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How Elba's 'Yardie' movie was spoken into being 25 years ago

CASTING CALL: Thousands turned up for a role in Yardie; inset, Idris Elba is directing the film

YOU KNOW that ruckus last week when Idris had Hackney locked down with a casting call that thousands turned-up to, including the Old Bill who promptly shut down the area? Well, I’m not entirely to blame for it.

Because 25 years ago this month, when I published my first book – Yardie by Victor Headley –
I couldn’t have imagined that the first Hollywood superstar from black Britain would choose to make a movie of the book for his directorial debut.

Joke t’ing is, even though I had never published a book before that, and even though I knew nothing about the book industry, I had stuck a little tag on the front cover saying 'SOON TO BE MADE INTO A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE'. It was a line I had nicked off some other book on my shelf and thought, why not?

Thankfully, nobody reported me under the Trade Description Act. If they had and I had been done for it, I would now be suing them on appeal because it really is being made into a major motion picture after all – just like I said.

The roadblock, of course, made it to the 6 o’clock and 10 o’clock news. Britain hasn’t seen anything like it. Thousands upon thousands of young black Britons, many of them Nigerians posing as yardies, had congregated on some side street in east London for the opportunity to be a paid extra on the Yardie movie.

ORIGINAL: The Yardie novel was published in 1992 (Photo credit: Amazon)

Idris had hyped it well, which is no surprise. He told me ten years ago that Yardie was his favourite book from when he was a pickle cute and he would have been well aware of how my publishing company The X Press hyped-up black literature in dem times. We woz the dons of the hype. Whether sending bullets to promote a book or bags of ‘weed’. We didn’t ramp.

But the main reason that Idris wouldn’t have been surprised by the turnout is that here he is, a Hackney yute, returning to the hood after all that Hollywood success and putting out the word on the frontline that he was offering paid extra work for black yutes. Let’s be real now, there’s nothing like a financial incentive to get our yutes out on the streets grafting. With so many of them having to endure unpaid internships and the like the magic words ‘paid work’ are like manna from Heaven. So just on that score it was a win-win situation.

Even though, I can’t lie, it’s a sad indictment that there is so little paid work in the community, from the community and of the community. Realistically, Idris was technically seen as the number one employer of black yutes last week. In this country, in any case. Yes, we can extrapolate so much from the roadblock in Hackney last week.

For another thing, everybody wants to be in a film. Every black yute, in any case. Not least because we don’t see ourselves represented on the big screen. Not here in the UK anyway. And not as we really are. On the small screen you’ve got so many representations of black males misunderstood. We have that old chestnut, the angry black yute. That other old chestnut, the angry black woman. And the biggest old chestnut of all the angry black man.

ON SET: From left - Actor Aml Ameen and Idris Elba in director mode

Yardie, on the other hand, is not angry. It is cold-blooded. Cold blooded like a business deal, it’s not personal. Anger belongs to personal weaknesses. Like we’re not in control of our emotions. On the whole, the main characters in Yardie are very much aware of their emotions and have come to the realisation that life and death are just two sides of a coin.

That’s the reality of the black condition. We learn from an early age that we ain’t got long to live on this earth. And some of us have got even less time. With time running out like that it’s not difficult to see how some of these yutes choose to live fast and die young. It’s not pretty, but it’s reality – and the sooner we face up to the many nuances of the black experience, the faster and better we’ll get at writing our own stories. Those that resonate with us. Those stories that relate to us and, hence, the quicker we’ll get to making those stories into films so that many of those yutes can hold a mirror up to themselves and see what they’re really dealing with before they go down the avenue of no return.

That was the beauty about publishing Yardie back in 1992. It got black boys in particular who had never read a book before to start reading. This came despite all the criticisms that my publishing company, The X Press was getting for having the audacity to publish a bestselling gangster story. The way people were talking, anyone would think we robbed the Bank of England.

The bookshops that were around in those days had never seen black boys. But that one book changed all that. And that is what I am most proud of in my years as a publisher. That I managed to mine the intellectual riches of the most ardent bad bwoy.

Now, for Idris to replicate that with his film of the book he has to make sure that he stays true to the vibe of the book and not try to glamourise it for Hollywood’s sake. He has to keep it as a Made In Hackney – from inception as a book, to production as a film.

And who knows, he may succeed in uplifting our people in a way that no other film about us has done. I’ve done my part, Idris, now it’s your turn. Don’t flipping let the side down. Yuh si mi?

Dotun Adebayo is Britain’s most listened-to black radio talk show host. He presents Up All Night on BBC Radio 5 live Thursdays through Sundays on 909/693 MW, The Sunday Night Special on BBC 94.9FM and Reggae Time on BBC London 94.9FM on Saturday evenings. Tune in if you’re ranking!

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