Image by Noom Peerapong

Brixton Through Cinema

A Cultural Look at the Area Through the Lens of Film with film critic Kelechi Ehenulo.

It’s fair to say that in Paul Feig’s Last Christmas, Kate (Game of Thrones star Emelia Clarke) is not having the greatest of days. She spends the night with a man she met in a bar, discovers her ‘fling’ actually has a girlfriend, and to the surprise of no one, she’s unceremoniously kicked out of the flat. As she does her ‘walk of shame’, for the eagle-eye viewers, Kate’s location in the opening credits is a dead giveaway, long before the iconic shot of the Underground station.

It’s a sign of the times when Brixton can be immortalised in film with such frequency and value. From Atlantic Road to Brockwell Park, that affluence has attracted high-profile directors and their productions, such as Guy Richie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E and Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block. More recently, it has taken on a symbolic recognition, featuring in the Fast and Furious Presents Hobbs and Shaw as the name of Idris Elba’s character. Based on these prominent examples, there’s no question that Brixton has elevated as one of the hottest filming locations within Lambeth.

But Brixton has always been at the forefront of culture, inseparable from its history, multiculturalism and working-class activism. And through the prism of film, Brixton is the master of its own story, encapsulating the diaspora like no other.

You can draw a timeline where Brixton’s cultivated mix of colour, food, music and energetic vibrance is intertwined with the social context of race, housing and uprising. Post-War Britain, shaped by the migration of the Windrush generation, is reflected in Anthony Simmons’ 1977 Brit-Blaxploitation comedy Black Joy. Areas such as Atlantic Road and Brixton Market serve as a time capsule mixture of local storefronts, dance halls, record shops and market life and the occasional glimpses of social disparity of squatting, unemployment and derelict, neglected buildings. The 80s brought Franco Rosso’s cult classic Babylon to the screen, capturing the escalating rise of racial tensions and police brutality experienced by young Black Britons amongst the immersive backdrop of Brixton’s sound system culture. And if Babylon was the simmer, then Steve McQueen’s fourth film in the Small Axe anthology – the 80s set Alex Wheatle – is the melting pot that preludes to the Brixton Riots of 1981. Fast forward to the present, Shola Amoo’s 2016 film A Moving Image is a social conscience, experimental art film about gentrification, interspersed with interviews with Brixton residents during the Reclaim Brixton demonstrations.

There is always a story to tell, but it’s how those stories are communicated and told. In Amoo’s A Moving Image, Brixton’s story is told through art, merging between real-life and fiction. Through the character of Nina (Tanya Fear), it’s a poignant wrestle between creating something authentic of the community versus the self-critical recognition of being part of the problem. Rebecca Johnson’s 2014 film Honeytrap subverted the typical gaze of gang culture to focus its impact through the lens of a female protagonist. Brixton – at its heart – is the immersion of cultural identity, which becomes symbolic of how it establishes its protagonists.

The comparative energy found in Anthony Simmons’ Black Joy and Steve McQueen’s Alex Wheatle is rooted in the same foundation. The circumstances are different, but as the protagonists of their respective films – Ben Jones (Trevor Thomas – Black Joy) and Alex Wheatle (Sheyi Cole – Alex Wheatle) they find themselves in Brixton within the vibrant swirl of its cultural lifestyle. So, it’s no surprise when these characters are later befriended and chaperoned into assimilation by their mentors in Dave King (the late Norman Beaton) and Dennis Issacs (Jonathan Jules).

The hustling energy that King and Issacs embody are natural scene-stealers, but their company is not to be underestimated. What they bring is an education. Ben and Alex are essentially ‘lost souls’ – absent of personality yet fuelled by ignorance and naivety. In effect, they teach them to ‘wise up’, helping them not only to survive the systemic structures that surround the community but to believe in the power of their own voice.

And that is Brixton in a nutshell. What you see is what you get, for an area – never shying away from the realities but wearing its experiences on its sleeves through the community who ‘live and breathe’ its presence. But knowing who you are holds added weight. These battles are continual, and through cinema, that vocal power is utilised as a form of expression. It’s a celebrated form where identities are forged in the process. Without that, the very heart of the community is lost.

As Simeon (Robbie Gee) in Alex Wheatle says – “if you don’t know your past, then you can’t know your future.” That, in itself, is Brixton’s badge of honour.

Kelechi Ehenulo is a Rotten Tomato approved freelance film critic and writer. She is the creator of Confessions From A Geek Mind with bylines in Film StoriesJumpCut OnlineSet the TapeVultureHound and FilmHounds Magazine.

Find her on Twitter: @kehenulo

We all want to make it.
Make it in our chosen career. Maybe make it big.

Sometimes perhaps just make it to pay day.
But whatever our ambition, what unites us all is the desire to thrive, be recognised – and be supported.
And that’s what Lambeth’s Creative Enterprise Zone is all about. Supporting creative people to do amazing creative things without having to leave our amazingly creative corner of south London.
Because we all want to make it – of course – but more than that, we want to Make It in Brixton.