A Brixton Tale is a film with a lot on its mind: it covers class, racism, gang culture, police overreach, and more. This year’s must-see independent film, it stars rising talent Ola Orebiyi as Benji, a young Black teen who is initially an unwilling subject in a Brixton documentary that white videographer Leah (Lily Newmark) is putting together to impress the art gallery she works at.
As they strike up a relationship, the hunt for edgier footage leads Benji down a dark path that he may not be able to come back from. It’s a tricky role that sees Orebiyi draw out the complexities in his character through subtle, yet effective mannerisms. For writer Rupert Baynham though, the biggest theme at play here is that of the gaze. For the vast majority of the film, Leah is wielding a camera that’s pointed at Benji. As the movie progresses, the exploitative nature of their relationship becomes more pronounced. “I was about 15 when films like Kidulthood came out, and I remember a lot of pretty posh people thinking that this was the new cool and appropriating that world,” Baynham, who is white, says. “Something about that sort of sat a bit dodgy with me. Leah is a character that definitely comes from those people that I knew growing up.”
Orebiyi has had supporting roles in the likes of Limbo and Cherry to his name, both of which were well received earlier this year, but the first film he shot just a few months after completing drama school was A Brixton Tale. He had an epiphany that he wanted to be an actor in 2006, when he was with his mother in Nigeria watching The Pursuit of Happyness, a film which sees Will Smith’s Chris Gardner struggle through no small amount of adversity before ultimately finding success. “I remember watching it as a kid with my mum, and going, ‘I want to do that’,” he says. “You connect with a story so much, and it gave me hope. And I want to do that as an actor. I want to be able to give somebody hope.”
“There was an amazing scene that Ola did in the audition process that almost made us cry,” says the film’s co-director, Bertrand Desrochers, when recalling how Orebiyi came to be cast. “It was really powerful. There was no doubt in our minds that this guy is a movie star.”
Orebiyi also took inspiration from the people around him when it came to mapping out Benji’s journey. Born in Nigeria before moving to South London, he found that he didn’t really fit in at first. Thankfully, both he and his character had protective single mothers to guide them through difficult times. “Benji is brought up by a single mum who’s trying her best for him, so I was able to connect with the way my mum raised me,” he says. “So there were some similarities between myself and between Benji, and some of my friends also had similar stories.”
He would get to grips with what he related to and what he didn’t in late night script-reading sessions – “I could be awake at 2am,” he says – and his efforts pay dividends. One particularly memorable (and dialogue-free) scene sees the camera zoom in on Benji as the fruits of Leah’s manipulations are laid bare for all to see, and Orebiyi’s face powerfully conveys his character’s anger and helplessness. “I think when you really feel a character, you don’t have to try too hard,” he says. “And I don’t know a lot of people that get so angry that they let themselves reach the very end of their anger. You try to control your emotions.”
Emotions did run high, however, because there was almost as much drama off-screen as there was on it during filming. On the final day of shooting, Dexter Padmore – who plays Darius, one of Benji’s more unsavoury acquaintances – was arrested by the police before he could shoot his big scene. Eventually he was released without charge. “We walked out on the street to find Dexter and we saw him down the road getting cuffed by the police,” recalls co-director and co-writer Darragh Carey. “We went over to them and asked them why, and of course they didn’t really have a good reason.”
The incident mirrors a sequence that actually takes place in the film, in which Benji is the victim of police misconduct despite not doing anything wrong. “It was so surreal,” says Orebiyi. “We had filmed that scene and kind of forgotten about it. And then you see it in real life and you think man, that’s crazy. But this does actually happen.”
Fortunately the team was able to adapt to the unfortunate circumstances and make the sequence work. In fact, the movie is all the more impressive because of how much it had to overcome. This included running out of money, which led to only 75 per cent of the final draft making it to camera. The editing process can best be described as challenging. “Throughout filming, almost every day we were running out of time and money,” says Desrochers. “So we had to decide which scene we had to remove from the day. Once we arrived in post-production, we had to really be creative with our editor. There was lots of rewriting.”
The final result spotlights up and coming talent the industry should keep an eye on, especially in the case of Orebiyi. “I love telling a story that can influence someone’s life for the better,” he says. “But also on the other side, of course, you’re influenced by what the late Chadwick Boseman did. I’d love to be a superhero someday.” Whether there’s a superhero film in it or not, Orebiyi’s future is bright.
A Brixton Tale will be released in cinemas on September 17