It is surprising that there are so few films dealing with the Jamaican-UK connection in the last 30-40 years, so Yardie is very welcome. The film is an adaptation of a popular ‘street novel’ that circulated within London’s African-Caribbean communities in the 1990s. Written by Victor Headley, who arrived in the UK from Jamaica aged 12 in 1971, it struggled to find a publisher until it was taken up by X Press, a two-man operation set up by Dotun Adebayo and Steve Pope of The Voice black newspaper. Yardie was the imprint’s first publication in 1992 and it became a cult novel, selling through non-traditional outlets. During the 1990s the novel was popular but also controversial. Several different definitions of the term ‘Yardie’ are in circulation. It is a Jamaican term originally and I think I first heard it used to describe Jamaican gangsters/criminals coming to the UK and that’s certainly its meaning in the film. A ‘yard’ in Kingston refers to ‘government housing’.
Yardie is Idris Elba’s first attempt to direct a feature film and it may be that Elba’s fanbase is the reason that the film was funded by StudioCanal and produced by Warp Films – and then supported by BFI and Screen Yorkshire (Warp Films is based in Sheffield and London). I realise that I’ve only seen Idris Elba in small parts early in his career but I recognise that he is now a star. He worked on the film with John Conroy, a cinematographer he knew well from the TV series Luther and he had experienced producers like Robin Gutch and Gina Carter working with him. Elba himself was born in London to African parents but he was a young man in Hackney when the novel was first circulated. He therefore had a handle on at least the Hackney end of the story. I was intrigued to note that Headley’s novel appears to have been adapted by Martin Bellman, part responsible for the scripts for the terrific Babylon (1980) and Queen and Country (1988), the latter, which I haven’t seen, featuring Denzel Washington as a British soldier back on civvy street after the Falklands War) and Brock Norman Brock writer on Bronson (2008). So, overall the film should work even if Idris Elba is inexperienced as a director. He does have plenty of experience as an actor to fall back on and he is credited as ‘Camera B Operator’.
The narrative outline is relatively simple. ‘D’ (for Denis) grows up in the hills above Kingston. In 1973, as a 13 year-old he ponders advice to choose the ‘righteous path’ rather than the road into criminality, but fate will push him into the ‘wrong path’ when his older brother is killed. When several years later he has become a ‘soldier’ for one of Kingston’s gang leaders he is still being visited by the ghost of his brother and is liable to become violent looking for his killer. This causes his despatch to London by the gang leader ‘King Fox’ (“to avoid war ina Kingston”). But in Hackney it is clear that the violence will continue until his brother is avenged, although D’s task is actually to shift drugs. Inevitably film critics have made comparisons with films like City of God (Brazil 2002) and London gangster films but I think it is more interesting to try to think about Jamaican and Black British films. These too are conventional but they are also much more specific in cultural terms. 1973 when Yardie‘s story begins was the release year of The Harder They Come co-written and directed by Perry Henzell and the most celebrated Jamaican film to date, based on a legendary ‘rude boy’ figure whose story was also told in a deeply researched book by Michael Thelwell in 1980. This film about music and criminality with its use of Jamaican patois and Rasta philosophy is a rich source which Yardie draws on, but only to a limited extent. Babymother (UK 1998) is also about rival performances in the later dancehall culture of North West London, but not the same level of violent behaviour. However, it is the brief ‘family’ moments in Yardie which give it some cultural depth and that’s where the link to Babymother is so important. When D gets to London and once again starts to cause trouble, the only one he can turn to is Yvonne who we have first seen as a schoolgirl in 1973. later she became D’s babymother but has taken their small daughter to London and found work as a nurse. Yvonne and her daughter have the potential to ground D and he is indeed welcomed by Yvonne’s church.
But D is also more vulnerable because of Yvonne and their daughter and this in turn plays into his criminal activities in London. This major part of the film is more conventional and less interesting for me but it too is bolstered by the authentic touches supplied by Headley’s novel and Elba’s research. I was especially impressed by the Jamaican actors Shantol Jackson as Yvonne and Sheldon Shepherd as King Fox. In the Jamaican context we see a Chinese-Jamaican character in the crime/music business and in London, Stephen Graham plays a bi-racial British Jamaican gangster ‘Rico’. Several reviewers have been bewildered by Graham’s switch from Jamaican patois to more or less Standard English in the same few lines of dialogue. But I think this is authentic. Graham himself has a Jamaican grandfather. The whole of Yardie is dependent on Aml Ameen as the grown-up D and I think he does a great job. He first came to notice as one of the leads in the 2006 film Kidulthood, the first of the so-called ‘urban films’ in the UK. These films target a broader audience of multi-racial urban youth and therefore not the same investigations of Jamaican ‘roots’ – and consequently the music background is very different. The music in Yardie is mainly ‘dancehall’ for the London scenes and I didn’t recognise much, though there are legendary performers featured such as Yellowman, Black Uhuru and snatches of Burning Spear, Dennis Brown and earlier ska bands. What sounded like a Marley song over the closing credits is I think by Skip Marley, Bob’s grandson.
Overall I think Yardie is a strong directorial debut. I would have liked more back in Jamaica, less violence and more family melodrama, but I’m not the target audience. The African-Caribbean couple in the seat in front of me clearly enjoyed the film which has done OK as a British film, but has struggled for screen space and possibly appeals to an older audience than the ‘urban films’. Ironically, it has also been up against both BlacKkKlansman and Denzel Washington’s Equalizer 2 in the last few weeks. I suspect that Yardie has played in specialised cinemas while Denzel was at the multiplex. But at least we’ve had three black films in UK cinemas at the same time. More please.