Hyped as a Brit Boyz N The Hood, Saul Dibb's Bullet Boy hits more ambitious bullseyes, according to Tom Jennings.
Curtis (12) meets adored brother Ricky (20) at the end of his stretch for aggravated assault, driven by best mate Wisdom (Leon Black). Ricky is determined to go straight and keeps the peace in a stand-off with their old gang enemy Godfrey (Clark Lawson). Curtis returns alone to mum Beverley’s welcoming party as Ricky hooks up at a ragga club with faithful girlfriend Shea (Sharea-Mounira Samuels). Later Wisdom kills Godfrey’s pitbull before gifting the pistol to Ricky. Agreeing with Shea to leave town, he again fails to placate Godfrey, who trashes Wisdom’s car. Curtis and friend Rio (Rio Tison) bunk school to smoke dope on Hackney marshes, and Ricky misses another family get-together – this time with Beverley’s close friend, lay preacher Neville (Sylvester Williams). Instead he stands point when Wisdom busts into Godfrey’s crib and shoots up the place. Armed police raid Beverley’s flat and arrest Ricky, while Rio and Curtis play with the gun he’s hidden – but Rio is accidentally shot in the arm. Trying to protect Curtis, Beverley throws Ricky out. Shea also breaks with him and then he discovers Wisdom dead. Having given Curtis a man-to-man pep-talk on his return from making up with Rio, Ricky is shot dead by Godfrey’s gang as he awaits the last train out. After the funeral Beverley falls into Neville’s sexual and pastoral arms. Curtis retrieves the gun and throws it in the canal.
The film’s restrained picturing of northeast London’s towerblocks, terraces, playing fields and waterways showcases the troubled biographies, conflictual spaces and questionable futures of its characters. The uniformly assured performances are further testament to a first-time feature director of documentaries and a screenplay of accurately youthful Cockney vernacular. So as Ricky, Ashley Walters (1) conveys a fully convincing self-fashioned code of adult integrity whose intelligence is fatally undermined by the ambivalent egoism of macho brotherhood that Wisdom can’t see beyond. As Ricky’s mother, Clare Perkins perfectly captures the contradictory nobility of working class single parents, whose strength in surviving thus far has demanded single-mindedness – but also an inflexibility which prevents her from helping Ricky with his very different difficulties. However, in beautifully distilling the nuances of pre-teen bewilderment and sagacity, Luke Fraser decisively makes this Curtis’ story.
Bullet Boy’s generally heroic struggle partakes in – but is not imprisoned by – the hoary old generic conventions of the coming of age crime melodrama. Against the usual odds, Curtis seems to emerge with a chance of neither succumbing to anti-social criminality (in striving to thrive in unpromising environs) nor decisively severing ties with his background (in class aspiration elsewhere). This is an achievement that the recent US cycle of ghettocentric cinema has so far largely forsaken, despite the purportedly political intentions of its exponents(2). Nevertheless, the more modest traditions of UK social realism allow the fine-grained attention to relationships and their vicissitudes to not be drowned out by neo-blaxploitation thrills or the more vintage baggage of hysterically overblown liberal issues and spectacularly reactionary menaces to society (3).
Saul Dibbs and Catherine R. Johnson’s subtle script shows dawning adolescent masculinity in a context where peer pressure reserves mutual respect and consideration for those in closest proximity to the public self. The wider (middle class) social ethics spouted in educational and other local institutions – when not ignored as irrelevant – may be despised as hypocritical duplicity; yet the realm of private kinship suffocates desire and constrains growth within the childish purview of the mother’s embrace and overwhelming needs. Curtis clearly appreciates her position but understands why his brother rejected its ministrations. Meanwhile, merely reproducing the arbitrary authority of patriarchs is recognised to deliver none of its promises beyond recuperation into one of the useless status quos – including the upped ante of ‘gun crime’ at increasingly hazardous lower class UK street levels (4).
At this point it would be easy to ‘blame the parents’ – as in the currently fashionable reality TV treatment of ‘problem children’ or all the other class- and race-prejudiced nanny-state discourses. This is another mistake Bullet Boy avoids, along with its honourable disavowal of the nonsense that media glorification and youth culture ‘cause’ violence. So, destined for disappointment and pain, the mother’s lioness love for her seeds and her yearning for hope and meaning in life are eventually displaced into religious ecstasy – which offers communal experience, valuation of the self and an anticipated transcendence of suffering. This makes sense in the absence of neighbourhood cohesion or mutual solidarity or any dynamic or shared ideology (whether or not enforced with guns or father-figures), since the nuclear family womb can never fulfil the hopelessly excessive demands placed upon it as haven in a heartless world.
Finally, important ingredients missing from Bullet Boy include, firstly, the lure of the cult of consumerism, where a pseudo-spiritual fervour to fend off insecurity by hoarding cash and trivial secular commodities meshes perfectly with both globalising gangsterism and government wars on crime (5). Secondly, in reifying isolated individuals as representative of entire societies or historical epochs, European cinematic naturalist realism unfortunately forecloses on portraying the larger-scale reverberations of personal stories in the potential collective synergy of social action. And while one film could hardly cover all these bases, is it really too much to imagine several levels of analysis at once – for example, a Bullet Boy who could Do The Right Thing in these Strange Days?
1. aka Asher D (of UK Garage supremos So Solid Crew) – himself recently released from jail for possession of a firearm.
2. for example Spike Lee, John Singleton, or Ice Cube. Paradoxically, the absence of moral agendas seems to enable postmodern nihilists such as Albert & Allen Hughes (Menace II Society, Dead Presidents) or even blockbuster stylists like Kathryn Bigelow (Strange Days) to drop more hints of the possibility of collectively creative solutions.
3. see also the French ‘cinema du banlieue’ inaugurated by La Haine (Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995), which likewise references Hollywood without pandering to it.
4. so, before ultimately ditching the weapon, Curtis tells Rio “I’d rather be a mummy’s boy than a crack-head”. And, despite her prior soulmate loyalty, Shea also refuses to accept Ricky’s repetition compulsion; thus Bullet Boy grounds optimism in both younger genders.
5. rendering New Labour’s fascination with faith and fundamental morality more intelligible – as desperate rearguard defences against the damage to sociability done by the feeding frenzies of spending which, ironically, represent their only vision of economic ‘health’.
Film review published in Freedom, Vol. 66, No. 10, May 2005.
For other essays and reviews by Tom Jennings, see: