When we think about British films that authentically depict the reality of living in London, our minds go back to 2006's Kidulthood, which followed a group of teenagers growing up in west London's Ladbroke Grove. But when we're searching for an honest portrayal of London-raised Black and brown girls, options are scarce. That is, until now.
Rocks is the joyous new coming-of-age drama from filmmaker Sarah Gavron (Suffragette), funded by the BFI and Film 4 Productions and currently taking the film industry by storm. Written by up-and-coming Nigerian-British playwright/screenwriter Theresa Ikoko and TV and film writer Claire Wilson (Gangs of London, The Little Drummer Girl, The Power) about a multi-ethnic community in east London, Rocks takes us on a magnetic journey through young female friendship and the realities of inner-city life. It's a story of survival, friendship and trauma set against the contrasting backdrop of skyscrapers and tower blocks poking cinematically through London's haze.
Bukky Bakray stars as 15-year-old Jamaican-Nigerian Olushola – nicknamed "Rocks" by her friends – a resilient teenager with a penchant for makeup artistry who returns home from school one day to discover that her depression-prone mother has abandoned her and her younger brother Emmanuel, leaving only an apologetic note and a pocketful of grocery money. With a grandmother in Lagos and a father who died when Rocks was 4 years old, she and Emmanuel are left to fend for themselves.
What follows is the emotional and heartbreaking story of Rocks' determination to avoid being taken into care. She adopts a maternal role and attempts to look after herself and Emmanuel, shuttling between friends' houses and cheap hotels while keeping up appearances of a relatively normal life. But as each day passes, the pressure mounts on Rocks and she is forced to shut out her nearest and dearest, including best friend Sumaya (Kosar Ali). Meanwhile new addition to the friendship group, Roshé (Shaneigha-Monik Greyson) seems to offer a glimpse of hope, which later leads Rocks down a bumpy path.
It's an authentic project that not only portrays the capital in its rawest form but encapsulates what life is really like for Black and brown girls today, from TikTok dances and the latest slang to the sisterhood between Rocks and her friends. Sabina, Yawa, Agnes, Khadijah and Sumaya are all from different cultures — Polish Romani, Congo, Nigeria, Ghana and Bangladesh — and the strength of their bond is a celebration of the diverse melting pot that is London.
The film doesn't sugar-coat inner-city life, though, and highlights the very real racial inequalities that persist to this day. We hear Rocks' white classmate express that she'd like to be a journalist, which is met with praise and encouragement from her teacher. But when a Black pupil says that she aspires to be a lawyer, she is dismissed and told she'll need top grades to achieve her dream. It's a stark reminder of the microaggressions and institutional racism that young Black kids are facing now.
Everything about these teenagers' lives is relatable, from their battles for survival to classroom food fights and scenes in which the girls master their dance moves on a rooftop or in a train carriage, followed by fits of laughter. If you've lived in a city, you've seen these girls; you've been these girls. You can't help but feel the warmth of nostalgia as you watch Rocks and her friends trying to find the joy in a world that is so often against them.
But that's not to detract from the film's painful side. The relationship between Rocks and Emmanuel (played brilliantly by newcomer D'angelou Osei Kissiedu) is particularly hard to watch, as the facade Rocks has tried to keep up for her little brother slowly starts to slip.
If you've lived in a city, you've seen these girls; you've been these girls. You can't help but feel the warmth of nostalgia as you watch Rocks and her friends trying to find the joy in a world that is so often against them.
The light in this film comes from the power of friendship: even though Rocks is determined to refuse help from her friends, putting up a wall around herself, the strength of true sisterhood prevails. As traumatic as it is to watch Rocks in a situation that no one – let alone someone so young – should ever be faced with, it's heartening to witness her resilience shining through.
If we take only one message from Rocks, perhaps it should be that amid the chaos, there is beauty. "Real queens fix each other's crowns" reads a sticker on the wall in Rocks' home: a true testament to Rocks' strength and courage and, ultimately, to this empowering and vital film.
Rocks is in cinemas now.