Director Rapman endured the unthinkable around the U.K. release of his feature film debut, “Blue Story,” about warring South London gangs. After a brawl broke out at a Birmingham cinema following the film’s release, exhibitors Vue and Showcase temporarily pulled “Blue Story” from screens claiming a spate of other incidents, and sparking a national debate about their motivations for doing so.
But after U.S. protests around George Floyd’s death in police custody reignited the urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement and the need to amplify Black voices, Rapman is determined his experience won’t befall another Black director again.
“Going forward, I don’t think any cinema chain will ban [a film] without massive evidence,” Rapman, whose real name is Andrew Onwubolu, tells Variety.
“They will never do something like that again, because they were literally shamed. For the next filmmakers coming through and telling similar stories, they can be reassured that a lot is going to have to happen for a film to get [taken down].”
While cinema operators eventually reinstated the film, which was backed throughout the episode by financiers Paramount U.K. and BBC Films, Rapman maintains there was “no justification” for pulling “Blue Story” in the first place.
The incident, in many ways, epitomized what continues to be an uneasy relationship between the country’s entertainment industry and Black representation, which is still “miles and miles behind,” says Rapman, highlighting the disconcerting gaps between projects with all-Black casts, such as Channel 4’s ground-breaking series “Top Boy” (2011), Noel Clarke’s film “Brotherhood” (2016) and Netflix’s “Top Boy” revival (2019).
“The Black community gets something once every five years,” says Rapman. “The actors in the U.K. are literally fighting tooth and nail for the same roles. And there’s hardly any roles going around, so many actors don’t get work, and then have to go to the U.S.”
Grossing $5.8 million in the U.K., “Blue Story’s” successful box office run has allowed the film to transcend the headlines around its release. “Before, they always used to say ‘urban hood’ movies from the U.K. may be popular but they don’t make money, but we’ve been very successful financially,” says Rapman, noting the film did 56 weeks’ worth of sales in one week.
“Now that they know it’s profitable, there is no reason for stories like that [not] to get told. And they don’t need to be about gang or street wars. They can still be from the Black community and be love stories or stories about Black lawyers and doctors. But whatever it is, they need to be given a chance.”
Rapman was recently tapped to direct Paramount’s “American Son,” an adaptation of Jacques Audiard’s critically acclaimed French film “A Prophet.” Last month, Russell Crowe was cast as the film’s mobster villain, and casting is underway for main lead Malik, originally played by Tahar Rahim.
In the last week, while the protests raged on in the U.S., the director held an open casting call via Instagram to find potential talent for “American Son,” and provide a platform for emerging actors — many from diverse backgrounds — who might catch the eye of agents and casting directors. The impetus behind the social media drive was to address the countless emails and DMs Rapman receives daily from hopeful actors.
“Before, I never responded because, if I did, I’d be there all day. So, I thought, ‘What can I do to give these people a shot to be seen?’ and I realized since we’re all at home, I can get them to come online and perform a scene,” explains Rapman.
“I wasn’t even going to do it this week because the vibe in the world was just so down, but I figured even if it gives us an hour to take our minds off of it, let me do it.”
While there was no specific instruction on what actors should perform, “so many pieces were about injustice to Blacks. Everyone made sure their pieces had meaning to them,” says Rapman.
“The night before, I’d gone to bed thinking, ‘What type of world are we living in?’ but that night I slept more peacefully knowing everyone is feeling the same way about it, and that I’d allowed some people to get seen.”