Saturday 4th April

| BY Nellie Eden

Ten Meets Bukky Bakray: Lead Actress in ‘Rocks’ and British Cinema’s New Star

Bukky Bakray, photographed by Jermaine Francis 

Finally, now, in 2020, the future of television and film feels hopeful – more diverse, nuanced and intersectional than ever. Although awards ceremonies and salaries can serve as a grim reminder of who the gatekeepers of filmmaking, both in front of and behind the lens, still are. Netflix has gained ground with a more broad and challenging roster than your average film-distribution company, and it’s paying off. Supply is finally catching up with demand. Both arthouse and mainstream programming that speaks to the next generation’s set of anxieties, hopes and dreams, instead of peddling outdated Hollywood hyperbole and tired blockbuster fantasy, are thriving. The blisteringly real Rocks is one of those films.

From director Sarah Gavron, the mind behind 2015’s Suffragette, Rocks is a blueprint for the cinema of tomorrow. Ostensibly it’s a quiet, documentary-style film that follows a Year 11 schoolgirl, Shola, nicknamed Rocks (played by the dazzling Bukky Bakray), as she struggles to provide for herself and her little brother Emmanuel (a heartbreaking performance from D’angelou Osei Kissiedu) in the wake of their mother suddenly abandoning them. Almost immediately, Rocks transforms from carefree teen to adult, shouldered with the responsibility of caring for and financially supporting her little brother while also attending college at an all-girls’ school in Hackney, northeast London. It’s a bleak scenario, but Gavron doesn’t want us to pity Rocks, and the beautifully paced film slips seamlessly from moments of sunny, blissed-out silliness with classmates, and preparations for a Somalian wedding, to crashingly sorrowful scenes of Rocks almost unable to keep her head above water as she dodges social services, gets kicked out of hotels and is eventually forced to steal money in order to live.

The film opens with Rocks’ crew of ethnically mixed schoolgirls, messing around, back-to-camera, looking out onto London’s gleaming and glassy cityscape. It’s a scene most of us witness daily. A group of listless college kids, in large groups or pairs, kidding around on London’s public transport or in local parks – killing time, growing up, grappling with adolescence in a city that is both home and a barrier to fulfilling their aspirations. A city that at times will pit them as an opponent. Rocks as a film is never gratuitous, never tugging on heartstrings or sinking into stereotypes; instead it offers us something fresh and hopeful, despite the odds.

If the casting and acting feels as real as Hackney, that’s because it is. Bakray and the other school kids who met the screenwriter, Theresa Ikoko, years before cameras began to roll are the scaffolding for this wondrously realistic film. Co-written by Ikoko and Claire Wilson, with casting by American Honey’s Lucy Pardee, the team decided to approach building the cast and script in a ground-up way in a bid to authentically represent Rocks and her friendship group. All the girls, including the scene-stealing Sumaya (Kosar Ali), were street-cast, first-time actors gleaned from local east and north London schools. The film has the same cadence as Céline Sciamma’s tremendous Girlhood (2014), but it also feels a bit like logging onto your little sister’s Snapchat account, cinematic but tremendously at ease.

I meet 17-year-old Bakray in a gentrified Hackney cafe, close to where she lives. She is polite, inquisitive, thoughtful and extremely softly spoken. She looks younger than her 17 years, but is wiser than her age should allow for. At first she’s shy. As the interview warms up, she loosens up, and before our meeting is through, she’s cracking jokes and pulling faces. She still seems surprised to have been cast in the film, not least as the lead role. “I was very shocked,” she says, laughing. “It was a very long process. Sarah and Lucy were coming to our schools, sitting at the back of the classrooms, just observing us for about nine months.” I ask what she thought of two strangers sitting in on her lessons. “I had no idea what Sarah was doing at the back of the classroom. We’d watched Suffragette because it’s mandatory to watch it in schools. Lucy was always on her phone and I was thinking to myself, ‘This lady is rude.’” She laughs a full belly laugh. “Later on, I found out she was taking notes on her phone.”

Bakray was even more surprised to have won the role of Rocks when she found out Pardee had seen about 2,000 girls for it. “After around six months of auditioning in workshops, after school and in term time, sometimes I wouldn’t hear from anyone for months at a time, and I thought they’d forgotten about us,” she says, shrugging. When she found out, in a cafe in Finsbury Park, she kept composed before “screaming all the way down the road. I was just thanking God!”

The casting process was thorough. “Lucy had this very street-first approach. When they were trying to find Sumaya’s family, Pardee would go to Somali pubs just to find authentic cast members,” she tells me, wide-eyed and nodding with approval. The cast is made up of a diverse group of young women: Polish gypsy, Nigerian, Somali, Bengal and Congolese, to name a few ethnicities, but for anyone who’s ever stepped foot in an inner-city school, this kind of diversity is standard. Bakray remains close to all her co-stars, and had been hanging out at Ali’s house before we met up. “It’s not just about representing those people’s struggles, as is often the case when you see a minority on screen, it’s also about the amazing qualities and stable happy lives in the mix. Theresa was always saying that she wanted the Somali household, Sumaya’s, to be shown in a positive light. A black domestic situation is not always shown on screen in that positive way. Some black people are just living and having fun!”

Growing up, Bakray found there wasn’t much on TV or in books or film that she could see herself or her friends in. “The stuff that was being made when I was growing up…” She pauses. “Maybe my older brother could identify with, but there was less on offer that I could relate to as a female. Seeing Rocks, or Theresa’s narrative, and seeing what Sarah had in mind, felt new.” I ask what being a young black woman feels like now, in 2020.“I have experienced the pain of being black and of being a girl and trying to operate in society. Being young and black and female is exhilarating but it’s tough.” She looks hesitant. “A lot of assumptions are being made about us and there’s nothing I hate more than assumptions, because it keeps people down. People are making judgments about you purely based on the way you look.”

Beyond their age and ethnicity, there are a few other similarities between Bakray and Rocks, attending an all-girls school being one. “The banter at an all-girls’ school is wild. I cannot express that enough! We laughed the whole time. I really hope that we did that atmosphere justice,” she says, grinning. One electric scene is a full-blown food fight in a home economics class. “Yeah, we really went for it, that wasn’t acting,” she giggles. The other love Bakray and Rocks share is for beauty and fashion. In the film, Rocks’ side hustle is make-up, and she does girls’ eyebrows for 50p a go. “I liked the idea of a young person making money in an entrepreneurial way that wasn’t illegal, that was just about a girl trying to run herself. If I wasn’t acting, I’d be doing beauty,” she tells me.

The rest of Rocks’ story, Bakray can’t relate to. “I felt sad, because I was putting myself in Rocks’ shoes and it’s a reality that some people in my neighbourhood are going through this. It made me feel uncomfortable. I was imagining navigating Hackney in her situation.” Removing, for a moment, the fact that this is Bakray’s first role, her talent is searing. She had in fact always secretly harboured the desire to act, but hadn’t thought it a possibility for her until meeting Gavron and the team. “It didn’t seem tangible for someone like me, so I brushed it to one side.” I want to know how someone without any formal training managed to muster such effervescent but restrained emotional depth on-demand, with cameras rolling. I ask about the scene where social services break Rocks and Emmanuel up. “Sarah, Theresa and Claire really helped psych me out on set for those very emotional scenes. The scene where Emmanuel is being taken away, I wasn’t completely getting it. Theresa took me to one side, spoke to me for 10 minutes, giving me words, and I walked back on set and let loose.”

Another tender moment happens between Rocks and Sumaya. Rocks, her pride wounded on sensing pity from her friend, decides to reject her. “Rocks feels vulnerable, and as a young black Nigerian woman, she’s so full of pride. The rest of the world is judging Rocks, so Rocks breaks down when she feels like Sumaya might be [judging her], too.” It’s an extremely complicated and enjoyable relationship between the two best friends that most will identify with, regardless of age or location. “Kids are just mini adults,” Bakray reminds me. The dialogue binds the whole film together. “The script was very much directed improv. When it was a scene between the group of girls, we just freestyled it. Towards the end, scripts were given to us, but we were encouraged to go with what felt right.” Unforgettable moments include a pupil jumping to Rocks’ defence – “You’re just on your period, sir, that’s why you’re angry,” to which the teacher weakly responds, “You know what? That’s just offensive.” In another scene, a boy flirts with Rocks, telling her he’s, “Chinese, Jamaican, Ukrainian, English,” to which Rocks quickly responds, “What do you eat for Christmas?” “Chicken, innit,” says the boy with a shrug. It’s Gavron’s faith in the girls, and the natural dialogue between them, that allow the film to flow so easily from intense emotional scenes to iPhone footage and back again.

So how does it feel for a schoolgirl from Hackney to suddenly be walking the red carpet and receiving five-star reviews from The Guardian. Bakray blushes. “Honestly, the English language is not adequate!” she exclaims. For Bakray it has most hit home when “people are seeing me on road from the screenings, and saying to me, ‘I can’t stop thinking about this film.’” We talk about how things might change come April, with the film’s wider release. “I’m nervous and excited for April,’’ she says as she pulls on her hoodie’s drawstring, before announcing her long-term plans to “carry on acting”, explaining that “it’s the joy of my life”. It’s clear that, for Bakray, as a young Nigerian actress, she feels there are more roles on offer for someone like her than there might have been five years ago.

“Now I can go to the cinema and watch films like If Beale Street Could Talk and Moonlight. I can watch actors like Daniel Kaluuya and Tom Moutchi,” she tells me, her voice moving up an octave. Her dream role is to play “an African character, to play out my roots as a black Nigerian. To show the strength of an African female and what we can do – how our power is endless.” It’s a role that, for the first time in mainstream movie-making, sounds like it could exist. For now, Bakray is focused on the film’s larger release, pondering how young people watching the film might feel.“I want people to feel hopeful and empowered and proud of themselves.” She pauses. “And also that things are changing. I didn’t believe I could do what I did, and now here I am, sitting with you.” Beyond that, she’s staying grounded. The morning after the premiere she did the dishes and she wants things to stay that way. “The people around me keep me grounded. I told my friends, ‘If you ever see me acting different, please slap me in the face,’” she tells me laughing, but I detect a hint of sincerity in her soft voice.

Taken from Issue 64 – BEST, FOOT, FORWARD – which is on newsstands now.