Gang film Blue Story hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons last month when a brawl broke out between knife-wielding young people at a screening in Birmingham. Tim Sledge, director of fundraising at XLP – a charity aiming to empower young people from disadvantaged backgrounds – shares why he thinks every youth worker should see the film.
We live in a culture where knife crime is so often in the news, so naturally there’s always huge anxiety. But this fear and anxiety causes knee-jerk reactions, like cinemas banning Blue Story. While this is understandable when people are scared, it’s important to tell an honest narrative of young people’s lives no matter how difficult it may be and not paralyse a story. It’s key to avoid panic censorship. We can’t just wipe out gang violence, we can’t just collate all those individuals and label them all as dangerous and therefore shut things down.
No matter your stance on gang violence, Blue Story is telling a really important, often unheard, narrative which is so similar to those of the young people that we work with here at XLP. It’s a storyline that it is lived every day by thousands of young people. It’s the voice, the oxygen, of young black youth, in this case in south London, who operate in gangs. And it’s told in a good way – a way that delivers an important lesson of how young people are really living and operating.
At the crux of it, all teenagers are the same. Those years growing up are filled with anxiety and angst. Young people are all already pre-occupied worrying about what their future may be and what the meaning of their life is. Mix this in with being dealt a bad hand, which many young people have been, and being held back because of your living situation, your home life or your schooling and it makes things even more difficult. It’s at this time that young people are most vulnerable to be sucked into difficult situations, so it’s at this time that we have to draw alongside these young people and recognise them as the children of God that they are. Instead of painting them as less than human, we need to help them realise they are more than just gang members.
Running away from the issue of gang violence and shutting down anything related to it is not going to solve these issues. We need to disconnect, especially in the case of the brawl in Birmingham and Blue Story, the violence from the story. We need to step away from the scare tactics and recognise that the characters in the film are similar to the children we work with and could already be enrolled in our youth groups. Is that not powerful? Does that not move you to want to do something?
Having this story out there isn’t just an inspiration for those working with young people, it’s affirming for those who are affected by the issues the most: the young people themselves. Putting it centre stage shows that we care. And while it makes for very distressing viewing at times, it still celebrates a story of one man escaping the darkness and coming into the light, and realising his dream of filmmaking at the same time. The incident in Birmingham has dominated that beautiful narrative for too long.
At XLP, we also believe in telling honest stories of real young people. We have a scheme that aims at getting young people from difficult backgrounds training, employment and back in a positive space. Recently, we had two people on the scheme who used to be big-time drug dealers involved in gang violence, but they no longer wanted that future, they didn’t want that negative culture anymore. Their story is endlessly important and we love sharing it, because frequently young people sucked into gangs have no other choice, or feel they can’t get out. XLP, like Rapman, want to show there is a way out. The world needs to see the pressure young people face to join these groups, but then the courage and positivity they show when they come out of it.
Personally, I think the Church could be doing more to tackle these issues instead of also getting caught up in this cycle of fear. I think a lot of churches worry about getting sucked in – and I think that’s fair – but I don’t think churches need to directly get themselves involved to make changes. If there’s one thing I’ve noticed it’s that young people are always amazed by adults wanting to spend quality time with them. For many children in physical, but more importantly emotional poverty, it’s enough for them. Our duty as Christians is to build relationships with people in need.
This may be a little bit shocking, but these young people don’t necessarily need the gospel, they need human relationships. For through these relationships with people, they will meet Jesus there. When Jesus was travelling on the road to Emmaus, he accompanied two strangers walking in the wrong direction, but he didn’t stop them. He doesn’t say: “What are you doing? You’re going the wrong way” or leave them to their own devices. He doesn’t tell them how to get there. He simply walks with them. In some ways, we just need to walk with children in the wrong direction, hear their story and allow God to come into the situation.
I think it’s important that each of us think: “What’s our response going to be?” The simplest one may be this: at your church home group this week, go and watch Blue Story instead of your normal activities or plans and spend the week thinking about it, brainstorming how you felt and what you feel you could do. The following week, discuss your options. This is endlessly important, not just to movie making but for our young people.
Let’s accept Blue Story for what it is and not over complicate it with violence. Instead of running from it, let’s learn.