Britain’s urban youth have finally found a voice - in the form of award-winning rap artist Ben Drew, aka Plan B; Heather Spurr reviews his new film, iLL Manors.
After last summer’s riots, commentators on the left and right argued Britain’s urban youth lacked a voice in 21st century Britain. Now it seems they have found one – in the form of a multi-award-winning rap artist.
Plan B, aka Ben Drew, makes his directorial debut with iLL Manors, a film that follows the stories of eight people as they negotiate a dark world full of guns, drugs and bloody deaths. Like 2004’s Crash, the characters’ often uncomfortable tales are interwoven; the only thing they have in common is that they sometimes affect each other.
The film’s most sympathetic protagonist is Aaron, a young man who has grown up in social care, only to emerge into a universe in which gang culture sets the rules. The Road to Guantanamo star Riz Ahmed skilfully plays this conflicted baseball cap-wearing youth.
We watch as Aaron stares paralysed while his friend Ed – played by untrained actor Ed Skrein – pimps out a heroin-addicted female he suspects stole his phone to multiple kebab shop vendors. Fluffy, Ed ain’t. “You think I’m going to throw away good money like this for some fucking crack whore ‘cos you suddenly decide to grow a heart?”, he says when Aaron tries to save the woman (Anouska Mond) from a certain beating.
These harrowing scenes of violent prostitution follow our introduction to young Jake, (Ryan de la Cruz) whose innocence is stripped away by a gang he only joined to get his hands on weed and girls. He is, as Drew raps, “a poster boy for David Cameron’s broken Britain”.
His virginity is taken literally and figuratively after he succumbs to the hoody-wearing coterie’s influence – he is forced to perform a gang killing after experiencing the thrill of a drug-fuelled house party and ultimately, pays a high price.
In another scenario, we see two teenage girls getting plied with vodka in a filthy house on the pretence that they are about to become world-famous models. The performances of these young actors are commendable, with the occasional rage of de la Cruz making frightening viewing.
If these scenes sound a bit miserable, then hold out for the moments of comedy, which glisten through the wretched characters’ lives and make for really watchable viewing. It has the gritty, warm realism that The Full Monty had – these people might spend their nights cruising around in shiny Mercs, but they still have to rummage for their guns in a smelly water tank inside a dodgy pub’s loo.
Viewers will enjoy a scene where a drug-toting gang member is sent on his merry naked way by an aging jailbird (Keith Coggins) waving a gun. Similarly when Aaron hides a packet of drugs in a baby’s nappy to evade the police, it is both appalling and amusing at the same time.
The narrative is a little lost at the beginning. It only really gets going halfway through when we realise the central plot revolves around an abandoned baby and a Herculean thug (Lee Allen) who’s lost his gun. And the ending, while powerful and moving, is a little bit too tidy – the baddies are punished and people left behind (by the way – a lot of characters die in this film) are left in peace.
One of the most poignant facets of the film is that the stories it tells are all real, albeit not all linked in the same way. If we listen to Drew’s harsh, impassioned lyrics, we discover that he is angry. Angry at the way Britain has treated its young. He wants his audience to understand that real people suffer real life problems beyond the headlines; that it is easy to get sucked into the gang culture if you live on a crummy estate with a crack-head mum.
It would be surprising if Drew didn’t convince most viewers. His compelling blend of hard-hitting lyrics and brutal images makes a strong case and also helps justify his assertion about the cause of the riots last August. Large sections of society feel like they haven’t got much to lose by stealing a pair of trainers, or even a flatscreen, he contends.
He may very well be right.
We’ll leave the last word to the man himself:
“We’ve had it with you politicians;
“You bloody rich kids never listen.
“There’s no such thing as broken Britain;
“We’re just bloody broke in Britain.
“What needs fixing is the system;
“Not shop windows down in Brixton Riots on the television.
“You can’t put us all in prison!”