Plan B's Ill Manors: Mean streets at the movies

The rapper-come-director's new film explores the urban tensions that led to last summer's riots – and he's not the only one finding cinematic inspiration in social unrest

Plan B's debut feature Ill Manors (which premiered in London last night) was conceived long before last summer's London riots. Nonetheless, it is one of a number of recent films that have looked at social deprivation and urban unrest on screen. Given the upheaval around the world, with protesters taking to the streets everywhere from Greece to Egypt, it is understandable that filmmakers are trying to capture the anger of the disenfranchised. For the first time since the aftermath of the riots in Paris in 1968, there is evidence that cinema – and music, if the new riots-inspired video for Jay-Z and Kanye West's song "No Church In The Wild" is anything to go by – is taking to the barricades.

The films that are being made are often as inchoate as the events that inspire them. The anger that runs through them is apparent. More questionable is what they hope to achieve. Some are polemical, some are high-testosterone action films, some are grimly realist dramas... and there are even one or two comedies.

Egyptian actor-filmmaker Amr Waked (recently in Salmon Fishing In The Yemen) has just completed a movie about the events leading up to the Egyptian revolution. When he embarked on the project, it was called R For Revolution and was shot through with a sense of optimism and idealism. A year on, he has retitled the film to Winter Of Discontent to reflect, he says, the "dark turn" the revolution has taken.

On a lighter (albeit still macabre note) note, British writer-director Stuart Urban, best known for Our Friends in the North, recently finished May I Kill U?, a very dark comedy set against the backdrop of the London riots. Baz (Barry Vartis), a well-meaning cycle cop, suffers head injuries as the unrest breaks out in London. These injuries change his personality, turning him from a genial PC Dixon type into a psychopathic vigilante who administers his own brand of murderous justice to looters and criminals. He records the killings on helmet cam and then posts them online, inevitably building up a huge following.

Ill Manors is far darker in tone. Its characters are dealers, crack addicts and street thugs in Forest Gate, east London. There are some horrendously grim moments – the prostitute led from kebab shop to kebab shop to sell her body and pay off a drug debt, the doe-eyed teenager mistakenly killed, the kids in the playground encouraged to beat up their mates. In interviews, Ben Drew has insisted the film is simply showing the reality of a Britain in which the underclass has been demonised.

From the Dead End Kids to Robert De Niro in Mean Streets, filmmakers have long been drawn to telling the stories of socially deprived delinquents. French filmmaker Mathieu Kassovitz tackled similar themes in La Haine (1995), about three friends in the banlieue of Paris, dealing with racism and police brutality. The decision to screen it earlier this month in Tottenham, the area of London where last year's riots kicked off after the death of Mark Duggan, reveals that the film has lost none of its relevance in the last 17 years.

Some of these films have been excellent. However, it is not at all easy for filmmakers to portray urban unrest. If they're too polemical, they're accused of preaching. If their protagonists are charismatic, they risk being accused of glamorising violence. If they're too downbeat, their movies will be shunned. What is clear, though, is that if the street unrest continues, so will the movies that draw on it.

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