Featuring a suspenseful storyline filled with surprising twists, Barnaby Blackburn’s “Wale” is easily one of the most thrilling films in the Oscar shortlist for Best Live Action Short. But the film, which follows a fateful day in the life of a young black man in London, also makes a clear statement about the harsh realities of social injustice. In our edited conversation below, I spoke with Blackburn to discuss the inspirations behind the film and his filmmaking style.
Shane Slater: What led you to make the crossover from commercials to narrative filmmaking?
Barnaby Blackburn: When I was a kid I used to do a lot of skateboarding and wasn’t particularly great at that. But I persisted with it. One of the things that I would do a lot was to film my friends and other people skateboarding and make little skate videos. I was getting to that time in school when you decide what you’re going to do with your life. They would give you this big heavy dusty book from the 70s and it was full of different career paths. The one thing in there that was interesting to me was called broadcasting. It talked about working with cameras and things like that. And I remember saying to the careers guy at school that it sounded interesting to me and he sent the book back across the table and said I should pick something else. [Laughs].
So, unfortunately, I got a little side-tracked and even went off and did politics when I was in university. Out of university, I took a job doing advertising and at the beginning I wasn’t writing commercials or anything like that. They were training me to be a client liaison.
But I hated that. I quit that job and went back to college where I did a creative advertising course and got a job writing commercials after that. Working commercials and being on set so much put me back around to realizing that filmmaking was the true calling. That was the thing I was most interested in. I wasn’t one of those people like Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg making movies when they were 6 years old. It took me a little while to realize that was what I really wanted to do. But as soon as I did, I made sure to try and make that happen as soon as possible.
SS: This film unfolds like a typical thriller but it also provides a strong social commentary about racial injustice. A lot of persons argue that genre films are getting too political, especially if they are seen as pushing a “liberal agenda.” Why were these sociopolitical themes important to you?
BB: I was living in East London at the time. And I was reading stories about kids of a certain age and race, young black men, getting into situations with the police that ended up being fatal. Altercations where the police were using unnecessary force and people were being killed.
I thought a lot about that and what people might do if they found themselves in a desperate situation but felt unable to call the police for help. There are stories of police brutality all around the world. In England in particular, because police don’t carry guns you do feel a little safer around the police. But for young black men, I think the police are actually the last police you want to call if you find yourself in a situation like that, because you would fear immediate persecution and would be guilty until proven innocent. So that was the basis for the script.
In terms of creating a genre film, I didn’t sit down to say I’m going to write a thriller. I came up with the character first. I’d met a guy who essentially was the character Wale when I was just walking down a market one day. He came over and started talking to me about his aspirations to start a business as a mechanic and noticed that I had a VW car and he had experience fixing those. He was just a young, ambitious, lovely guy. But I started to think about the obstacles society puts in place for people trying to do something with their lives. And that, coupled with the thoughts I’d been having, started to develop in my mind. That’s how it came together.
SS: What was your thinking behind opening the film with stereotypical scenes of crime, especially considering how the film addresses prejudice towards black people?
BB: The purpose of that prologue is to very quickly telegraph the world that Wale lives in. And the world that surrounds him. Everything he is trying to get away from is right there on his doorstep. We shot that in a documentary style. It was just a couple of us in the back of a car with a camera, all handheld. It’s got a very shaky kind of quality to it. And in terms of the things you see, those scenes are based off things that I’ve seen just from living around that area. Some of the stuff you see in that sequence is stuff we just caught by driving around and filming.
The important thing is, I’m keen not to try and paint a world where people are entirely good or entirely bad. People of all races and colors and creeds are capable of good or bad. So it was important for me not to say in the film that people are all good or all bad. Everybody is fallible and everybody is capable of contradictory behavior. So the people you see are a fairest representation as possible of the world and that particular area of London. You see glimpses of prostitution, theft and other nefarious behavior. But it’s not trying to say all black people are bad or all black people are good, or all white people are good or white people are bad.
SS: I also find the ending very fascinating. It reminded me of “Get Out” and Jordan Peele’s alternate endings. The way you end this film allows the audience to project what they think happens next. Did you always know how you wanted to end it?
BB: There was a lot of thought given to that. We tried a few different ways to end in the edit. Ultimately, it was always scripted that way. When I originally wrote it, I tried a version where the final thing you hear is the sound of the heart monitor flatlining.
But as you say, leaving it a little more open-ended allows you to project what you think might happen. And I think ultimately, the most powerful films for me are the ones that leave you asking questions. If you’re still thinking about a film 10 minutes, a day, or a week after, I think that’s a lot more powerful than giving it to you in a nice, neat package and telegraphing the message or being too didactic with what you’re trying to say. By leaving it open, I’ve had a lot of comments from people about what happens next. They want to know more about this story. I think that’s positive feedback because it feels like people are really engaged with it.
SS: What kinds of films could we expect from you in the future? Are there filmmakers who particularly inspire you?
BB: I’m interested in characters and people and what happens to those people when you put them in certain circumstances and how they react. I’m interested in real people in potentially possible circumstances. So filmmakers I take a lot of inspiration from include the great heritage of British filmmakers like Alan Clarke, Ken Loach, Mike Leigh. Lynne Ramsay is a big influence. I think she’s one of the most visually poetic filmmakers in the UK, or the world really. There’s also the Dardenne brothers. They are masters of what I’m talking about. These beautifully thought out, three-dimensional characters in difficult situations. You are just immediately invested in these people. The films aren’t about artifice or gimmicks or clever camera tricks. It’s just about being there with that character and feeling their emotions and caring for them. Those are always the films that impact me most.