The blockbusters will be postponed, the indie films in many cases will head straight to streaming. But even before the apple cart of movie distribution got tipped over, “Blue Story” had traced an unlikely path. An artfully corrosive British youth-gang drama, at once jaggedly real and modly stylized, it was written and directed by Andrew Onwubolu, the London-based rapper, producer, actor, and director who bills himself as Rapman, and who spun the movie out of the short-story rap-video aesthetic he made into a YouTube sensation.
“Blue Story,” an expanded version of one of his earliest efforts (from 2014), made a splash in the U.K. when it opened there in 2019, and Paramount Pictures had planned to release it in the U.S. on March 20. The release got scuttled, yet there remains an allure to the thinking behind it: the idea that “Blue Story,” a movie centered on black teenagers from South London who spit out their words in a cockney-flecked-with-Jamaican dialect so thick you have to lean in to take in what they’re saying, had the goods to become a crossover sensation — a film that could hook American audiences because it speaks the universal language of desperation-as-delinquency-as-eternal-youth-style.
Part of the hook is that the elements of “Blue Story” are so familiar — and therefore, in theory, commercial. The rotting impoverished core of the metropolis set to an insinuating hip-hop beat. Kids brandishing taunts, threats, knives, and guns in a world ruled by crazed-leader-of-the-pack bravado and vengeance. The hero, who in this case sports a parochial-school jacket and tie, doing all he can to be good even as he’s lured, by events larger than himself, into a vicious cycle of blood.
In its elegant grit and volatile vibe, “Blue Story” recalls the powerful inner-city tales that dotted the American film landscape of the early ’90s: John Singleton’s tough, tense, and moving “Boyz n the Hood” (1991); Ernest Dickerson’s combustible B-movie “Juice” (1992); the Hughes brothers’ crime-psychodrama-detonated-with-nihilism “Menace II Society” (1993); and Spike Lee’s great, emotionally epic, to-this-day underrated “Clockers” (1995). “Blue Story” owes a debt to all of them, and at times that makes it feel like a rap-cinema version of the British Invasion, a kind of 21st-century “Teddy Boyz n the Hood.” Yet “Blue Story” is very much a blast of something present tense. Rapman’s scenes boil over with life, as he crafts an opera of innocence infected by gangsta pathology.
The movie tells the classic tale of a good kid’s descent, or maybe we should say his Fall. Timmy, played by the solemnly handsome, introspectively compelling Stephen Odubola, has a posse of pals from his Peckham high school who are a lot more rough-and-tumble than he is, because that’s about the only option in his hardscrabble district, which is dominated by a housing project shaped like a giant H. You see him trying to act cool, and also what an act it is. But his romance with Leah (Karla-Simone Spence) is no charade. The two hook up and discover that love can be an oasis.
They’re on a higher ground that’s about to be yanked out from under them. Timmy is buddies with the moody Marco (Micheal Ward), and their older brothers are mired in old gang vendettas. The series of mishaps that turn Marco against Timmy are heartbreaking, because they’re so unnecessary. But that’s kind of the point: Once you’ve sworn your allegiance to the codes of violence, camaraderie takes a back seat. Timmy isn’t trying to hurt anyone, but he, his brother, and Leah get hurt. Real bad. When a movie’s violence can still shock you, you know it’s hitting authentic nerves.
Timmy was soft; now life has made him hard. And Stephen Odubola has the skill to invest that soul-murdering transformation with a chill. His Timmy is like a young Malcolm X who slips over to the dark side. The movie that surrounds him doesn’t always have the same ring of devastation. Onwubolu drops in at moments to sum up what’s happening in big-beat street rhyme, and his Rapman-as-Greek-chorus works nicely. That said, the kind of shorthand storytelling a song depends on can short-circuit the drama onscreen. “Blue Story” reaches for the “mythic,” which works in hip-hop, but less so in a movie that suggests, at its best, an adrenalized, graphic-novel version of “My Beautiful Laundrette” (though it makes the social turbulence that film captured 35 years ago look like a multiculti utopia).
Whatever crossover dreams Paramount had for “Blue Story,” the studio has now opened the film in Los Angeles…at a drive-in theater. Is that a test-drive, or a token drop before the movie gets streamed? At this point, maybe even Paramount doesn’t know for sure. Yet even before its big American release got bumped, “Blue Story” was never going to be an easy-to-market genre film. Then again, who said it had to be? Onwubolu’s talent has already caught the eye of American moguls like Jeffrey Katzenberg, who recruited him to make short films for Quibi, and Jay-Z, who signed a deal with him at Roc Nation. Whatever happens to “Blue Story” (an impassioned if imperfect movie worth chasing down wherever it lands), it’s likely to be far from the last big-screen chapter of the Rapman story.