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Londoners are aware of how multicultural their city is, but this diversity is not always rendered adequately onscreen. The ten following films show the city in a realistic way. These films reflect not only the incredible range of ethnicities in the city but also the potential for both conflict and creativity engendered by different communities living on top of each other.
“There is an island in the great city of London, a little foreign island called Soho,” starts director Julian Amyes’s tribute to Soho, which goes on to list the Italian, Greek, French, Spanish, German, and Czech communities within the neighborhood. Soho has always been a crucible of cultures, and this story of a romance between a road-builder and the daughter of Italian immigrants is delightful. The camera lingers lovingly on Soho’s narrow streets. but you’d never guess they were built and shot in a studio with the foreign grocery stores and pubs faithfully recreated. This post-war Soho shows the origins of the street life that is still visible nowadays. Back then, people shouted to each other from their windows. These days, café patrons overflow onto sidewalks and the streets bustle until dawn.
“The Road” in the title is the A5, which started off as a Roman trade route and joins Holyhead and Marble Arch, culminating in the Edgware Road. Marc Isaacs’ documentary follows immigrants who have ended up somewhere along it. He even shows the Cricklewood bingo hall, a dispiriting building to which people flock for company rather than the game. The people in the film are poignantly and intimately portrayed, bringing to mind the work of Raymond Depardon. Showing us figures such as Buddhist monks, new and established Irish immigrants, and travelers from Kashmir, this is a very multicultural film. The characters are mesmerizing. Some, like Viennese Jew Peggy Roth, are intelligent and feisty, while others, like alcoholic Billy Leahy, are heart-breaking in their honesty.
Set in Haringey and Finsbury Park in the aftermath of the London bombings of July 2005, Rachid Bouchareb’s London River features outstanding performances by Burkinabé actor and griot Sotigui Kouvate and English actress Brenda Blethyn. The film captures Haringey’s effervescence to perfection, with its Kurdish restaurants and busy streets. Elisabeth, a prejudiced Christian from Guernsey, has come to London to look for her daughter, whom she has not heard from since the bombings. Ousmane, a Muslim from France, is there to find his son. They find out that their children were having a relationship and at first mistrust each other. The film shows how two very different people are thrown together by circumstances and must surmount their preconceptions to work together, finding out that they are actually similar. This is one of the things that happen to Londoners, many of whom work alongside colleagues from all over the world and form small links that can develop into tighter bonds.
Horace Ové’s film is set in the Portobello Road area. Pressure, co-written by samuel Selvon, was the first feature-length fiction film directed by a black film-maker in Britain. Ové was inspired by neorealism and the film feels at times like a documentary. Teenager Tony, played by Herbert Norville, is the only member of his family who was born in England; his parents are first generation Trinidadian immigrants. At the beginning, we see the young man embracing English culture and provoking jeers from his older brother Colin, a Black Power militant. “I just can’t get him to think black,” Colin says. However, reality intrudes on Tony’s consciousness when no matter how many interviews he attends, he cannot get a job. Meanwhile his white school mates, though less bright, are all employed. Other racially charged moments include his eviction from a white friend’s house by a racist landlady and his witnessing of police brutality against black militants. It’s a mesmerizing journey, with sumptuous shots of the Portobello Road in the 1970s and an outstanding Reggae soundtrack.
Set in Ladbroke Grove, Menelik Shabazz’s Burning an Illusion is outstanding thanks to the character of Pat Williams, a British-born black woman. She is played by the brilliant Cassie McFarlane, who reveals complex emotions as Pat develops from a carefree office worker in charge of her own life into a more militant person. The film focuses on personal conflicts rather than on politics or economics, and thus the characters are fully fleshed out and believable – their flaws make them all the more appealing. Pat meets Del (Victor Romero), a handsome, streetwise young man. Idyllic to start with, their relationship becomes rocky after Del loses his job and starts drifting, using Pat’s flat and taking advantage of her hospitality. Supported by her female friends, Pat navigates her way through life’s pressures and emerges stronger.
Set in racially mixed Lewisham, Stephen Frears’s landmark film from Hanif Kureishi’s script follows the relationship between Omar (Gordon Warnecke), a middle-class man of Pakistani origin, and Johnny (Daniel Day Lewis), a working-class white man. My Beautiful Laundrette shows the impact of a rising immigrant population on working class communities in Thatcher’s Britain, with the parallel rise of right-wing gangs. The money-loving ethos of the times is apparent when Omar’s uncle Nasser, a successful businessman, raises a glass to the Prime Minister as he cheerfully evicts a Rastafarian tenant. Homosexuality was not commonly accepted in either of these communities, and so the two men face many challenges together while taking over a self-service laundry and trying to make it a success.
This film follows two Arab brothers who grew up in a council estate in Hackney and are caught up in gang violence. Sally El Hosaini’s film plays out against the ugly landscapes of East London’s tower blocks to a background of rap music. Mo idolizes his older brother Rashid, a handsome gang member who hangs out with tough older boys, deals drugs, and is always flush with money. In turn, Rashid looks out for Mo, whom he thinks is too vulnerable to follow the same path, and urges him to concentrate on his studies. However, Mo is enthralled by gang life and starts following a dangerous path. In this world, status is everything, and El Hosaini creates a lucid portrait of masculinity within youth culture. The relationship between the brothers and the additional themes of religion and sexuality make this a multilayered and intelligent film that goes beyond its genre.
Another Frears film, this one set inTony Blair’s Britain rather than Margaret Thatcher’s, and thus depicting an altered landscape. Okwe has illegally arrived from Nigeria, where he worked as a doctor before having to flee due to a setup by corrupt forces. He drives a cab during the day and works in a hotel at night. Turkish immigrant Senay, with whom he shares a flat, has her own set of problems. Her visa doesn’t allow her to be in paid employment so she has to work illegally to earn a living, which attracts the attention of the police. The London of illegal immigrants is a dangerous underworld in which people exchange body parts and sexual favors for money. The film ventures behind the luxurious façade of the capital into a scary and dark world. The thriller format means the film avoids lecturing or sentimentality.
Menhaj Huda’s Kidulthood follows the lives of three teenagers over two days in the Ladbroke Grove area. The boys and their girlfriends spend their days in pursuit of pleasure. This involves consuming a wide variety of drugs, taking part in bullying, and having sex. Their behavior results in pregnancy, prostitution, and death. With typical teenage sociopathy, they brazenly ignore the reality of their problems and attempt to mask their vulnerability. Controversial at the time, the film is an accurate rendition of inner city life for some young people. With music by British artists like Roots Manuva and Dizzee Rascal, this film paints a far more realistic picture of the Notting Hill area than the one created by Richard Curtis’s film.
Russians living in London are not all gangsters – in fact, they are generally a quiet bunch. How realistic Eastern Promises is in depicting Russian gangs in London is anybody’s guess. But it’s true that Russians have used London in the past as a platform for murdering their opponents and leaking polonium radiation in their wake. And human trafficking, as depicted in the film, is an increasing problem as sex workers and servants are forced into a life of servitude by unscrupulous gangs. David Cronenberg’s fast-paced thriller takes us through Broadway market in Hackney and parts of the Whittington Hospital before zooming through Clerkenwell, Greenwich, Deptford, Kilburn, Bermondsey, and Earls Court. It is enthralling to see London shot by a director like Cronenberg. In his hands, the city becomes a dark place and this sleek, violent film is riveting.