Inspired by true events, A Letter to Black Men is a gritty showcase of life for youths living in the estates of inner-city London. But it’s also a tale of hope and redemption. I found most interesting that this work goes a little further and offers an insight from both the hardened criminals stuck in their ways as well as from the sympathetic voice of the narrator. However, by no means this softens the depiction of the harsh realities many people face living in our country, especially those from ethnic minorities. This award-winning short film by Kiosa Sukami is hard, pure and simple.
The opening sentences by the narrator are as harsh as harsh gets. “The culture of survival breeds people who riot rather than plan progressive change or revolution,” he says, within seconds of the start. The film kicks off with a kind of comical, yet extremely trivial discussion between three young men in a car, which is abruptly interrupted when another young man walks by and they all jump out covered with balaclavas and bring him down with extreme violence. What has brought all this on?
A Letter to Black Men addresses some of the rawest aspects of surviving in the “hood” in an entertaining way but without glamorising the culture.
In the following scene we view a pair of youths at a newsagent’s, one distracting the shopkeeper whilst the other steals food. With the mission complete, the two joke and laugh as they share the spoils in the backpack. Their next stop is to go and mark the walls with graffiti: really stamp their name and authority on their “hood”. The one with a keen eye for street art is named Kevin (played by Jesse Lihau), and he doesn’t even get a chance to zero into his work before he notices an old friend from the block, Black (Baba Oyejide, Nobody Gets Out Alive, 2021, Top Boy, 2019), who seems to be some kind of local hero fresh out of prison for dealing drugs.
Baba Oyejide gives a stellar performance as Black, the redeemed drug dealer and ultimate hero in this story.
Kevin is all smiles when he sees him and runs to embrace him. After a few pleasantries, Black gives him some stern banter about his graffiti and about hanging around with waste guys on the block. Before they leave each other, Black asks Kevin to pass by his flat later that evening. What could it be? Maybe Black is ready to re-establish his empire and needs a new lieutenant. Quite to the contrary, Black first gives Kevin a book, challenging him to expand his mind, also explaining how this book helped him to survive his prison sentence. But that’s not all. In the living room, there are two large white canvases for painting, Black intends to convert Kevin’s lust for street graffiti into legitimate art. Clearly, he has love for the boy.
When Kevin returns home, his sister Kelsey (Lynsey Murrall) is putting a meal together. As the two sit down to dine, Kevin mentions that Black is back home, news to which Kelsey isn’t best pleased. She warns Kevin to stay away from him. The fact that he has just been in prison is proof enough that he is bad news to her, but as she explains, the passion in her voice suggests that there is a deeper reason why she wants nothing to do with him. Kevin’s rebuttal that Black isn’t involved in that life anymore fall on death ears, and the conversation ends there.
The film highlights the drama importance of father figures and family relationships in the development of youngsters.
A knock on the door sheds some light for us on their history. When Kelsey sees Black standing there, she slams the door on him immediately. He yells that he just wants to talk to her but she dismisses the notion. “Kelsey I just want you to hear me out. I’m sorry about the way things ended for us, also, I blame myself for what happened to Jordan. Can you forgive me?” Kelsey doesn’t hesitate in her answer, “Forgive you? You’ve got some nerve asking me that. You’re the reason Kevin doesn’t have a father anymore! Just leave us alone.”
Watch the trailer of A Letter to Black Men:
The plot thickens… Later that night, Kevin is trying to read a book given to him by Black but is being constantly distracted by texts coming to his phone. His team are all together chilling in the bunker. Temptation is too hard to resist so he joins them. The scene could have been something out of Scarface. A huge pack of cocaine on the table, weed smoke filling the air; and all the guys huddled up playing blackjack and sharing stories of their most recent sexual conquests. A gangsters’ paradise if you will. Back home, Kelsey is worried. It’s the early hours and her baby bro is not back home. She calls Black… who makes his way into the gang’s den and takes Kevin back with him. Unfortunately, the fragile ego of these guys feels severely bruised by this afront. And now we understand the start of the film.
I thoroughly enjoyed A Letter to Black Men but feel that the story is a bit straightjacketed by the restriction of a short film. I would have loved to see this story developed to its full potential. Writer and director Kiosa Sukami is known for his realism and has had works screened at several BAFTA and Oscar qualifying film festivals. In this work, he continues his journey into tackling stories about black representation in challenging and refreshing ways.
Words: Papa Sono-Abebrese