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► A Brixton Tale is in UK cinemas from 17 September.
The wry title of A Brixton Tale evokes a parable, while its brevity, tone and aesthetic recall the storytelling of an episode of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Dekalog (1988). Brixton, long a site of marked gentrification, is the backdrop for a romance between two young adults – Leah, a white vlogger (Lily Newmark), and Benji, a Black man (Ola Orebiyi) whose cousin is involved in crime. Leah persuades Benji to let her film him for a non-fiction film, but the relationship soon turns exploitative. Unlike Tanya Fear’s Nina in Shola Amoo’s A Moving Image (2016), another female visual artist exploring Brixton life, Leah is ignorant of and uninterested in the threats to the area’s communities, despite her claims to be seeking authenticity.
Leah’s footage will ultimately be edited into an art piece that Leah’s obnoxious mentor, Tilda (played by Jaime Winstone as a broad caricature), urges should be more “edgy” – shorthand for emphasising any instances of drug use or, better, violence. Directors Darragh Carey and Bertrand Desrochers are not entirely innocent of this themselves – gangs, guns, cocaine and crime do shape and sensationalise the story, although a charming scene in which Benji and his friends chat playfully with his mother (Rose Kerr) offers a less clichéd angle on of Benji’s life.
The unveiling of Leah’s artwork is an electric moment, powerfully acted by Orebiyi. Following his affecting performance as the Nigerian aspiring footballer in Limbo (2020), Orebiyi is the film’s emotional heart, a charismatic but shy guy whose affection for Leah blinds him to the problematic elements of their dynamic. While Benji is aware of Leah’s financial privilege, he appears less attuned to the extent that racism, some overt, some insidious, will shape their relationship.
Leah’s initially sympathetic, seemingly vulnerable character transforms into an embodiment of white privilege, continually scolding Benji to stand up for himself in front of gang members and the police, with no understanding of the stakes. Later on, Leah also becomes a victim of filming, this time by a misogynist character, but her treatment of Benji continues to be problematic. While her character wishes out loud that she would “like to be less observant”, perhaps a desire to be more self-aware would have been a better bet. A Brixton Tale has a simplicity that sometimes verges on the simplistic; but the strong lead performances, some effective set pieces and its unassailable arguments against privilege make this a tale worth telling.