Idris Elba’s directorial debut Yardie hits cinemas this week and it shows a part of British history that we don’t tend to see on screen very often. When it comes to British period dramas there is no shortage of stories centred around white protagonists.
From The Darkest Hour to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, The Happy Prince to the upcoming Mary, Queen of Scots biopic, there have been several films over the last year that have focused solely on white narratives and most are rarely concerned with the historically multicultural experience of living in the UK.
Idris Elba wants to change that with Yardie, his directorial debut that serves as a cinematic linchpin of British-Jamaican culture. Based on Victor Headley’s 1992 novel of the same name, the film follows a young Jamaican boy Dennis ‘D’ Campbell whose life becomes intertwined with local gang politics and inevitably leads him, as an adult, on a vengeful journey through to London and the criminal underworld of 1980s Hackney.
“There needs to be balance in everything that we do,” Elba tells Yahoo Movies UK. “As an entertainer, I think that it’s important that yeah we get stories that come from Victorian times – why not? We live in England – but also we have a multicultural society. Let’s see some history.
“The film doesn’t go out to explain that but at least you get a real sort of in-depth look into West Indian culture and the Afro-UK experience especially.”
In the past, Ridley Scott has spoken of the importance of film for teaching people the history of the UK, and the wider world in general, and it seems that Elba, as a director, shares the same perspective when telling stories especially those centred on marginalised communities.
“When people walk away from this film, love it or hate it, at least they’ll be like, ‘I got a needle drop into the ’80s. I see what reggae music means now, I know what it feels like to go into a blues dance back then.’ That’s where it all comes from,” he explains.
“It’s harder to sell a movie when it’s niche. It’s harder to sell a movie that sort of really focuses on a small community in such a big country, let alone the world, you know. Why would anyone in Russia want to watch this movie?
“That’s why we make films, that’s why we tell stories,” Elba adds. “So that parts of culture that probably are called niche do live somewhere.”
For Shantol Jackson, who plays D’s love interest Yvonne, the authenticity that Elba demanded for the film was refreshing. He himself doesn’t have Jamaican heritage (his parents are from Sierra Leone and Ghana) but the majority of his cast did have a West Indian background and she says he looked to them for creative guidance.
”I remember being in rehearsal with Idris, and we’re reading a monologue, and he’d say ‘is that how you would say it?’ and I had an opportunity to say ‘not exactly, this is how we’d say it.’” the actress recalls. “That’s why he got Jamaican actors and British actors, he wanted it to be authentic.
Aml Ameen, who plays D, says that his Jamaican background was part of the reason he was cast in the lead role, though the audition process for Yardie was far less rigorous than in previous films and TV shows he’d tried out for. “Other films, they run you through the mills a bit,” Ameen says. “but Idris gave me the part on the plane while we were both sipping on rum and coke and that was it.
“He’d seen The Maze Runner recently on a flight and when I spoke to him and told him I had Jamaican heritage, and all the rest of it, he was really compelled to go ‘yeah, I think you’re the guy to play in my movie.’”
Over the years, several black or ethnic minority actors have been criticised for not sharing the cultural background as the character they are playing, Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya included, but while Ameen thinks his Jamaican heritage was helpful in preparing for the role he doesn’t think it was “imperative.”
“I played a Kenyan before, I play Americans all the time so I don’t think it’s imperative, I think it’s more easily accessible,” he explains. “My family being Jamaican helped me because I had instant resources and I grew up with the culture so it helps me a bit more to understand [but] I think the essence of acting is being able to transform yourself.”
Elba is constantly transforming himself; from actor to producer, to DJ to documentary maker, to director, and now that he’s exited the Marvel Cinematic Universe it certainly gives him more time to explore creative avenues outside of acting.
As Heimdall, he’s appeared in five MCU movies since 2011 though funnily enough he never knew the popular name for Disney’s Marvel franchise. “What’s the MCU? I’ve never heard of that before,” Elba laughs. “I thought it was something to do with Manchester United!”
MCU-aside, it seems certain that directing will play a bigger part in his working future, though Heimdall won’t be the last time fans see him on screen.
“Every actor, after a certain time period doing the job, wants to be in the hot seat and so for me, this is the perfect segue,” Elba says. “I’m still going to act, I love it – it feeds me, it feeds my family – but directing definitely gives me a lot more choice to tell different kinds of stories that I possibly won’t be in as an actor.
“So you’re definitely going to see more from me as a director because it’s a joy for me. It’s hard work, trust me, but I love it.”
Yardie is out on Friday.