3 out of 5 stars

Interracial couples are a common part of the media landscape these days, and positively ubiquitous in television advertisements, for everything from Ikea to McDonald’s. (BBC comedy sketch show Famalam even did an amusing song about it called “Interracial Couples Selling Stuff”). But it’s still rare for a UK TV series or film to dig beneath the surface of such relationships to reveal how white privilege and racism can inform and undermine them. Step forward co-directors Darragh Carey and Bertrand Desrochers and their debut feature A Brixton Tale; a sort of anti-love story that tackles the subject head-on, leading to some bleak conclusions.

The film chronicles the relationship between two teenagers (one wealthy and white, the other significantly less affluent and black), and juggles several big themes—including race, class, gentrification, and drug addiction. But some of A Brixton Tale’s preoccupations are dealt with more successfully than others and, in the last half-hour, the film takes a dramatic turn to ram home a point it had pretty much already made perfectly well.

Leah (Lily Newmark, superb in Deborah Haywood’s underrated Pin Cushion) is a well-to-do wannabe filmmaker, who’s a little too awkward to cut it as a YouTube personality and clearly happier behind the camera. Minicam permanently in hand and looking for Brixton subjects upon which to base a short film, she meets nice-guy Benji (Ola Orebiyi) and immediately sees an opportunity to chronicle moments from his life as a black estate kid. The two soon begin a relationship, before Leah meets with her gallery-owner aunt, Tilda (Jaime Winstone), and convinces her to showcase the film at an upcoming event.

While the pair both live in Brixton—perhaps only a couple of miles apart—due to decades of gentrification, they may as well be from entirely different worlds. In one scene, Benji and his best friend Archie (Craige Middleburg) follow Leah home without her knowledge, and for them, it’s like going to some magical, far-flung kingdom. Peering through the window of her family’s enormous house, Archie sees a piano and reacts as if he’s spied the golden fleece (“proper little rich girl… you’ve hit the jackpot, cuz”). There are times when the film cuts back and forth between Leah’s home and the flat Benji shares with his mum, and the thing that strikes you most is the contrast in physical space. Benji’s entire cramped flat would probably fit into Leah’s spacious kitchen! You’d never even get Leah’s massive fridge or humungous dining table through the front door.

There’s something quite cold and calculating about Leah; a depiction which Carey and Desrochers only just keep from turning misogynistic. When she’s first “stalking” Benji and Archie, Leah goes prepared with a pre-rolled spliff, like she’s putting down bait, and while she has feelings for Benji, they’re secondary to a need to manipulate him to get the kind of footage her pushy, flinty aunt wants her to shoot. “This ain’t working—before it had edge, but you’ve made it soft… don’t do that,” Tilda says of Leah’s film at one point. Tilda only wants to show a certain sort of blackness (impoverished, violent, criminal) and Leah, fearing that her precious showcase won’t go ahead, succumbs to the pressure. Nepotism, it seems, comes with a price.

Benji may know some genuine Brixton “bad men”—including his cousin Darius (Dexter Padmore), who the police are after—but he’s far from one himself. In fact, he’s something of a mummy’s boy and spends most of his time hanging out with Archie. They play football, they go fishing, they hand out flyers for his mum’s nail bar. He’s fairly naïve and initially fails to notice that Leah is exploiting him and his racial identity. Leah takes him to a party full of wealthy white kids where he snorts cocaine and reacts aggressively when Charles (Barney Harris), an old flame, insults her (“Bottom line is—she can be a bit of a cunt”). It’s hard to shake the feeling she’s deliberately placing Benji in situations he’ll find uncomfortable just so she can shoot his reaction, whether he wants her to or not. Indeed, another of the themes explored here revolves around how much of our technology-filled lives appear on film, with or without our consent, shots of CCTV cameras underlining the point.

The real love story going on here isn’t the one between Benji and Leah but Benji and Archie. Leah comes between them and Benji isn’t around to help when his best friend becomes swiftly (and rather unconvincingly) involved with hard drugs. The deterioration of their relationship is more heart-breaking than anything else in A Brixton Tale, as one particularly heated confrontation between the pair hovers on the edge of violence. Archie—the kind of patois-speaking white boy who inspired Ali G—rails against “batty men” a little too often for it to be entirely convincing and you do wonder if he himself might be gay, perhaps even in love with Benji but terrified to say. Newmark and Orebiyi are impressive, the latter building on his excellent work in Limbo (2020), but Middleburg—who brings depth and sensitivity to a role that initially appears cartoonish—is probably the highlight.  

A Brixton Tale is far from a comedy but there’s a moment that could’ve come straight out of TV’s Nathan Barley, as Leah’s project gets its premiere in an exhibition space with all the warmth of an abattoir. The film is shown, installation-style, on a bank of vintage televisions and projected onto a bare white wall, as a carefully curated, multicultural middle-class audience sip champagne and applaud enthusiastically. One male attendee even seeks Leah out to compliment her on the “really gritty stuff” she has produced. Like Tilda, he has no interest in seeing black youths as fully-rounded human beings, just a collection of stereotypes and clichés. As well as being humorous, the scene is provocative, and Carey and Desrochers make no attempt to disguise their distaste for the absurdity of these people.

There is, however, a problem. If you’re going to skewer stereotypical depictions of black youth—that “really gritty stuff”—it makes no sense to be guilty of it yourselves. The repellent Charles upsets Leah sending Benji into a blind fury, and while you could argue Leah has manipulated her boyfriend into such a reaction, it’s a shame Carey and Desrochers can’t spare us the sight of yet another angry young black man flying off the handle. Because even though you can see why they opt to go in that direction (added drama, higher stakes), it surely only feeds formulas and clichés the pair seem keen to demolish elsewhere.

White privilege rears its ugly head throughout A Brixton Tale, Leah getting away with stuff Benji knows he never could. When they are harassed by police, Leah insults the officers in a manner that would surely get her boyfriend a night in the cells (at the very least), and entreaties that he should “stick up for himself” ring hollow when she has everything provided for her on a plate (her dad even seems to have chosen the university she’ll attend). Such advantages are, however, small potatoes compared to the way in which Leah’s class, colour, and connections work in her favour as the film enters its home straight. The narrative route taken rankles in many ways, as it abandons subtler character work for something more visceral and predictable, but you can’t deny the finale isn’t powerful.

The title A Brixton Tale would seem to suggest the south London area is as much a character here as the film’s human cast, but the co-directors mercifully eschew heading too far down that path. Yes, we see a fair bit of the place during the film’s brisk 76-minute runtime, but there’s no particular attempt to celebrate or lionise it. The area’s just a backdrop in which Leah, Benji, and Archie go about their lives. The closest we get to the kind of eccentric Brixtonite so beloved of documentaries and news programmes is a mangy old fox briefly seen darting under a car to hide, while Peter Venne’s low-key but effective ambient score seems designed to stand in deliberate contrast to the film’s urban setting. Carey and Desrochers’ feature debut boasts an impressive young cast and has a raw and restless energy, but it’s the harsh truths their film seeks to uncover that will live longest in the memory.

UK | 2021 | 76 MINUTES | 2.35:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

directors: Darragh Carey & Bertrand Desrochers.
writers: Rupert Baynham, Darragh Carey & Chi Mai.
starring: Barney Harris, Lily Newmark, Michael Maloney, Jaime Winstone, Lee Nicholas Harris, Karen Ascoe, Ola Orebiyi, Craig Middleburg, Ania Nova & Sophie Ablett.