banal philosophy of meaningless meritocracy which guarantees fame and fortune for an elite more-or-less crininal few (and keeps sundry stripes of police in jobs) while enslaving many millions of addicts to futility.
While probably less appealing to the consumers of Ill Manors (see previous post), several television documentaries about the riots paint a less reactionary picture of those involved than the 'pure criminality' bullshit that Ben Drew's film inadvertemtly chimed with. My Child the Rioter (BBC2, January 31st), Riots: The Aftershock (BBC3, July 9th), and especially The Riots: In Their Own Words (BBC2, August 13th)  hint at the diverse circumstances and contexts of destructive and self-destructive behaviour among frustrated youth as well as exploding convenient catch-all stereotypes of lax morality, inadequate parents and a barely human underclass. A palpable sense emerges of generalised incomprehension and pessimism about the future amid accelerating assaults on any tolerable lifeworld for those without the means to pay for an alternative – or even to conceive of one, given the participants' regular recourse to outdated homilies of working-class respectability and middle-class aspiration. Current affairs editors don't dare argue, of course – but The Angels' Share manages somewhat of a social-realist cinematic deconstruction in a surprisingly effective, if rather flimsy, riposte to mainstream scaremongering about the young and poor.
As in Looking For Eric (reviewed in Freedom, 26th September 2009), director Ken Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty foreground banter and bonhomie among working-class characters in hard times. Motivated by outrage at the treatment of young people, their new knockabout comedy folows a motley crew of Glaswegian thugs and inadequates complete with a wise idiot of folkloric proportions as the butt of most of the jokes. Aggravated assaulter Robbie (impressive newcomer Paul Brannigan, himself with a violent background) is spared time due to his girlfriend's imminent childbirth, but resolutions to go straight are strenuously tested by all in his orbit – except the community payback supervisor, who shares a love of single malts and ferries our heroes to extracurricular distillery visits. Learning of an impending auction of rare vintage as well as venal corruption among its posh devotees, they devise a heist creaming off enough to sell for silly money. The bodged plan works and Robbie's deal includes an apprenticeship in whisky tasting, which he has unexpectedly demonstrated great talent for.
A lightweight, often hilarious, whimsy requiring way too much luck for credibility – yet shirking neither the horrors of grievous bodily harmfulness nor the stranglehold of vicious circles – the film nonetheless smuggles in manifold whiffs of subversive flavour. The Angels' Share is that fraction of spirits evaporating in the cask – here, a multiple metaphor for extracted profit, added value from luxury trade or craftsmanship, and the miniscule odds of lowlifes transcending biographies given extra poignancy with only Robbie likely to invest prudently. And if traditional romance prompts rehabilitation, the most intransigent impediment to family values is his partner's tyrannical dad despite standing as prominent local businessman. With social work only succeeding by flouting professional rules, Robbie's chance arising purely via recidivism, and betterment depending on commodity infrastructure availing the wealthy by pandering to snobbish pretensions of superior taste which insiders cynically exploit as self-serving lies in a thoroughly rigged game – hardly anything of bourgeois worthiness thus remains intact. The moral of the story? By all means cheerlead 'success' – but keep it fucking real, even when enjoying a fantasy .
1. see 'The Poverty of Imagination', Variant 43 (www.variant.org.uk) for a critical survey of contemporary UK films about deprived youth.
2. in a parallel universe, this may have included Mark Duggan – a longtime advisor to wayward youth – whose killing by police triggered last August's events.
3. based on the LSE/Guardian study 'Reading the Riots', originally scheduled for screening on July 21st but banned by a trial judge – presumably so its 'truth' wouldn't interfere with the course of riot-related injustice.
4. an appreciation, incidentally, which is entirely absent from Plan B's ghetto X-Factor efforts in Project Hackney (BBC3, August 12th).
Review first published in Freedom, Vol. 73, No. 10, October 2012.
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see: