On 4th August 2011, 29-year old Mark Duggan died from a gunshot wound post being severely wounded by the police in the Tottenham district of North London. Amidst accelerating tensions between black communities and police forces, the unjustified death of a man transformed rapidly-forming cracks into deep-seated fissures, culminating in full-blown riots all over London and nationwide violence. Award-winning writer-director Jamie Jones’ first feature, Obey (2018), revolves around these set of events – it is a mini-odyssey navigating through intricate narratives of power, aggression, and fear, wherein real-life news footages and occurrences are masterfully enmeshed with Jones’ evocative fictional world.
The film’s opening shot sets its focus on a group of youngsters crossing the road in a leisurely, ambling fashion while exchanging seemingly outrageous stories of hear-say exploits of a sexual nature. Among the group of six, no character is underlined as central in the opening shot, but then on, we are plunged headlong into the story of Leon (Marcus Rutherford), a perceptive, thoughtful, and emotionally sensitive 19-year-old, who harbors the burden of a turbulent childhood and the realization of half-smothered dreams. As a child who offered himself voluntarily to a foster home at 15 in order to escape violence at home, characterized by his now-absent abusive father and alcoholic mother (T’Nia Miller), Leon’s return marks the beginning of a constant tussle between what he innately desires and the cruel reality of things.
Finding comfort in the art of boxing at the local gym and night-time escapades with friends while sucking nitrous oxide from balloons, Leon wounds up in a neon-tinted party thrown by the beautiful and spirited Twiggy (Sophie Kennedy Clark), who almost immediately becomes a point of amorous interest for Leon. Leon is drawn to Twiggy’s purportedly ‘rebellious’ nature, who, along with her activist boyfriend Anton (Sam Gittins), squats in abandoned houses and escapes the violent aggression of the streets through bucolic narrow-boat rides along the River Lea.
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Amidst the backdrop of noise and chaos in the city, this particular scene, wherein the trio bask in the soft sunlight, smoke weed, and soak in the silence of the woods, creates a healing and calming effect, like a soothing balm to a wound. However, we sense a rising conflict in Leon even while he is enwrapped in an ephemeral sense of peace – he cannot afford to align with Anton and Twiggy’s stance of passive political resistance, as it comes from a place of privilege, acting as a source of acute alienation and pain.
Rutherford portrays Leon’s defiant beauty, rage, and raw vulnerability in an electrifying manner, epitomizing the subtle complexity of his emotions which gradually build up before erupting explosively. Battling with multiple issues simultaneously – the abrupt closing down of his gym, a rift between him and his gang, bullying and abuse by his mother’s addiction-enabling lover (James Atwell), and poverty leading to a sense of not being good enough – Leon is pushed to extremes and lulled by the irresistible pull of violence, which he ultimately acts upon in the visceral final moments of the film. Despite ‘obeying’ and giving into the confused and divided motivations of the mob mentality, Leon emerges as an individual imbued with layered complexity and humanity; a tragic entity whose hamartia lies in being all too human.
The only blemish that this well-acted, well-directed social sports drama, is the feeling of inauthenticity that surrounds the bond between Leon and Twiggy, which, despite being shot in vibrant color palettes and tender hues, comes off as cliched, with a touch of fetishistic objectification of the female lead. Although some tropes appear contrived, while others raise expectations only to defy them, Obey etches an unflinchingly honest portrait of the human condition, a condition shaped and thwarted by uncontrollable socio-political circumstances, arbitrary instances of betrayal, and an innate sense of loneliness amidst a macrocosm of injustice, activism, and violence. All in all, Obey is an ambitious and valiant debut and a must-watch.