The phrase ‘representation matters’ seems self explanatory when it comes to the arts but the nuance and details aren’t always translated onto the screen. The Black experience is far from monolithic: gender, age, sexuality and geography all play significant roles in creating an entertaining, yet accurate story. Take Top Boy, for example - to the masses around the world it depicts a transgressive and thrilling way of life in England’s capital surrounding drugs and violence but to those who hail from London, the Netflix drama misses the mark with details like slang and colloquialisms.
It is evident that Black screenwriters, directors and producers behind the scenes are equally important, if not more, when it comes to exploring Black stories and narratives.
In an attempt to counteract the lack of representation throughout film and the entertainment industry, DBK Studios teamed up with Sky Studios to create short films celebrating Black and diverse British talent. The Unearthed Narratives five-part series gave Black filmmakers of varying experience the opportunity to outline engaging stories through their eyes and in their own words. This included Edem Wornoo: the music director behind Dave’s Black and Clash by Stormzy, taking his knowledge and pivoting in a new direction with Butterfly Affect. The short film follows Iris, a ballet dancer growing up in the ends as he tries to navigate the two contrasting worlds.
“My first Black director was in my first term of Second Year but before that, I’ve never worked with a Black director before”, was one of the first things Shadrach Agozino, playing the role of Prince, said during our conversation. “So to do a project with another Black director, especially someone who is young that I can properly relate to and have a conversation with when I don’t understand what I’m doing or I need insight makes things easier.” Dealing with such a complex character in Prince favours a vocal and frank relationship between actor and director. The synergy on set was evident through just observing, but further solidified when speaking to Danielle Goff - the lead producer across the entire Unearthed Narratives series.
“What’s really important is that all of our writers are of Black British heritage, so they are telling their own stories and the crew that we are bringing on are invested in that and the crew have their own part to play in telling those stories. Which for me as a producer is the best mix you can have: telling stories of people that need to be seen on screen, told by the people that are being represented and given opportunities to grow. Like our costume designer - these are some of her first film credits…”
After reading the script and watching Wornoo at work directing scenes, it’s apparent that there isn't a hierarchy when it comes to exploring an accurate story and entertaining viewers; they are in fact one in the same and there isn’t compromise between the elements. I was given more insight into the harmony of script and reality when speaking with the cast and crew. For younger Iris, played by Noah Hicks, his biggest takeaway from his involvement was “it doesn’t matter who you want to be. Even if your environment is different from the life you want to lead”. The story itself is one that I imagine resonates with many of the Black boys and men on set, with an interest in the arts not always aligning with damaging traits that make up the foundations of masculinity. “When I’m acting I don’t always want to tell my friends about it. Sometimes I feel embarrassed”, says Hicks before sharing that he receives positive responses from them when he does. The parallels between his personal experiences and the plot of Butterfly Affect are like art imitating life. Iris is quick to hide his true passion for dance and ballet from the rest of his peers due to judgement and ridicule but what he expects to happen is far from the truth. However, this isn't a coincidence. Looking at Wornoo’s previous works including the short film for Wretch 32’s Little Big Man, he talks about drawing from his own experiences in an interview with Crack Magazine. His own childhood that saw him storytelling and creating comics could well be a driving force behind Butterfly Affect.
Giving opportunities to Black filmmakers of varying experience also meant the same for actors. Jadiael Stiling (Older Iris) spoke about how, unlike Hicks who played Younger Iris, he didn’t have a background in dance before taking this role. “I was a bit nervous about coming in and dancing because I’m not a dancer, but I feel comfortable doing it in front of everyone here. Everyone is positive, all the cast here are putting their all into it. When I got the role, I started doing dance classes. Since then they’ve been teaching me all the technical stuff and the moves to hit because I have to freestyle quite a bit.”
It was interesting to see the growth between Iris as a young boy and again, as a young man. When asked about the differences between Older and Younger Iris, Stiling sums his answer by saying “he frees his mind from what everyone else says is masculine.” Many popular narratives based in London, such as The Intent, arguably glamorise the culture of gangs and violence, normalising negative behaviours. However, I don’t believe Butterfly Affect is intended to counteract out the negative behaviours as they are an accurate portrayal and reality for some. Instead, Wornoo’s short film is meant to give a balanced and alternative perspective to the life of a Black boy and the options in front of him.
What Koby Adom and DBK Studios is doing for Black British film is monumental. Mentoring Black filmmakers through an industry that he had to traverse alone may seem inspiring at face value, but in reality it is another story of harsh inequality. “Coming into this industry, I experienced obstacles that I’d like to prevent other Black and ethnic minority filmmakers from unfairly experiencing.” Says Adom. “I want to help them get that first foot in the door and champion ownership because we have always had the fewest opportunities in the industry and when we do, we have no say in the business end of things.” If anything, Koby’s story stands as testament to the fact that partnerships such as these are imperative to seeing accurate Black British art shine.
Butterfly Affect is out on Sky Arts today at 11pm, and available on Sky On Demand and Now TV.