How The 'Kidulthood' Trilogy Captured The Harsh Reality of Growing Up in London
New York has 'Kids' and Paris has 'La Haine'... London has 'Kidulthood'.
I was 16 years old, it was the spring of 2006, and I was walking near my home in North West London when I clocked the poster for a new film called Kidulthood. It showed a bunch of teenagers sitting next to each other on the roof of a council flat, all dressed in regular clothes like tracksuits and jeans, the sky heavy and grey above them. Unlike most of the dirge advertised at my local cinema, the poster stood out – it was a scene I recognised. I texted my best mate and arranged to go see it.
At the time, UK teen films were defined by the same British tropes that have inaccurately represented life on this rainy island for so long. There was the dark, middle-class glamour of Notes on a Scandal, the twee British fantasy of yet another Harry Potter film, and the lads-at-a-grammar-school LOLs of The History Boys. Similarly, we were still in thrall to the iconic teen movies put out by our cousins across the pond who exported the Final Destination franchise, and bright, sickly high school comedies like She's the Man and John Tucker Must Die.
And so, with its story about the harshness of growing up fast on London's council estates, Kidulthood presented an radically alternative teen narrative that had, until then, been largely undocumented in the mainstream. It went on to become a cult British classic, and has since spawned two sequels: Adulthood, and this year's comeback finale, Brotherhood (which features Stormzy in a starring role). So what is it about these films that enabled them to so accurately capture the nuances of a culture that's rarely been represented in British cinema?
Filmed in the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea, where rich and poor live side-by-side, the film's story is one that in many ways is very specific to its location. Ladbroke Grove – the centre of the film and the area in which the trilogy's writer and protagonist Noel Clarke grew up – is bordered by affluent Notting Hill on one side, and the significantly poorer borough of Brent on the other. At the time, there was criticism of the way that teenagers from such wildly different economic backgrounds were shown going to the same school and the same parties, but that is one of the defining characteristics of life in West London. It's a place where multi-million-pound pillar-porched houses are surrounded by sprawling council estates, and the kids often end up in the same schools due to catchment area rules, and even more often at the same parties.
"That's just how it was," explains Clarke when we meet in the backroom of a Soho restaurant. "A lot of people talk about how it wasn't like that in South [London] but it's like... it's not set in South, I'm not from South. There's no point in me trying to write about a place I don't know about. [That depiction] was the area I grew up in: I was born there, I went to school there, so I wrote about that area. And that's why it is a mixed film; why you've got posh people there and council estate kids."
It wasn't just the location that contributed to Kidulthood's realism. The narrative also captures what it was like for the average teenager in London. For those who can't remember, the film follows the lives of a group of 15-year-olds over the course of 36 hours. One of them gets caught up in gang crime due to pressure from his uncle, another has the weight of an unplanned pregnancy on her mind, and they all spend the day engaging in petty theft, underage drinking, and questionable sexual practices. The individually minor wrongdoings of the characters eventually culminate in a death at a house party. As a result, criticism came from the press. The Sun called it a "happy-slapping movie" and further condemnation came in the shape of standard fear-mongering. It was suggested that Kidulthood would impact on youth, who would go out and attempt to emulate the fucking, fighting and drug-taking they had seen the characters perform on screen.
A film depicting teenagers engaging in activities that teenagers have engaged in away from adult eyes since time immemorial shouldn't have been controversial, but the content in Kidulthood meant that the film took years to be made. Despite being written in 1999, it didn't enter into production until 2004, and after that it sat on a shelf for two more years before its eventual release. Even then, neither Edinburgh or the London Film Festival wanted to show it. There is a sense that a lot of people didn't want to believe that the world depicted in the film was actually real. Clarke, however, is adamant the film was merely mirroring reality. "To me it was not a controversial film," he explains. "The film didn't inform society, society informed the film. These things happen. Everyone that grew up there knows guys that behave like that, girls that behave like that. It doesn't mean that everyone is doing it, but they exist."
I tell Clarke about my experiences of watching the film for the first time. As my friend and I laughed and gasped at what was unfolding on the screen in recognition of our own teenage lives, an older woman sat two rows in front visibly horrified throughout the entire feature, hands alternately clasped over her eyes and mouth. Clarke laughs, "Whoever the lady was, she can be upset, because it wasn't made for her." It is exactly that which made Kidulthood so seminal: it is a film about disenfranchised youth made for disenfranchised youth by someone who lived it. None of the three films have pandered to any audience other than the people they sought to represent, and in doing so, also proved that there was a market for them. Despite the difficulty Clarke faced getting the first movie made and released, Kidulthood and Adulthood were both successful at the UK box office, with the latter grossing £3 million.
In some ways however, the existence of this year's Brotherhood sequel comes as a surprise. Revolver Entertainment – the distributor that released the first and second films (plus subsequent British hood movies such as Shank, Sket, and Adam Deacon's directorial debut Anuvahood) – went under in 2013, allegedly due to rumours of "unsustainable decadence". The relationships that were central to the first film have also deteriorated over the course of the last decade, and none of the main teenage characters from the first film apart from Sam (Clarke, himself) and Alisa (Red Madrell) appear. Clarke and Deacon (who plays Jay in the first film) have since fallen out spectacularly, with the Brotherhood director taking out a restraining order against his former co-star following threats made to his children.
Femi Oreniyan (Moony) declined to be in the third movie, claiming he would "rather never act again than be in that film." During our meeting, Clarke is visibly enthusiastic when discussing the theoretical lives of his characters and the ways that they have changed and grown over the course of the sixteen years the three films are set. But when I ask about where he thinks Jay and Moony's characters would have ended up he cuts me off immediately, unwilling to even discuss their hypothetical stories. It is undoubtedly a shame that neither appear in the final instalment, but at least true to the turbulent life that informs the art of his films.
For Clarke, his role as Sam has always come from a real place. Brotherhood sees Sam 16 years since committing murder; he has served six years in prison and it has been ten years since he got out. He is 32, working odd jobs to support his family. Clarke himself is now nearly 40 and also a father. "When I wrote Kidulthood, I was young, that was where I was at. When Adulthood was made that's where I was at too – Sam's character didn't give a fuck and neither did I. And now I'm in a place where I'm later on in life, I'm calmer, I've got my kids and I don't want any trouble. But if you mess with my kids then it's a different story. And that's where I put Sam. I think it makes them authentic; that's where the truth comes from."
It is yet to be seen how the three films will age as a whole, but Kidulthood is still an accurate time capsule of life as an inner-city teenager in 2006: the slang, the Nokia camera phones, the Burberry caps and the Boxfresh jackets were big back then, and are now experiencing an inevitable rebirth in popularity. The fact that all three films are filmed in the same area also makes them an interesting if not necessarily intended reflection on the changes in that part of London and the effects of gentrification. The final scene of Brotherhood takes place in Westfield Shepherd's Bush, a place that didn't even exist when Kidulthood was released, let alone when it was written.
Has Clarke noticed a change in the area he grew up in? "I've never left the area so it didn't feel that different as the change was a gradual process, but visually you definitely see the difference. There's a scene [in Brotherhood] where Sam goes into a cafe, that wouldn't have existed 10 years ago. Times have changed in that sense but there are still those boys about that are hanging around doing their thing and there are still those girls that are about doing their thing and attracting those boys."
One of the most precious depictions of the trilogy though, is the diversity in terms of the race, class and gender of its cast. Crucially, it seems natural rather than the result of a forced quota, and is emblematic of the make-up of the city. But, in real life – with the increased destruction of London's inner city council estates, and the social cleansing of the teenagers that live on them – the future is unclear for this kind of natural melting-pot model of suburban London diversity. According to Clarke, the area is changing but "it is still like that, although maybe less so. There are still council blocks but obviously gentrification has changed it a little bit. That amalgamation and mix of people is still there, and I think that's important. I like my kids growing up in an area where they can see people from different countries and nationalities and walks of life. That's important for me; black people, white people."
For some, the destruction of tower blocks in which teenagers beat each other up and swap blowjobs for ecstasy might be seen as a good thing. Ultimately though, no matter how badly behaved the youth of these films may seem, they are just teenagers doing the things that teenagers do. While Clarke refrains from chastising the behaviour of the youths in his films, his overall message at the end of the trilogy is one that emphasises how your actions as a teenager can impact the rest of your life and the lives of others.
"The real story is about this guy who is just trying to live his life but he can't hold down a proper job because he's got a criminal record. What he did at 16-years-old is still affecting him. Nonetheless, I wanted the overarching message to be that you can change. That you can get out of your environment and you don't have to be who your past actions are, you don't have to be defined by them."
In their depictions of inner-city teenagers, the films echo Mathieu Kassovitz's La Haine (about the notoriously violent suburbs of Paris) and Larry Clark's hot and amoral summer in New York's Kids. Indeed, Clarke has explicitly stated that he was inspired by the latter whilst writing Kidulthood. But while the Kidulthood trilogy may not be as critically acclaimed as Kids, they are arguably just as important in terms of providing an authentic and no-holds barred insight into a city's adolescent underbelly. From its depictions of life on and beyond an estate, it has captured London realism like no other film.
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