One of the year's buzziest new film directors actually got his start as a rapper.
Andrew Onwubolu, better known as Rapman, had gained a following for his songs, and more specifically music videos, that told stories (a la Notorious B.I.G.’s “Gimme The Loot”) of his adolescence and gang experience in the South London borough of Lewisham.
Growing up, Rapman saw how the narrative rap songs he loved, by MCs including Jay-Z, Tupac, and Nas, would rarely get music videos, meaning he spent a lot of time imagining how their stories might play out on screen. “It just gave me a hunger to want to grow up and make my own visuals,” he tells EW.
Slowly but surely, his visuals caught on in the U.K., until his three-part musical short Shiro’s Story racked up more than 7 million views per video. When his phone started ringing in response to that success, Rapman already had a draft of his debut feature, Blue Story, ready to go. Despite a controversy that saw it briefly banned from two theater chains, it had a strong showing at the U.K. box office and landed an NME Award for Best Film last year.
EW spoke to Rapman about how his music career led to Blue Story (now available to rent on all streaming platforms), how the film was nearly banned from U.K. theaters, and how the urban street war film may be a twist on a certain Shakespeare story. Read on for more, and be sure to check out the exclusive behind-the-scenes featurette for the film above.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You got your start rapping. How did that develop into the style you're known for?
RAPMAN: When I was a kid, I used to listen to a lot of hip-hop. I love Tupac, I love Biggie, I love Jay-Z, I love Nas, and the one thing I liked about them the most is the way they were so descriptive in their lyrics and storytelling. I remember always hearing these storytelling songs on their albums and never seeing the visuals for the storytelling songs that I loved the most, and I always used to think, "I wonder what the visual would be like." When I started telling my stories through rap, I started making sure I made the videos like little short films, and I had done that for like years, literally five years. That's how Blue Story started. I'd done it as a YouTube short first, and then I kept on developing them, and it was literally like my film school. I was doing it for so many years until I just connected with Shiro's Story, and that was the one that really got me a lot of attention. But I just love storytelling; even before rapping, in school I would love the stories about the Romans. I would love stories like West Side Story and Grease. I just always liked the musical era anyway, so this was my version of it.
How did it all transfer into filmmaking? Were you writing and directing your own videos out of necessity? Like "I know my vision, I can hire myself."
Yeah, it was literally that. The cameraman that I had brought on, it was hard for me to describe to him what I wanted my actors to do, and what I wanted the story to be, than it was for me just to do it myself. It came to a point where [I said], “You just shoot it, and I'll do the rest. You just have the camera ready.” I didn't know it was directing at the time. I actually thought directing was the person that holds the camera when I first started out. So I was doing shorts like that for years, but the one that I'd done, "Blue Story" in 2013, all the comments on YouTube were like, "This could be a movie. This should be a movie." So I figure, you know what, it actually could be a movie. I'm going to write it, and expand it, and make it a full feature-length film. I wrote that on my own time. I didn't know any studio, really, so I wrote it to say, "Yeah, I've got this written now. One day, maybe if I make enough money, I'm going to use my money to make it.” That was always my plan. Luckily, I wrote the script for Blue Story in 2015, 2016, Shiro's Story blew up in 2018, and then when all the offers came in. I was like, “Okay, I want to make my movie, so which one of you guys can help me do that?” And then I sold it, and the rest is history.
What were some of your inspirations? Blue Story has been compared to Boyz in the Hood, but watching it, there are some clear parallels to Shakespearean tragedies in there.
Yeah, man, I loved Boyz in the Hood, Menace II Society, New Jack City — see, I love all of the examples of films that you could kind of compare Blue Story to in terms of genre. At the same time, I really did love the West Side Story, and Grease 1 and 2. I love the whole Romeo and Juliet stories. I always compare Blue Story to Romeo and Juliet because the only difference is it's not a love between a boy and a girl, it's a brotherly love that was damned because the opposite sides were enemies. The Romeo and Juliet influence was probably subliminally in me, so when I was writing Blue Story that whole forbidden love was there, and so yeah, that was definitely a massive inspiration for me.
Were there any black British films or British urban films that inspired you? I think for Americans, the only one many of us can really think of is Attack the Block.
I think that's the only one that actually crossed over to the States, Attack The Block, but before Blue Story there was Bullet Boy, starring Ashley Walters, there was Kidulthood, by Noel Clarke, and those were the ones that were the most popular when I was growing up, and then in my adult years I saw Attack The Block. So Kidulthood, and Bullet Boy, and you know Attack The Block, were films that I really liked. I always enjoyed them, but I didn't feel like they were speaking my story. Those movies I mentioned, they all came out 2006 and 2004, and then there was a massive 10-year hiatus before those films came back again. In the U.K. they don't really get funded because they usually don't make any money, so the studios don't invest in them, which has changed now because of Blue Story. It’s actually the highest-grossing of it's kind ever in the U.K., and I know that's helped other movies like it get greenlit, so there'll be a lot more going forward.
I first heard about Blue Story because of the controversy behind it, where a chain of U.K. theaters, Vue, stopped showing it after an incident involving kids bringing machetes to a theater. From what I read, the kids with machetes were in line to see Frozen 2, and the CEO of Vue accused them of planning to sneak into Blue Story. Vue also said there were "significant incidents" at other theaters, though it ultimately reinstated the film.
They said other incidents without any proof or evidence of that. I think they needed some sort of case to say the reason why they're pulling it, but the reason why they said Frozen 2, they assumed the only reason that group of kids would be in the cinema would be to watch something like Blue Story. There was no proof to it because all the kids were under the age in which you could buy tickets to it, so Blue Story was a 15 rating, and I think all the kids involved in the fight were 13 or 14, so they weren't allowed to get into the cinema. They chained it to Blue Story without any actual proof or evidence when the queue that they were queuing up in was for Frozen 2, apparently. Their [assumption] was they were going to queue up to watch Frozen 2, buy a Frozen 2 ticket, and then they would sneak in to watch Blue Story, which is in hindsight, and no factual evidence, very prejudiced. But I think the reason why the film got reinstated was because they were really standing on a weak leg with their whole argument. It didn't make any sense. It wasn't like it was in a screening of Blue Story, and yeah it was a bad feeling at the time, but the press that came from it was really a blessing in disguise.
The film was already doing well that weekend. What was the difference in the reaction to it before the whole theater controversy and then after?
The film was doing really well. Most of these films, U.K. urban movies, they never even make a million in their lifetime in the cinema ever. The highest-grossing one at the time was 3.6 million, so opening the first two days, I know that we were over 1 million, and it was just, "Wow, this is going well. We're trending two days in a row. Everything is going great." I know that people were complaining that they were crowding up at the cinema and they couldn't get tickets, and they were going on Sunday. Sunday the film got pulled, and what it had done is we will never know what our first opening weekend figure really would've been if we didn't get like 40 percent of our screens pulled. But what it did do was there was an audience who didn't watch Blue Story, who didn't know about Blue Story, who was not interested in that type of film, who read about it in the newspaper and said, “Wow, what is this film? Does it deserve to be banned? I want to go and see for myself.” So that's what it had done for people going out there who never ever would've watched it rushing to the cinema to see is this film good or bad for the community, and for children. It just gave us a second opening weekend that was close to another million, that we weren't expecting, and it just went on and went on and went on, and the film had done really well. It got the critics behind it, who we thought were going to slay us, loving us all. It had just done wonders for the movie. It got us a whole new audience that we would've never reached. We had a massive reach of people that were fans of the urban culture, but then we got people who would never even look at these films to go to the cinema, so it really had done wonders for the film. But before, the film was still doing well anyway.
Why did you go the traditional movie route, and how do you feel about it being released to home audiences?
I always wanted to go the movie route because to me, I'm a storyteller, and I think the biggest screen to tell the story better is the silver screen. I always wanted to do a film that would hit theaters, and I was so excited when I knew it was going out to theaters in America. We really pushed hard for it to get there because the reason why you don't know about all those other films that I mentioned is because they didn't get distribution to go over into the States, the States just didn't think it would work. So when we found out we're getting distribution to come out in theaters in the States, we were so excited. The only reason why we're not is because theaters are closed at the moment, but I don't mind that because American people still get a chance to watch it, and I think right now home entertainment is amazing. I saw the whole thing about what Trolls: World Tour has done. Even back home, Blue Story has done crazy numbers on home entertainment, like double our predictions and stuff like that, and I think it's great. I think if you've got something now, now is the perfect time to release it at home. I think as long as the people can see it. I can't wait for America and Canada to take to Blue Story.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.