Idris Elba marks his first time behind the camera with Yardie, an adaptation of the eponymous cult classic novel by Victor Headley. Telling the story of a wild young man who leaves treacherous Kingston to land in crime-ridden London, the film skirts very closely to the edge of cliché before delivering something slightly more righteous about the cyclical nature of violence. A much-needed period film about a part of British history that is often over-looked, Yardie is a promising filmmaking debut for the great actor that is eventually consumed by a lazy third act.
It stars Aml Ameen as Dennis (D for short), a boy who loves sound-systems and constantly follows his brother, Jerry Dread (Everaldo Creary), around. The Kingston of 1973 is ruled by gangs, their incessant shooting sprees leaving dreadful collateral damage in the wake. Jerry Dread decides that the best way to stop the war in the ghetto is to put on a party in the town’s so-called no-mans land. Things almost immediately go awry when Jerry is shot and killed. Still reeling from his brother’s death, D grows up into an angry young man, hellbent on revenge. Concerned by his behaviour, he is then sent by his crime boss to London several years later to start afresh.
When he arrives in London ten years later, a kilo of cocaine strapped to his leg, the violence he left behind in Kingston has simply been transported to a new place. The movie initially shows that violence cannot be solved by more violence alone — instead peace and reconciliation is needed to move things forward. These contradictions are embodied within the vengeful D, who has to choose between his disapproving wife, the music, and the allure of the gangster life if he is to carve out a meaningful existence for himself in this new place.
However, this message is somewhat undercut by the underwhelming conclusion, which leaves several plot threads hanging while ending on a series of platitudes. Its a classic example of having your cake and eating it, and feels completely undeserved by the main character. This is disappointing, as Yardie had the potential to be something far more important than just another run-of-the-mill crime movie.
Despite the problems with the screenplay, there is a lot to recommend from watching this movie. The producers have taken great care to make the adaptation feel authentic. The Jamaican patois of the novel has been kept intact, and the period detail instantly transports the viewer to 1970s Kingston. Additionally, the wonderful music — always heavy on bass — emphasises the richness of Jamaican music. Most importantly, the song selection completely omits over-done favourites like Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff and Toots, and The Maytals. They may sound good on the radio, but its hardly the kind of thing you want at a sound-system party. For one thing, the bass isn’t heavy enough. Idris Elba grew up in Hackney in the 80s and 90s, and spent much time in nightclubs under the name DJ Driis. The sound here is not just incidental but well curated, giving the film a truly genuine vibe. These scenes, especially when D is MCing up at the mike, are the most enjoyable in the movie, and could’ve been explored in more detail. As it stands, it provides an interesting subplot that frustrates in its unfinished nature.
Jointly funded by the BBC, the BFI and Screen Yorkshire, Yardie is the kind of film the British state government should be funding more often. Although WWII dramas and Victorian adaptations probably will be popular until the end of time, black British stories still don’t get the kind of representation they deserve. Yardie joins a rich tradition of British crime adaptations such as Layer Cake and Get Carter that still feels somewhat fresh due to the introduction of both Jamaican patois and culture into proceedings. This is what makes its poor plot development all that more annoying. Elba had a great opportunity to provide a genre film to wildly underserved population — to create a new Adulthood or Attack the Block — and falls short when it came to delivering anything truly profound. Perhaps Elba can do better with his next try.