Words by Tinashe Zvobgo
It filled me with enormous pride to see Noel Clarke presented with the BAFTA’S Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema award at the 2021 edition of the award show. Whether Clarke himself will regard the award as one of his most triumphant achievements is as of yet unknown (he is yet to comment on the recognition) but I am glad that the British Academy has acknowledged his contribution to visual entertainment and what this means for many who would not have had access to the industry were it not for him. For those who are not familiar with Clarke’s work, he is one of the biggest contributors to British drama, specifically ‘Urban’ films. Urban in this context is used to refer to films that focus on city-specific (particularly the city of London) issues such as gang violence, youth and drugs. Clarke’s extensive work ethic and reach recalls thoughts of Tyler Perry and his ability to create as a writer, actor and director.
The recent Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has forced multiple industries to reflect on their commitment to inclusivity and diversity. The film industry more than most has faced criticism for neglecting the stories of marginalised people and failing to adequately acknowledge what work they are involved in. Importantly, Clarke was fighting these battles in 2006 with the realisation of his breakout project Kidulthood (2006). Kidulthood explored the trouble of recreational drug-taking, bullying and general lawlessness amongst London’s inner-city youth. With the assistance of director Menhaj Huda, Clarke created one of the most seminal pieces of British cinema, acting in the movie as well as giving debuts to other emerging British talents. Anyone who grew up in London will attest to the strength of the movie and the effect the representation of recognisable characters and issues had on how they understood themselves and the world around them. For those more interested in numbers I can also point to the fact that despite a budget of just £600,000, Kidulthood made more than double that in the box office; an instrumental achievement for an independent film.
Clarke’s foray into cinema led to work on TV. He secured a recurring role on Doctor Who (2005 – 2010) which helped him become a well-recognised face to the British audience. Whilst taking on other roles, he continued to develop what he had begun with Kidulthood with the release of the sequel Adulthood (2008). At the time of its release, I was 14 but still remember well the hype and buzz the movie created, especially amongst its target audience. It followed the character of Sam, trying to right the wrongs from the previous film. The success of Kidulthood had allowed ‘Adulthoods’ budget and therefore production value to increase. Again, Clarke showed his passion for bringing elements of urban London to the mainstream by having Grime artists contribute to the soundtrack. This move saw the artist Bashy’s song ‘Kidulthood to Adulthood’ become one of the biggest songs that year. In the following year, Clarke received the BAFTA Rising Star award, cementing his potential. While Clarke would return to his roots by completing the ‘hood’ series with Brotherhood (2016), he has since continued to stretch his creative capabilities by continuing to star in front of the camera (Star Trek, I am Soldier, Bulletproof to name a few) as well as behind the scenes.
His contribution to British cinema? While working through the trials and tribulations within the film industry he ensured he left space and a blueprint for others to do the same. British cinema and the world at large now benefits from talents he encouraged at their very beginning. For example, actor Aml Ameen who starred in Kidulthood continued to carve his path starring in films such as Maze runner & The Bill. Next year he will be releasing his debut directorial feature Boxing Day. Adam Deacon took up the ‘hood’ mantle by co-writing and co-directing ‘Anuvahood’ which was also a box office success which earned him BAFTA’s Rising Star Award. Some other names include Femi Oyeniran who with Nicky ‘Slimting’ Walker took a turn in the director and writer seat respectively. This is what makes Clarke truly so deserving of this award. Alone he has created seminal work and featured in some of TV’s most loved shows but what he has contributed to those around him – particularly those from ethnic minority backgrounds – deserves special praise. Even with all this success he continues to break new ground. His new project ‘Bulletproof’ with co-star Ashley Walters is one of few shows that features two black leads. It reinforces how important representation is, especially within an industry where ethnic minorities behind the camera lags behind those in front. Watching his progress delights the teenager in me and the adult in equal measure, and I am glad he is being celebrated in the mainstream British establishment.