I spent the first 10 years of my childhood in Hackney in east London. On Saturdays, as a treat, my parents would take me to the Rio Cinema in Dalston. I remember looking up at that screen and seeing Spider-Man slinging his webs and climbing up the walls. Every other kid in the room was pretending to be Spidey and clambering all over the seats, but I just thought, “I want to do that, I want to be on that screen.” I remember it vividly. It changed my life.
That cinema is my church. It’s where communion happens. It’s where I proposed to my wife, on the first night we screened Yardie, my debut as a director. I’m not religious, but that place holds a sacred place in my heart, in Hackney’s heart. Incredible films have been shown there, and incredible filmmakers have come from east London because that building exists.
There are hundreds of independent cinemas like the Rio up and down the country. Many of them are lifelines for their communities, and now many of them are in real danger of going out of business at the very moment they should be opening their doors for the first time since March.
Film isn’t elitist. We all express ourselves through the stories we tell, what we watch and the communities we create. One person’s film culture is watching Spider-Man at the Rio, another’s is going to a Kurosawa season at the BFI or catching the new Christopher Nolan movie at an IMAX. But it’s those smaller independent and community cinemas that have been hardest hit by the lockdown.
Likewise, lower-budget independent films such as Yardie are going to find it hard to raise money, get insurance cover, make distribution deals. Without the right support from the government, projects without easy resources or connections are going to battle to get their stories told – and the diversity of our film culture will end up seriously on the brink.
Film isn’t just entertainment. This is a time when, more than any other in my 47 years, our opinions, our culture and our stories are being celebrated, scrutinised and shared instantly around the world – on film. We’re looking at each other, watching what other people do and encouraging greater honesty about each other’s cultures. It’s the age of mass storytelling in which a video recorded on a phone can bring together families separated by lockdown – or inspire a powerful global movement.
Think about your own life, and how it has been reflected and expanded and challenged by the videos, television and movies you watch. Oscar-winners such as Parasite and Moonlight, the blockbusters Black Panther and Get Out, the recent UK hits Blue Story and Bait – all are deeply personal films, but all have struck a chord with audiences far beyond the filmmaker’s community because they offer perspectives and experiences different from our own.
We’ve seen unprecedented unity around the Black Lives Matter campaign and the death of George Floyd. I’ve been through four or five moments of massive protest in my lifetime: from Brixton to Tottenham, you name it, I’ve seen them, and this one has a very different character. It feels as though it’s about an entire nation, and a nation finally acknowledging its diversity needs a diverse film culture – we have to protect it at the time we need it most. Lots of open, sometimes quite difficult conversations are being had right now and many of us are on a journey of education. Independent film is a vital part of that.
Four years ago I stood in parliament and gave a speech about the importance of on-screen diversity – and diversity of thought – in shaping the world. Four years later I’ve seen the needle start to move. I’m encouraged to see companies, businesses, organisations, individuals change the way they feel about equality. But when things get tough, diversity often suffers, and we can’t lose the momentum and let things go backwards.
We have a tradition here of making films that offer a space for talented people from all over the country to express themselves, tell new stories and enrich our social history. We may need the money mainstream cinema from America brings in, but to create future stars and introduce new voices, independent film is where it’s at. I wouldn’t be here without it.
Last year I joined the board of the BFI. It was a proud moment to have a seat at the table as a black man, and one who learnt to love the BFI as a young actor when a good friend of mine worked in the mailroom there. I used to visit him and every now and again I’d sneak into stuff through the back door: talks, screenings, that kind of thing. Being able to watch independent films or know about a talk from a filmmaker coming in to discuss their work – just having this nourishment of thought was huge for me. And then my film Yardie, about a Jamaican community in England, was made possible by the BFI, which supported me to make it with national lottery funds. They helped me to bring new actors into the room; they helped me with the marketing and messaging of what this story means to our culture.
As a governor of the BFI, I want to keep that resource alive for the next person. I also want my production company, Green Door Pictures, not just to give me more control of what I make as an actor, but to help people who weren’t getting a look-in elsewhere – new writers, exciting emerging talent such as Grace Ofori-Attah and Shivani Vijayapalan (who both worked on my sitcom In the Long Run) – and to get them to the next step.
Without additional funding from the government, many smaller cinemas, including BFI Southbank, just can’t afford to reopen; for many towns that means losing the beating heart of their community. Independent production companies will go out of business, and our freelancers will be without work because the risks and costs of shooting in a Covid world are just too high.
Our cultural recovery is as important as our economic recovery: they are completely intertwined. To overlook this over the coming months would undermine the social unity we have achieved, our rediscovery of what matters to us most. We’ve seen a lot of change in the UK in the past three years, from Brexit to COVID-19 to where we are now. The economic calculation our government has to look at is how to support this movement. We have to maintain some lifeblood. It shouldn’t be a decision between enriching an economy versus enriching culture: investment in cultural recovery is an investment in our future.
So this is me using my voice. We have a duty to develop new talent, and a duty to keep our film culture alive, so that more people like me can tell you our stories. Storytelling helps us understand each other better, and understanding each other better is the best hope we have.
- This article originally appeared in The Sunday Times Culture Magazine. If you would like to republish the text, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org / 0207 711 7820.