A FEROCIOUS murder, seemingly driven by racial hatred, is the background to this film about teenage life below the poverty line.
It is set near Swansea in South Wales. Writer and director Amma Asante draws the viewer in powerfully.
She then unfolds a history and characters that move beyond the one-dimensional way that the mainstream media would deal with such an incident.
The film follows 17 year old single mother Leigh-Anne and her friends, all struggling to cling to a semblance of life and hope in a forgotten working class area.
The characterisation and dialogue, using relatively inexperienced actors, gives a great portrayal of young working class culture.
It is Leigh-Anne (played brilliantly by Stephanie James) who is the gang-leader. She is a hard person with an acid tongue.
But at the same time she is a tender mother and a child herself. This is glimpsed at moments such as when she leaps around to Stereophonics.
She lives alone with her young baby in a damp, decrepit house. Her profound isolation, as she finds herself backed into corners of increasingly limited choice, is painful to watch.
At one point she pimps a young girl to a local pervert to get money for electricity.
Racism first manifests itself among the group as a form of verbal violence, an expression of general angst.
It starts as insults thrown around the local kebab shop and escalates to petty crime against “Pakis”.
When Leigh-Anne sees Turkish neighbours receiving new plumbing before her, she begins to direct her pent-up anger and humiliation towards them—the “Pakis” across the street.
An excellent script conveys the unbending oppression of poverty that fuels the teenagers’ feelings of race hate. It is the film’s strength that the complexity of racism, identity and poverty are so effectively conveyed.
Leigh-Anne’s spiralling paranoia that her Turkish Muslim neighbour is a threat to her baby escalates beyond control.
The beauty of this part of South Wales provides a backdrop as the story is interspersed with haunting shots of the dereliction of the area—the camera lingering powerfully over the disused docks at sunset.
The director, a black woman, grew up in 1980s Streatham, south London.
She explains her decision to place her story with the Welsh working class, seldom featured on screen: “Wales has a history of some of the oldest black communities in Europe.
“A lot of the diversity began to grow around Cardiff and the docks areas in South Wales about a hundred years ago.
“I wanted to explain how that history might impact on us today.”
Asante began writing A Way of Life during the Bradford and Burnley riots in 2001.
She was struck by how the white and Asian kids would in different ways express the same fears about the lack of future presented to them.
Overshadowing the film is the government-fanned media frenzy surrounding immigration policy.
The tragedy finally unravels when Hassan’s mistaken identity as Leigh-Anne’s enemy is made clear.
She has mistakenly identified him as a threat to her baby, just as she mistakenly identifies the root of her problems.
This film captures the reality of racism in an original and powerful way. Do not miss it.