As of late, there has been a steady increase in the depiction of working-class life in British cinema – from Andrea Arnold’s stark, stunning Fish Tank to Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or winning critique of austerity in I, Daniel Blake. Both of these films have been excellent, and both have felt incredibly brave in their willingness to honestly portray life for Britain’s working-classes under a Conservative government – one which has repeatedly mistreated the most financially vulnerable in the wake of the recession that came in 2008. As fantastic as I, Daniel Blake and Fish Tank are, however, they primarily focus on examining the lives of white characters; few films have set out to explore the experiences of those that are both working-class and black. This particular demographic has largely been ignored in British cinema, despite the rise in the number of stories of the working-classes that have been told lately, so it gives me pleasure to be able to say that Obey, the feature-length debut of director Jamie Jones, is not afraid to tackle such a subject. Obey is an emotionally raw, accomplished piece that consistently succeeds in attempting to give an honest depiction of the reality that this specific community is faced with.
The film opens as a group of black teenagers wander the streets of London talking, as teenagers do, of everything from the boredom that comes with a long summer to adventurous stories about sex, and here we are first introduced to Leon (Marcus Rutherford); a quiet, rather solitary nineteen-year-old – whose life we learn of in great detail over the course of Obey’s ninety-minute runtime. Almost immediately, the easy conversation between the friends is ruptured by a sudden act of violence; a moment which will echo throughout the rest of Obey, as all periods of peace found in the film are eventually shattered by brutality as the London riots of 2011 begin – reminding us that for black kids growing up in a working-class environment, in which the police often abuse their positions of power and gentrification often seeps in, there is little escape. For Leon, all moments of contentment are fleeting. Leon, we soon learn, lives with his single mother, Chelsea, who has evidently suffered with alcoholism for years and whose life is consumed by loneliness and a yearning to make amends with the son she believes she has neglected. As Chelsea, T’Nia Miller is simply astounding – we do not spend huge amounts of time with her but when we do, the pain that engulfs her is palpable. She is one of the forgotten members of British society, a working-class, black woman abandoned by a government that concerns itself only with protecting the affluent. While Obey may be Leon’s story, it strives to convey the tragedy of Chelsea’s life and leaves us devastated each time Miller is onscreen.
As well as having to take care of his mother, Leon must also contend with the growing threat of gentrification which, in one scene, sees him shot down by a man whose shiny new business has decided to establish its roots in an east London area racked by youth unemployment. In examining the subject of the ever-growing gentrification of modern London, Obey truly excels – while young men such as Leon struggle to find a way out of seemingly infinite cycles of poverty and violence, other affluent individuals base themselves in such districts and use their privileges to succeed while the locals around them suffer. Perhaps the best way in which this issue is conveyed in Obey is through the construction of Leon’s relationship with Twiggy (an impressive Sophie Kennedy Clark), a young squatter he meets at a party one evening. Twiggy and her friends lead something of a bohemian lifestyle, as they spend their days involving themselves in social activism and dedicate their nights to throwing decadent parties in empty houses. Leon is drawn to Twiggy’s disregard for authority and her nonchalant attitude towards societal conventions but unlike Leon, Twiggy is able to do these things, able to rebel against the system without fear of repercussion, although she may present herself as downtrodden, she has a safety net – a secure, middle-class family to which she can return. None of these privileges are afforded to Leon. If he, as a young, working-class black man puts a foot wrong, there is no protection for him to fall back on.
As the riots begin to engulf London, and the police begin to further enforce their authority, Leon comes to realise that society will make an exception for Twiggy but not for him. Here, Obey is excellent in that it refuses to hold back from exposing the biases of a world which seeks to demonise some and protect others from committing the same act. As Leon, a young man struggling to make sense of the violence and chaos that has gripped his home while barely out of boyhood, Rutherford is superb. He plays him with such nuance, with such subtle agony, that he makes him into a rather tragic character – a teenager robbed of opportunity and trapped by his own surroundings. Rutherford, Kennedy Clark, and Miller are all wonderful in their respective roles, each creating complex characters, each evoking empathy even in the making of some questionable decisions. The talent on display here is extensive and it is largely because of the believability of these three that Obey is so affecting.
Obey is an impressive, observant debut and it serves as an excellent example of the kind of films that British cinema should be producing; this is a confident, admirable piece that highlights the need for more stories like Leon’s and his mother’s to be told. It deserves every bit of the praise that has been heaped upon it so far and certainly deserves to be seen.