To say the British urban genre is the most disregarded film genre would be an understatement. I’ve seen a lot of these films over the years, the good ones and the bad ones. They take a no-nonsense approach to serious themes concerning race, poverty, drugs and other issues. These films are about stuff that matters.
There is no excuse not to venture into this gritty part of cinema, so here are my top ten favourites.
Babylon is a legendary film, fuelled with reggae music and it depicts the struggles of Black British working-class musicians. It centres on themes of racism, poverty and violence against black people. This film has mostly been forgotten, but it’s a great story with memorable characters.
It is unacceptable to have not seen Trainspotting! It’s an unbelievable film, which places a group of heroin addicts front and centre, and follows their chaotic lives in Edinburgh. Beyond drug addiction, the film focuses on other themes such as urban poverty. The film portrays people we usually don’t see in mainstream cinema. It’s a classic film.
Bullet Boy (2004)
Bullet Boy is a critically acclaimed film, but it didn’t get much commercial success. It’s a harrowing tale of two brothers living in a poverty-stricken area in East London. The eldest sibling, Ricky is involved in gangs, but he is desperate to escape his violent lifestyle. The film shows the effects of this on the younger brother. Bullet Boy stands out as one of the most realistic urban films, offering a cautionary tale.
Noel Clarke’s Kidulthood is a time capsule for the lives of inner-city teenagers. It’s one of the most famous urban films. Despite having aged rather a lot since its release (the slang terms are very outdated), it’s still a must-watch. It takes us through the lives of several teens, who spend a wild day in London after they get a day off from school, due to a suicide. This is a powerful movie, as it involves bullying, drug abuse and peer pressure. It’s a raw, gritty piece and one of the classics of the British hood movement.
This Is England (2006)
Poignant, funny and mesmerising, This Is England depicts those who treat violence as a means to an end. It details the lives of a gang of skinheads in the 1980s. It focuses on Shaun who joins the group after bumping into them one day on the way home from school. He gets caught up in racially motivated violence and the film is totally honest in the way it deals with the subject. Without a double, This Is England is one the greatest entries in British cinema.
Adulthood is the follow-up to Noel Clarke’s Kidulthood and while it’s not as good, it’s still a worthy sequel. It tells the story of Sam, who gets released from prison after serving a year sentence. Sam wants to start fresh and put the past behind him, but there are people seeking revenge for the damage he caused. It’s a dark look into London’s underbelly and like the original, it’s hard-hitting and explores many issues.
Fish Tank (2009)
You don’t often hear that much about Fish Tank, one of the few urban films to focus on a female protagonist. Although it’s the least entertaining on this list, it has a very engaging story. Katie Jarvis plays Mia, a rebellious teenager who has next to no happiness in her life. She’s always in trouble, is marginalised and has a neglectful mother. Fish Tank is simple and straight-ahead, from a director at the top of their game. It also served as a calling card for Michael Fassbender, who was on the road to Hollywood when the film came out.
Harry Brown (2009)
The plausibility of Harry Brown is questionable, as it involves an old man carrying out a vigilante rampage, but I don’t care for realism in this case because it’s a brilliant film. It’s exhilarating watching Michael Cain’s Harry Brown take on the violent thugs, who are running riot in his council estate. It’s a different take on the urban genre, as we see things from an OAP’s point of view. And he’s one that you don’t want to mess with.
Ill Manors (2012)
Ill Manors is a crime thriller that follows the lives of various characters, all struggling to survive the mean streets of East London. British musician Ben Drew, aka Plan B directed, wrote and co-scored the film. Each story is told with a different rap song performed by Plan B. The film is partly based on events and stories Plan B heard when he was young. It’s bleak and unrelenting, though moments of humour shine through, along with some key messages. Ill Manors ought to go down as one of the grimmest British films.
Gone Too Far (2013)
With the plethora of serious urban dramas, Gone Too Far is the perfect antidote. It’s an upbeat comedy about a London teenager, whose brother comes to live with him from Nigeria. The film follows the hilarious calamities the brothers get themselves into when they are forced to spend the day together. It’s very funny and presents an interesting culture clash.
The films I’ve listed here are the best in the genre. They stand out because of their powerful stories and how they explore British life in all its diversity. These movies bring real Britons to the forefront and those who are under-seen, or underrepresented. If you get the chance, make sure you check out my top picks.