“This film is not a conversation starter,” says Lashana Lynch, one of the stars of debbie tucker green’s experimental new work ear for eye, which premieres at BFI London Film Festival, BBC Two and BBC iPlayer this week. “It’s going to be taking conversations we should have been having for centuries and move them forward.”
Lynch is currently lighting up screens all over the world in new James Bond film No Time To Die, but her latest role involves a more reality-based kind of world-saving. ear for eye continues the debates following the Black Lives Matter movement, and gives deep emotional context to stark headlines and statistics.
“It excites me to delve into the black experience in a way that probably no one ever has before”, she says, “into the words of near enough the most Shakespearean, poetic, black female writer in the UK. The way she works is so, so beautiful.”
Lynch has been involved in ear for eye from its beginnings as a Royal Court play in 2018, and although Hollywood has beckoned since then, she’s committed to the kind of knotty, experimental work she cut her teeth on: “I think by going from stage to indie to a high budget film, I’m able to keep my eye on the ball as an actor, but also keep people’s attention and really usher them into a new way of thinking,” she says.
Ear for eye began life in 2018 as a Royal Court play. debbie tucker green has now directed a film version that mixes intergenerational insights into black British life that’s rich with verbal, visual and sonic poetry: “music and beats were always intrinsic” says tucker green, who intertwines the dialogue with tracks by the likes of Run the Jewels, Kano and Little Simz.
The film is significantly shorter than the original play, but it feels fuller, too. “Being able to capture detail that only cameras can opens up untold possibilities,” explains tucker green, “which affect the feel, tone and how the narrative is told. A lot of text gets cut cos you can see more.” tucker green’s approach fills the film with striking images that blaze out from dark, anonymous settings. “The idea was to try and make the visual world look simple but trying to make something look simple can be quite complex, she says.”
The film opens with a mother trying to tell her son how to avoid being arrested or hurt. As her words show there really is no safe way for this young black man to act, he winces under the glare of a vast yellow light. Does it represent the world’s punishing scrutiny, or is it something more nurturing, a warming maternal sun? At other points, the set fills with sudden cascades of water, suggesting the depths of emotion running under the surface of these conversations.
After all, these themes are deeply personal. As one of the film’s stars, Arinzé Kene (currently in rehearsals to play the title role in Get Up, Stand Up! The Bob Marley Musical in the West End) explains, “I play a character discriminated against by the police. And that’s happened to me before, so it was very, very tough. At first it was something I was quite embarrassed by and had quite complex emotions around; it’s not like you just walk into a room and go, ‘Hey, guys, by the way I was randomly arrested one day, just because some cop just wanted to put me in there’. It was traumatising. But then ear for eye came about, and debbie helped me bring my lived experience into this character.”
Tucker green might have assembled a seriously starry cast for her film, but each member of the ensemble shines here, offering deeply felt, complex performances. As Kene says, “She’s not here just to have a bangin’ career, she’s making work that heals people, that speaks to the soul, that challenges people including our own community, as well.”
Lynch found something similar. “One thing that I really admire about her is just how private she is and how protective she is of the actors. Actors can feel like they can dive into any emotion, discuss anything under the sun, and feel like they can trust debbie in a way that is quite difficult with some directors. She can understand an actor instantly just by hearing them speak, it’s a superpower.”
Lynch and Kene are part of a powerhouse generation of Black British actors and creators, but they didn’t just spring from nowhere: they both stress how important mentorship by older artists like tucker green has been. As Lynch puts it, “the Black Lives Matter movement has alerted people to the fact that there’s a lot of black film, a lot of black theatre. But black creatives haven’t just fallen from the sky - things may feel heightened now but that work and those artists have always been there.”
Kene first encountered tucker green’s work when he saw Dirty Butterfly as a teenager, and quickly became a superfan: “I saw it and I thought ‘Oh my God, this person is writing for me and my people’. So I went back to my ends in Hackney and I told all my buddies ‘Yo, you got to see this thing.”
These days, Kene’s impressive career includes penning hit show Misty, which landed a West End transfer after premiering at Bush Theatre, winning an Olivier Award for his role in Death of a Salesman, and now Get Up, Stand Up!, which opens this month. On the face of it, starring in what is essentially a jukebox musical might seem worlds away from the approach of ear for eye, but Kene is keen to point out that the struggles it depicts most certainly aren’t in the past: “For all those who say ‘It doesn’t happen any more, racism doesn’t exist,” he says, “I can only laugh at them. If only they knew.
“The Black Lives Matter protests have meant that in every industry we’re speaking about shit now that we weren’t speaking about before,” continues Kene. “Right now we’re seeing change that needs to happen, from the work of incredible lawyers and politicians to these stories [ear for eye and Get Up, Stand Up!] that will change and challenge people. We’re making a better tomorrow for everyone, it’s not all bleak.”
As Kene navigates the way to the top of his game, tucker green’s support has been vital: “she really understands the challenges that I face as a person of colour in my industry because she’s been through that shit already. She’s there going, yo, are you looking after yourself?”
The conversations that ear for eye explores are tough ones, but tucker green handles them with care, too. As Lynch says, “this film is calling for non black people in the world to have your own conversations. We didn’t create these issues on our own, nor did we create them at all. Hopefully it will get people to pay attention to why they haven’t been paying attention, all these years.”
ear for eye will premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, BBC Two and BBC iPlayer on October 16