Like many schoolboys of my generation, I remember passing around paperback copies of the pseudonymous Richard Allen’s 70s pulp novels about predominantly white British youth tribes (Skinhead, Boot Boys, Glam). Had I been younger in the early 90s I might have caught the similar cultural fire ignited by their unofficial Jamaican successor, Yardie by Victor Headley.
His debut novel was a self-starting sensation on publication through a small press in 1992, a snapshot of the Caribbean diaspora in London built around guns, drugs and internecine violence, and told in unvarnished, phonetic patois that took some getting used to. Selling tens of thousands of copies but not necessarily through bookshops (it was as likely to change hands in clothing stores or Afro-Caribbean outlets, and broadsheet reviews were almost non-existent), its portrayal of street life in Brixton in southwest London was raw and specific.
The location shifts north to Hackney for its belated film adaptation, as that’s where debuting writer-director Idris Elba grew up, and it’s he who had the pulling power to finally get Yardie to the screen. His stock as an actor and personality has never been higher, and he strikes at a time of deeper understanding for roots and identity. He’s also the one who – one gathers from the muscular marketing push – was able to get the film into the multiplexes and beyond its target audience of colour. But it’s a big ask when your protagonist is a vengeful drug dealer from Jamaica who arrives at Heathrow with a kilo of cocaine taped under his clothes (Yardie is Caribbean slang for criminal).
Played with charisma to spare by North London-born Aml Ameen (The Maze Runner, Sense8), “D” is a Jamaican 20-year-old still haunted by the death of his non-violent older brother Jerry (Everaldo Creary, one of many naturalistic Jamaican actors in the cast). “D”, which is short for Dennis, is deliberately softened from the page by writers Martin Stellman (whose debut was Quadrophenia) and Brock Norman Brock (Bronson), but the threat of violence within a divided diaspora is never far away.
No more apologetic is the patois, which – in common with HBO’s The Wire, the gritty drama series that made Elba’s name – requires non-Caribbean audiences to tune in and catch the vibe. Stephen Graham (whose father is half-Jamaican) brings fire and fury to gangster Rico – he slips in and out of patois like a radio constantly retuning. Meanwhile another Jamaican, Shantol Jackson, adds depth to the mother of D’s child, long ago settled in London and halfway between saintly conscience and potential salvation. It’s a man’s world in the early 80s, but again, the mistreatment of women seems to have been adjusted for this century.
In my teenage years, I saw two key British films at a local film society that were set in London, the BFI’s Pressure (1976) by Horace Ové, a Trinidadian story filmed in Ladbroke Grove, and Babylon (1980) by Franco Rosso, which starred a young Brinsley Forde, future star of the group Aswad, and was co-written by Quadrophenia scribe Stellman. For a provincial youth like me, both films had educational value, especially at a time of the Brixton riots, which seemed far away.
We are more cosmopolitan now, perhaps, and more attuned to ethnicity and diversity. And so, with Yardie, the time seems ripe for the packaging of what remains a genuine cult novel into a mainstream property. It has belatedly found its moment as a passion project and directorial feature debut for Elba, who cannily foregrounds the more unifying, bass-heavy reggae of sound systems and dub soundclashes, whose “toasting” recalls the rap battles in Eminem’s 8 Mile. The establishing early-70s backstory, shot in Kingston and Trench Town in an initially almost paradisaically verdant Jamaica, feels richly authentic. And amid all the signifiers and allusions that resonate with the ethnic and identity-based struggles of today, Elba’s mission to demystify the culture feels even more sincere.