Idris Elba’s Directorial Debut ‘Yardie’ Pays Homage to Period Jamaican-British Cinema – 86% Out Of 100

With Jamaican-Brit-on-the-rise Aml Ameen in the starring role, Warp Films’ Yardie is also Idris Elba’s directing debut.

Loosely based on the 1992 book and cult phenomenon of the same name by Jamaican-born British writer Victor Headley – the first title produced by Dotun Adebayo’s then newly established X Press Publishing, Yardie is the reason bookstore W H Smith set up ‘black writing’ sections, soon followed by other booksellers.

Meanwhile, the Yardie cinematic feature underwent extensive script development during its four-plus year transformation, before filming began on location in London and Jamaica for seven weeks in 2017. Elba helped to handpick the strong cast from both sides of the Atlantic and, perhaps wisely, re-cast Piper, the role he himself was intended to play.

Against the political turmoil and gang violence of 1970s Jamaica. Yardie begins with the protagonist’s quiet, grief-numbed voiceover, recounting the story of the path he walked “between the righteous and the damned.”

Gorgeously photographed by cinematographer John Conroy (Jamestown, 2017, Penny Dreadful, 2015-16, Broadchurch, 2015, Luther, 2013), in Kingston, 1973, thirteen year old Dennis “D” Campbell (Antwayne Eccleston) has a fledgling crush on local girl Yvonne, and idolises his honest, old soul of an older brother, Sound Man Jerry Dread (Everaldo Cleary). Heartsick at another child caught in gangland cross-fire, Jerry organises a block party of peace and love. He toasts over reggae tunes, coaxing out the locals, and inviting rival gang leaders to work it out, presiding over their long-awaited handshake on-stage. But, a gunshot rings out, and Jerry crashes out of young D’s life. D spots the young gunman – Clancy (Riaze Foster), one of his own contemporaries, who disappears into the confusion. The embittered, bewildered young boy fixates on Clancy and accepts the unexpectedly generous helping hand extended by gangleader King Fox (Sheldon Shepherd), rather than heed gentle pacifist Piper (Fraser James) and the choices Jerry would have wanted him to make.

Still haunted by Jerry’s cautionary presence, over the next 10 years, D (Aml Ameen – Kidulthood, Red Tails, The ButlerThe Maze Runner) rises through the ranks of King Fox’s drug and music production empire. He is a good soldier but is a man burdened with a child’s stubborn pain. He becomes prone to outbursts of violent rage whenever another lead to Clancy evaporates, which eventually drives Fox to send him to London with product, under strict instructions to do business with his underworld contact, Hackney-based Rico (Stephen Graham – Save Me, Boardwalk Empire, This Is EnglandSnatch).

D’s love Yvonne (newcomer Shantol Jackson) is now in London with their young daughter Vanessa (Myla-Rae Hutchinson-Dunwell) to train as a nurse. When D arrives in London, it doesn’t take long for him to look her up. The unstable Rico compels D to defy King Fox’s orders and brave the competition via low-level wannabes like Sticks (Calvin Demba), Darkers (Duramaney Kamara) and Engin (Adnan Mustafa). Through them, he re-discovers the communion in performing with their High Noon Sound. He enjoys a sweet fragility in his reconciled family, which he embraces wholeheartedly.

Perhaps inevitably, D stumbles onto a lead to Clancy which might just unravel his whole worldview. Ana so, as secrets and lies are forced out into the open, and a ruthless puppet master is unmasked, D must choose the things that really matter to him.

Aml Ameen as ‘D’ and Shantol Jackson as ‘Yvonne’ in Yardie

Elba shrewdly draws inspiration from several classic films surrounding Jamaican-British culture. His affection is clear and underpins the vivid sense of time and place by his attention to detail. Act 1 tips its hat to 1972’s The Harder They Come (Perry Henzell) and 1978’s Rockers (Theodoros Bafaloukos), capturing the beauty and hardship of Jamaica in transition, and in exploring the limited options offered by Trench Town-type life to a bright young man.

Act II is strongest when channelling film-of-its-time Babylon (Franco Rosso, co-written with Martin Stellman, 1980), in a palpable depiction of London’s burgeoning Sound culture. But, author Headley, screenwriters Brock Norman Brock (Bronson, 2009) and Martin Stellman (Babylon 1980, Quadraphenia, 1978), and director Elba missed a trick by passing over 1981’s Burning An Illusion (Menelik Shabazz). Parallels with its aspirational 1980s buppies, prejudicial law enforcement, and solid Jamaican-British female characterisation could have helped Yvonne’s under-developed character through her obvious dilemma – love for D and the responsibility she shoulders as a nurse and mother, which has already seen her move an ocean away.

Jackson’s Jamaicanness alone doesn’t really off-set Yvonne’s story as a young Caribbean woman with a struggle parallel with D’s who can’t outrun the life she fled. Both Naomi Ackie as Mona and the ever-excellent Nadine Marshall curiously cast as a church elder (complete with grey wig), inhabit only a few scenes, so black women’s purchase feels a little underwhelming here.

Anyone who remembers Hackney in 1983 may be hard-pressed to recall any real-life drugs-related gunfights, even those unreported or uninvestigated by police.  Which results in some of the more violent scenes seeming a bit out of place. That said, it is the central cast’s commitment and the film’s overall entertainment value which perhaps saved its credibility.

Elba coaxes some fine performances from his Jamaican and Jamaican-Brit cast. Ameen rises to the occasion as the star and leading man. His Jamaican heritage serves him well, as his excellent Patois feeds into a complex character full of moral contradictions and an unresolved childhood trauma, capable of doing violence, the relentless pursuit of his goals and in. loving completely.

Stephen Graham almost steals the show as Rico, a man losing control of his escalating habits, showcases his versatility as a strong central character. He channels his own Jamaican paternal grandfather as he deftly flips from very good Patois to Cockney, which will resonate with every London-born Jamaican.

Elbaʼs DJing background being no secret, he is consistently demonstrating a talent for textured, hand-picked soundtracks (see also Sky 1’s period comedy In The Long Run). Yardie is awash with Dickon Hinchliffe’s score and vintage reggae, dancehall and a few soul cuts: Lord Creator’s Kingston Town (of course!), Carlton and the Shoes’ Love Me Forever, The Isley Brothers’ Work to Do, Grace Jones’ My Jamaican Guy and Black Uhuru’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, can all be enjoyed in context, rather than as incidental rom-com music. You’ll also get a massive pay off for sitting through the closing credits, which roll to the utterly haunting, beautifully mixed Johnny Was A Good Man by Skip Marley, written by Rita, utilising harmonies which will stay with you long after you leave the cinema. Gorgeous.

Funded by Studio Canal, BBC Films, Yorkshire Films, and BFI, Yardie enjoyed its world premiere in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition section of Utah’s Sundance Film Festival on 20th January 2018, after which the first trailer and a poster were released. The film was subsequently selected as Sundance London’s 2018 opening gala feature at Picturehouse Central on June 1st.

Take no notice of mainstream reviewers whose reviews are full of inaccuracies, such as calling Rico “… a white Jamaican…” (!) and complaining that “… roughly 40% of the movie is unintelligible. … but it’s extremely, needlessly difficult for untrained ears to parse the Jamaican accents in this movie,” (Indiewire, D Ehrlich) and suggests using subtitles. Well, Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996) – no subtitles; Fiddler On The Roof (1971) – no subtitles; any Danny Dyer Film – no subtitles; most Al Pacino movies – no subtitles.

Yardie joins Elba’s In The Long Run and Lennie James’ Save Me by more than competently helping to lend substance and dimensionality to the 50-something Jamaican-British urban experience, so lacking for too long. In his debut director role, Idris Elba shows real promise and an undeniable behind-the-camera talent, bringing to the big screen a story which will resonate with a wide audience familiar with classic films of the period.

In general, we are presented with a powerful, tender ‘black love’ story. Aml Ameen should be proud of his big performance, fulfilling the promise he has consistently shown to date. The actor-in-demand Stephen Graham takes full advantage of a rare opportunity to showcase his versatility as a central character, and talented Jamaican newcomer Shantol Jackson rounds out the tripartite centre of a strong cast deftly coaxed into engaging performances by Elba.

With all that its got going for it, Yardie and Idris Elba deserve our support.

Listen to TBB’s interview with Aml Ameen here.

Read TBB’s Out of 100 review of Idris Elba’s series In The Long Run here.


Director: Idris Elba

Writer(s): Victor Headley (author) | Brock Norman Brock | Martin Stellman

Cast: Aml Ameen, Shantol Jackson, Calvin Demba, Stephen Graham, Nadine Marshall, Naomi Ackie, Fraser James, Mark Rhino Smith, Jumayn Hunter, Sheldon Shepherd, Riaze Foster

UK release date: Friday August 31st 2018


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