Bullet Boy is the first feature film made by documentary film-maker Saul Dibb. It stars Ashley Walters better known as Asher D from So Solid Crew in his first lead film role. The film, with a beautiful soundtrack by Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja, has attracted awards and nominations ahead of its UK release.
Asher D’s performance and all the others are so convincing they make the film feel almost too real. In fact it is simply that every detail is sensitively considered and balanced.
No lesson or moral is pushed at the audience even though the subject could easily tempt a less intelligent director in that direction. The film is about the limited opportunities for two brothers who have grown up in Hackney and what it takes for them to escape gang life. I was moved, surprised and tested, and thought about it long afterwards.
Asher D plays 19 year old Ricky who is just out of youth custody and on parole. One bad move, such as forgetting to turn up for a parole meeting, takes him just a step away from being put back inside. His 12 year old brother Curtis idealises and fears him – which comes across in his attitude towards Ricky’s gun, which ends up back in his hands soon after he gets home from prison. Curtis eyes widen in fear and surprise then he strides round the empty house with it tucked into the back of his jeans. It seems just a matter of time before Curtis is so swayed by the example of the only ‘cool’ adult man he really knows that he will get into trouble himself.
Ricky’s circle of influence is limited consisting of his mother who sees church as the answer to their problems, his ironically named friend Wisdom – who is always dragging him into tit for tat struggles – and his girlfriend Shea. Shea is the only person with whom Ricky has a relationship based on understanding. He dreams of getting out and taking Shea with him but this relationship, like all the others, is strained by the trouble he’s embroiled because of his loyalty for Wisdom. His friend seems unable to fathom Ricky’s predicament – that anything could send him back to prison – as he appears to be so desensitised by the life he lives.
Ricky’s mother is one of the most interesting characters. She raises her children alone, finds it difficult to cope, and turns to the church as an answer to her problems. This does not influence her sons in the way that she would like however. The speeches of the vicar do not provide them with the answers they are looking for. Even the mother’s connection with the church is based on her relationship with the vicar who clearly has feelings for her and provides the emotional support that is so lacking in her life.
The two places of belonging explored in this film, the gang and the church, do not appear to meet the emotional and practical needs of either Curtis or Ricky. The gang gets them into trouble and traps them in a way of life that can ultimately lead to prison. The church is simply inadequate.
This is a film about disasters waiting to happen due to the near-impossibility of escaping a certain way of life. It doesn’t judge individual characters or try to explain why there is no black father on the scene. It subtly explores the issues around why some black working class men end up in prison. Saul Dibb’s acclaimed background in documentary-making is a real strength. Bullet Boy is more realistic than many documentaries that effectively end up moralising to – rather than understanding – working class youth.
Release date: 8 April
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