What The Blue Story Ban Tells Us About Racism In Britain

Jeffrey Boakye argues that the banning of Blue Story by two cinema chains shows how in the UK black art is held to different standards to everything else, and "a reminder of just how poised society is to reject blackness on the assumption that it can be a corrupting force"

Let’s cut to the chase: The decision taken by two separate cinema chains to ban Blue Story, a new release that opened last weekend, speaks volumes about race in the UK, institutional bias and attitudes to the black community at large. The fact that one of these chains has since overturned its ban tells us that it isn’t yet time to roll credits on this debate.

Blue Story is the debut offering from the black British musician and filmmaker Andrew Onwubolu, also known as Rapman. It follows a series of videos that premiered on YouTube, multi-episodic songs that told theatrical tales of lie and love on the mean streets of London. It was 2017’s Shiro’s Story trilogy in particular that became a game changing viral hit, racking up millions of views and confirming Rapman’s status as an underground superstar. Soon after that, underground went overground and Rapman found himself at the helm of a box office contender, bringing his trademark urban melodrama to the big screen.

The hype didn’t disappoint. As it stands, Blue Story has drawn some £1.3 million in its opening weekend, positioning it at number three in the UK charts. This is despite a national ban from Vue, one of the biggest cinema chains in the country, and a ban from Showcase Cinemas that has since been uplifted. So what happened?

It’s a good question. Early reports of a ‘brawl’ at a cinema complex in Birmingham soon gave way to more detailed accounts that a group of youths had caused violent disruption outside a Blue Story screening. Later, it was confirmed that most of the alleged culprits were actually too young to be admitted entry into Blue Story. A further scroll through the timeline finally revealed images of the supposed troublemakers, one of whom was brandishing a machete. They were young. And they were not black.

So once again: what happened? What led Vue to put a blanket ban on a film that has no proven link to disturbances that befell one of its venues? And what is it about this film in particular that drew such an immediate and severe response?

Is it because it’s black?

It’s no big reveal to say that black art gets held to far higher levels of accountability than its mainstream equivalents. For black artists and content producers, this is a longstanding burden, particularly when the content itself dares to address controversial subjects such as urban deprivation and youth violence. We’ve seen various incarnations of black music vilified and censored for its supposed threat to decorum: gangsta rap, UK garage, grime and UK drill to name a few. Rapman, coming from a solid UK rap context, may have fallen victim to these same fears, being spotlighted as encouraging violence by making art that speaks on related themes.

I can already hear the rebuttal; that artists have a responsibility to disencourage negative behaviour. That censorship of ‘dangerous’ content is in the interest of public safety. I get it, we all do, but without nuance and careful interrogation of context, this quickly becomes unfair. If, say, Guy Ritchie, was held to the same level of scrutiny as Rapman, his career would have faltered at the first smoking barrel. Tarantino wouldn’t have made it past his first cinematic gunshot. And the thrilling glamour of Scorese’s mafioso morality tales would have been locked away years ago, for fear of encouraging successive generations to suit up and join the world of organised crime.

The difference between these examples and Blue Story is that they all get the licence to thrill, as art first and foremost. Blackness is all too often treated as some kind of reportage, judged on its verisimilitude to some supposedly authentic black experience. So when that art starts to mirror scary ‘realities’, the kneejerk mainstream instinct is to shut it down.

I put ‘realities’ in inverted commas for a reason. The postcode war rivalries that Blue Story centres around are simply not the lived experience of the average black person in the UK. Most of us, the vast majority I would imagine, go to school, go to work, eat breakfast, watch telly, pay our taxes and, on occasion, go to the cinema.

Obviously, Blue Story speaks to less mundane and more alarming experiences, part of a tradition of urban cinema that has given us Kidulthood and its sequels as well as the critically-acclaimed Top Boy. When a film speaks to these often dark realities that the black community has historically been in uncomfortably close proximity to, it’s actually a cause for celebration. It’s a joyous thing that we’re getting to tell our own stories in our own way, without compromise and with the power to educate as well as entertain. This is why Dizzee Rascal scooped a Mercury Prize all those years ago, despite lyrics that go deep on urban decay. It’s why Stormzy can be invited to the Glastonbury main stage despite lyrics about gun violence and selling drugs. It’s no accident that Blue Story garnered such immediate and vociferous support from the black community, especially the young, black, UK rap-listening community.

And that’s the other thing: Blue Story is an event. A black event. In the same way that black entertainment has been viewed with suspicion and fear, so too have black cultural gatherings. You only have to consider the media scrutiny that the Notting Hill Carnival has suffered despite its safety record, compared to overlooked dangers of mainstream, white cultural events such as Glastonbury. Research from this year reveals that arrest rates at both these events are almost identical once the number of people attending is factored in, flying in the face of accusations that Notting Hill is somehow more dangerous. Incidentally, the highest rates of arrest per person were found to be at the Creamfields festival, at which black attendance is a minority.

The stereotyping of young black men is nothing new. Fears of black violence are so ingrained in the mainstream psyche that urban blackness itself can become a threat. The only way that a film about inner city black youth could be considered dangerous is if people genuinely believe that it reflects a real threat. It’s the same logic that led to the Home Office deciding to tackle knife crime by putting warnings on fried chicken boxes.

The Blue Story ban is a reminder of just how poised society is to reject blackness on the assumption that it can be a corrupting force, able to draw undesirable behaviours in other social groups. Successive headlines about knife crime in London have fuelled these fears, creating a false impression that black youths are more likely to commit violent offences. In reality, according to government figures from 2017, black people do not make up the majority of convictions for knife possession among the under 25s, not to mention the complex socio-econeomic reasons that contribute to an increased likelihood of ethnic minorities falling victim to youth violence in the first place. Meanwhile, the establishment’s patronising dismissal of black youth has been highlighted once again, this time by Michael Gove’s recent interaction with Stormzy. The Conservative frontbencher actually quoted lyrics, in slang, at the grime star, shortly after stating that he is not to be taken seriously as a political analyst. In this climate, is it any surprise that black youth feel marginalised?

Since the ban, Rapman has stated that Blue Story is a film ‘about love not violence’, expressing regret that ‘a small group of people can ruin things for everybody’. Meanwhile, Vue has defended its decision, citing 25 incidents of violence that it links to Blue Story. The chain has also issued a statement praising the power of cinema to ‘entertain, educate and inspire’. It went on to say that Blue Story is a film that “has the opportunity to change lives”. It’s a moment of truly dramatic irony that the fears of the threat posed by misunderstood blackness have prevented them from actually allowing this to happen.

Jeffrey Boakye is the author of Black, Listed: Black British Culture Explored and Hold Tight: Black Masculinity, Millennials and the Meaning of Grime

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