The decision by Vue and Showcase to stop showing the gang drama Blue Story after a mass brawl at a Birmingham cinema will make it the “anti-establishment” film for young people and fits into a long history of censorship of black artists in the UK, according to academics.
Dr Clive Nwonka, LSE Fellow in film studies and author of the forthcoming book Black Boys: the Aesthetics of British Urban Cinema, said that the decision by the cinemas to pull the film was “kneejerk” and will actually help it gain a far bigger audience.
“It is now the anti-establishment film among young people in this country,” Nwonka said. “It’s radical because of its existence. Ironically, there’s not much political content in it but now there’s the sense that it’s a dangerous film and there will be a huge audience for it.
“It’s a classic moral panic. Stuart Hall predicted it with mugging in the 70 s – there’s hysteria around young black people and that eventually provokes an over-reaction like this . ”
The decision to pull the film came after 100 young people were embroiled in a brawl at the Star City leisure complex on Saturday night in Birmingham. Six teenagers, including a 13 – year-old girl and 14 – year-old boy, were arrested. West Midlands police said the decision to stop screening the film was not based on official advice. Vue later said there had been 25 “significant incidents” involving screenings of Blue Story at 16 of its cinemas.
Following the criticism, Showcase said on Monday night that it was reinstating the film “supported with increased security protocols”.
Maurice McLeod, social commentator and former director of Media Diversified, called the decision to pull the film “completely ridiculous” and hard to not see as “racially tinged”.
“The idea that this film is so exciting that a group of black kids will start stabbing each other is just insulting,” he said.
“There are lots of films or TV shows that are much more violent, like Game of Thrones, but it’s understood that people who watch those films are sophisticated enough to not act on it. But that’s not the perception with culture consumed by young black people. ”
Nwonka said this was the latest case of a black British film having problems with censorship. Pressure, the first ever black British film, directed by Horace Ove was plagued with distribution issues in the mid 70 s because of its depiction of racism in London, he said. Likewise, Franco Rosso’s Babylon in 1980 had issues with its certification because its content – a gritty story of life in south London among young reggae fans – was deemed to be too controversial .
More recently, Nwonka said gang dramas such as Bullet Boy and Top Boy have had issues securing permits to shoot in certain areas of London. “Authorities have often seen black urban film as having some sort of potential to influence black people in a negative way. The decision is rooted in the idea that black people are unable to distinguish between fiction and reality, ”he said.
Zak Ové, the artist, curator and son of Pressure director Horace Ové, said that the furore surrounding Blue Story has taken attention away from the fact the director Rapman (real name Andrew Onwubolu) had been able to forge a successful film career while operating completely outside of the mainstream. “The film has attracted its own core crowd virally and they want to see themselves and their lives personified by film-makers who are part of their world. It’s sad this has been pulled from cinemas. ”
On Saturday Onwubolu tweeted saying the film was “about love, not violence” and that he hoped the blame for the disorder was “placed with the individuals and not an indictment of the film itself”.
He added: “Sending love to all those involved in yesterday’s violence at Star City in Birmingham. It’s truly unfortunate that a small group of people can ruin things for everybody. I pray that we can all learn to live with love and treat each other with tolerance and respect. ”
Vue said the decision was “not taken lightly or without careful consideration” and denied accusations it was based on “biased assumptions or concern about the content of the film itself”. It said Blue Story is a “fantastic film… that has the opportunity to change lives” and that it hoped the message of the film would not get lost.
“Despite a range of precautionary measures in place, including increased security, removal of late-night showings and reduced screenings of the film, the decision to withdraw Blue Story in its entirety was made on Saturday evening on grounds of safety alone , ”Vue said.
Showcase was approached for comment.
BFI said it was saddened “for anyone negatively impacted by the incidents at the weekend” and it was “a shame that this has overshadowed what we believe is an important piece of work with a very positive message.”
It added: “Rapman is an exceptional storyteller who has connected with audiences in cinemas with Blue Story – it’s a film people want to see as the excellent box office performance at the weekend demonstrates. This is a film-maker who has real cultural value – in fact his online work Shiro’s Story is in the BFI National Archive, and we were delighted to host a preview of Blue Story last week at BFI Southbank, where it will be screening for the next few weeks. ”