LONDON, UK – Roc Nation artist and filmmaker, Rapman, is the mastermind behind the hit YouTube series Shiro’s Story and now the compelling debut film Blue Story. The Southeast London creative chronicles the story of best friends Timmy (Stephen Odubola) and Marco (Michael Ward) as they maneuver through gang-related crusades occurring during their last years of high school in the “blue borough” area of London.
GroovyTracks caught up with Rapman and the lead character Marco, played by Micheal Ward, to discuss the motivation behind the film, Roc Nation’s support for the film, and what the process was like getting such a critically-acclaimed film to the big screen, from the UK to the United States.
The parallels between Blue Story’s depiction of the U.K.’s gang culture isn’t much different from that of the United States, according to Rapman. “I think they [U.S.] can relate to it just as much as they can relate to West Side Story or Romeo and Juliet because there have always been rivalries,” he told DX. “What it is, is just that the gangs have got different names over here. So I think America will take to it, more or less the same way that the UK took to it. They’ll be able to follow the journey of the characters and understand where they’re coming from and how they ended up, where they ended up.”
The meaning behind the title Blue Story comes from a well-known part of South East London called “blue borough,” according to Rapman. “In the UK, all of our trash cans in every different postcard area is a different color. Where the story is based, all of the bins are blue … so the nickname for the area is called the “blue borough” and because of that, I just called the film Blue Story. I literally made the story for people in my area and people coming from the same roots of life, locally.”
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The film dives deep on the dangers of peer pressure and the gravity of how it affects teenagers through Rapman’s personal experiences growing up with gang members next door. For months, he wrote down bits and pieces of his life growing up in Lewisham, such as being labeled a gang member in school because of where he lived, to befriending gang members and taking on the mentality of survival. With little to no expectations, writing Blue Story becoming bigger than just a pastime. “No one knew I was writing it,” said Rapman. “I was just doing it on my own time as my own personal hobby, as a story I wanted to tell … I’d wake up, wash, do a little bit of exercise and start writing my script. I never ever thought it would ever get seen, to the way it is being seen now. But I wrote it thinking, maybe one day.”
Rapman’s vision behind the film is to deter people from getting into gangs and young kids from picking up weapons. However, Blue Story did receive full-on backlash from media for the graphic violence and alleged promotion of gang culture in London. Rapman and cast members have openly responded to the allegations and defended the film. “When we first put the trailer out, there were a lot of people saying yeah, that’s what we need to see, more things to promote gang violence and to encourage the youth to be gang leaders and to be gang members,” he said sarcastically. “I’ve said to everyone to go watch the film first and then judge afterward.”
“When we released the trailer there were some people who saw it as another negative and they figured that it’s just a typical black-on-black gang movie and we’ve had enough of them, and they didn’t want to see it. But when the public [UK] saw it, they realized it wasn’t like the rest of the films, and we were trying to approach in a very different way. So, you can’t ever please everyone.”
With all of the preconceived notions made about the film, getting the perfect cast to depict the characters for Blue Story was top-priority, according to Rapman. “I knew from the start I wanted unknowns,” he said. “I always knew that when I’d do my first movie I would want an unknown cast because when I watch movies like Boyz in the Hood, Menace II Society, and New Jack City, they all had actors who were unknown to me. That’s what made me connect to those films even more.”
“Literally my cast were all practically unknown, some more or less at the time,” he continued. “Some of them have been in soap operas … but Mike [Michael Ward] obviously had just finished filming Top Boy, so he wasn’t that known to the public at that time. He had become a star in between [filming and airing] but that was a good thing, that helped us all.”
Top Boy is a popular British Netflix movie that takes place in East London following the storylines of young gang members, all in rivalry to become the top drug dealer in their territory. Jamie, played by Michael Ward, who also plays Marco in Blue Story, is a young ruthless gang leader who wants to stay on top. Although there are similarities between both characters played by Ward, Rapman ensured that those parallels drawn between the two characters wasn’t the goal of Blue Story.
“I didn’t aim for that,” Rapman stated. “I wasn’t trying to replicate another show, it [Blue Story] just has best of the best actors … the best of Top Boy … I’m not going to say no to them … you know what I’m saying? And I think besides Mike’s character, no one sees anyone else in the film as any other character. Obviously some people call Mike his character in Top Boy, and some people might call him Marco.”
Already having knowledge and being a fan of Shiro’s Story, Michael Ward eventually teamed up with him after an Instagram post surfaced regarding the making of Blue Story. With a plethora of tags from Ward’s fans in Rapman’s post, approval from his agent to audition, and then acting in front of Rapman himself–the rest was history.
“When I went to the audition, I read and loved the scenes … I loved the character and realized how different it was from Jamie in Top Boy,” Ward told DX. “I’ve been to loads of castings where it’s just the casting director but the fact that Rapman was there when I was doing my scene … it’s like I wanted him to direct me through my audition. He expressed that he enjoyed the way I worked or whatever. And then we just kind of left there and yeah, that’s how I was introduced to Rapman.”
Ward made sure to separate his established role as Jamie from his newfound role as Marco while filming. “Jamie in Top Boy is a man with responsibilities. Whereas Marco in Blue Story has fewer responsibilities apart from his school duties. He [Marco] just seemed fun,” said Ward comparing the two characters. ” Like I enjoyed the scene when we were on the bus on the way to the party because that just reminded me of how I loved partying when I was younger. I still do love partying. So I was just kind of reminiscing. I mean for me I was never really involved in any of that [gangs], I always stayed away from conflict and stuff like that when I was younger.”
Blue Story pushes the message for the youth to know that “joining gangs and participating in gang culture can only go two ways,” says Rapman.”There’s no happy ending to it. Really a waste of time. And I wanted the people on the outside looking in; the people that’s never been in a gang that looked down on every single child that’s ever been in the papers for any sort of gang activity or for picking up a weapon that–they didn’t all come from devil parents … they’re not spawns of satan.”
“They’ve just been through some things and felt like that was their last choice. That was all that they could do, is pick up a weapon. So maybe if people can see how the kids get involved, we can stop at an earlier stage so there’s less life lost and there’s less crime committed.”
Ward added, “I’d basically say the same as Raps [Rapman] … not even just a message from the film, but just realizing that I’m trying to inspire kids as well, and just show them that we can tell these stories and it’s just as important as a storyline that Marvel would tell. You get what I’m trying to say?”
“I just feel like that’s what’s important as well. Just being able to just see that, people like us, that come from where we come from, can be on the big screen. I feel like with Blue Story, it shows you that there are so many people from our background, our culture that have this dream and we can all do it as well, and on a big level.”
With support from Beyoncé and JAY-Z, and the entire Roc Nation fam, Rapman was able to have a special NYC screening of Blue Story in November of 2019. “They’re like family, man,” Rapman told DX. “Ty Ty said to me ‘I’m going to share it in New York as soon as I get back’ and I thought he was joking, but within like a week he had a date set. And that wasn’t even part of a PR package, it happened literally because Ty Ty loves the film and then he told JAY-Z that he had to watch it ASAP.”
From there, an exclusive Roc Nation-curated NYC screening of Blue Story was formulated by Tyran “Ty Ty” Smith–the current President, A&R, and co-founder of Roc Nation LLC–it took place on November 25, 2019, at the SVA Theatre.
“When I saw Jay, he was like yeah, me and Beyoncé watched it and we loved the film and the soundtrack,” he continued. “We were close to not doing a soundtrack at first and then they were like, look, we need to do one … pick any artist you want, we’ll reach out on your behalf and we’ll put it all together–and they’ve been crazy supportive ever since. I’ve got mad love for them. They fully believed in it and enjoyed it.”
Check out the Blue Story featurette down below including cast members Stephen Odubola, Micheal Ward, Karla-Simone Spence, and Khali Best. The film is now available on digital streaming services like Apple TV, Vudu, Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, and more.