Film 4’s Rocks perfectly captures what it’s truly like to be a teen carrying the weight of the world.
When we think about mainstream depictions of young working-class people, often we point to Shameless, Derry Girls and Top Boy but there’s a missed opportunity to focus on the stories of Black and brown girls - that’s where coming-of-age flick, Rocks comes in.
The film, which is now available to stream on Netflix, took home five awards at the 2021 British Independent Film Awards, including best supporting actress and promising newcomer for one of its young stars, Kosar Ali.
It follows the story of a Nigerian-Jamaican teen, Olushola, mostly known as Rocks, as she navigates the intricacy of secondary school life and complexities of her friendship circle. In the backdrop, she’s taking care of her younger brother after their mother walks out on them.
Even though diversity has been a hot topic across the film industry, many fail to get it right - with lazy stereotypes and poor representation. Rocks, on the other hand, is a testament to what can happen when creators truly care about the stories they are bringing to life.
With outstanding performances from Bukky Bakray as Rocks and Kosar Ali as Sumaya as, it’s probably one of the most crucial and honest portrayals I’ve seen on screen of what it’s like to be a young girl growing up in east London.
This is down to the casting team, Lucy Pardee and Jessica Straker, and their unique approach of meeting 1,500 girls and capturing observational logs on them, with the help of young Londoners across girls’ comprehensive schools and youth hubs. Within that process, they came across a group of 30 young women who really connected and formed the final cast.
Claire Wilson and Theresa Ikoko wrote the script in a matter of months. Ikoko says it felt natural as parts of the film come from her own lived experience - her older sister Tracy mirrors the character of Rocks. “I wanted to write this film to honour girls like Tracy, like Rocks, who are stronger than they need to be. They are protectors and providers in ways that children should never have to be but in that sacrifice, they give people like me a childhood filled with joy, laughter, dance routine and water fights,” she tells Stylist.
She explains that the film is a tribute to “young people from migrant families, poor families, those young people looking after disabled parents, young people who are the only English speaker in their family, those young people whose parents work crazy shifts in order to provide.”
“These young people might be disruptive, they might be late for school or a have a bad attitude. They might not want to smile when you walk down the road. They might forget to say ‘excuse me’, they might not be able to concentrate and they might be distracted, but that’s just because they have so much on,” Ikoko says.
Rocks is not just excellent for its authentic portrayals of the capital but also how it craftily uses social media and TikTok dances to capture the sisterhood among Rocks and friends Khadijah, Sabina, Yawa, Agnes and Sumaya, the girls all being from different cultures - Bangladesh, Polish Gypsy, Congo, Nigeria and Ghana.
When a white classmate tells their teacher she wants to be a journalist, she’s met with praise but when Khadijah shares her dreams of being a lawyer, she was told to work harder – an occurrence Ikoko has dealt with first hand. Lucky for Khadijah, Yawa quickly interjects to say “Mrs is wrong,” as, at the age of 15, she’s acutely aware of the real-life ramification of institutional racism and these types of microaggressions.
What personally drew me to the trailer was seeing Rocks and her family eating yam and egg for breakfast. As a British-Nigerian like Ikoko, I understood this culturally specific detail but I wondered why it was important for the film’s writers to share. “It’s a moment that says so much about what the scene is, it’s more than just a breakfast,” Ikoko explains.
She adds: “I think we [Nigerians] will understand immediately when we see a yam and egg breakfast on a school day, something is quite not right here and for those who don’t necessarily know what that means… they eventually will catch up. But it’s quite nice to plant those esoteric elements.”
Somali women have been particularly excited at the prospect of seeing a positive representation of their community through Sumaya who is from a vibrant and loving family. Ikoko says it’s important that all the Black families in Rocks weren’t seen as dysfunctional. “We have so few stories often we are at risk of any of our stories being becoming the singular narrative,” she says.
The film was originally set to be released in April but was postponed due to coronavirus. For Ikoko and the team, however, the film never really paused as they formed a family among themselves and frequently speak over Zoom. She points to the beautiful yellow flowers they got her for her birthday recently as an example of her relationship with the team.
“I got stuck for six to five weeks in Nigeria at the time. I ended up getting evacuation flight out. We are all dealing with our own version of a dismantling world, whether the masses of injustice that you see on TV which are constantly traumatising or whether it be people losing loved ones and neighbours and friends and community member,” she explains.
“I always say Rocks is bigger than what’s on-screen,” Ikoko adds. “We created an organisation called Bridge to create a sustainable legacy in the industry and one that helps underrepresented artists and creatives. We’ve been doing a lot of work with the young women from the film.”
The impact of which echoes from the film with ease. Rocks really does feel bigger than it’s hour and a half run time. It’s a landmark for so many women who haven’t felt seen or reflected in the productions they’ve grown up watching. Hopefully, its legacy will be recognised widely and impact the outlook applied to future cinema releases, too.
Rocks is out in cinemas on 18 September
Image: Sarah Gavron and Film 4