South London is everything to me. It’s a combination of swanky, flat-white cafés, musty spice shops and Jamaican places that serve up rice and peas. It’s a hodgepodge that smells of all these things. It’s weird and surreal but it’s my home. I’ve spent most of my life in Brixton. I moved there with my dad from Moss Side in Manchester when I was 12, then lived in Peckham when I went to uni. I miss it — I live on a barge now, but if I could drag my boat to Brixton I would.
One of the biggest things for me when I first read the script for Rye Lane was that the setting was a third character in itself. It was originally set in Camden, but I know Peckham and Brixton so well that I had to shoot it there. I wanted to elevate these places and put them on a plinth. They have so much soul and depth. When we were filming, so many people came over and asked, ‘You shooting EastEnders?’ They were so excited that we were there. That is one of the things I love about south London. You can be walking down Rye Lane and see someone carrying a trolley full of tins of beans with a dog just sitting there. It’s that spirit.
I have so many memories like this. One of my favourites — and one of the first things I remember doing when I moved from Manchester — is my grandma Glo-Glo and me wandering around Brixton Market and her showing me where to get the best Jamaican spices. It was almost like the scene from Goodfellas when he takes her down the back of the restaurant — it was this exciting, chaotic new place in a new city.
And it’s sad because Brixton Market is now under threat. That’s why I made the film because I wanted to try to capture it before the area changes even more. It’s hard because I’m part of it, too. I’m trying to figure out how I feel about gentrification as I sip a flat white in one of the most white cafés ever. But what’s really interesting about London is that it is so diverse. You can sit in this café now in the middle of Peckham and looking around at everyone here, there’s not one Black person other than me. Then you can step out, go next door and it will be like being in another country. It’s kind of incredible.
I don’t want to call Rye Lane just a Black film: an old white man in Texas can enjoy it. I don’t ever want to box it in because I think entertainment should be diverse and that we celebrate all these amazing cultures and places. Why would you want to watch the same thing again and again? It gets boring. I want to share so many stories, whatever they are — fun ones, sad ones — as long as they come from a place of truth.
I’m trying to figure out how I feel about gentrification as I sip a flat white in one of the most white cafés ever
That’s why it was so important for me to show my reality and what living in south London is actually like. There are so many films and TV shows that have representations of the city that are either a really gritty council estate or Hugh Grant in a banging house. That view of London is so far removed from actuality for me and there are so many stereotypes — I tried to avoid the chicken shop, but the truth is I love chicken shops. I guess a lot of Black stories are depressing but this is just a happy film.
I used to feel othered, but you just have to find your own space and not let it drain you. For people like me [a Black woman from the north] every door is closed. There are so many conversations about how we aren’t given the same opportunities, and even though these conversations are happening, it still only means that the door’s ajar, it’s not open. When you work in the creative industries, you are surrounded by middle-class white people. It’s next level and university was my first experience of this — I didn’t have a good relationship with it but if I wanted to get away from it, all I had to do was go down Rye Lane and get a patty to feel more connected to my heritage and who I actually am. Where I feel safe.
I’m excited to see more of the Black experience and different people of colour sharing their stories. We’re still on a journey. That’s why I hope we retain the immigrant history of these places. That’s why I’m here. ‘
Rye Lane is in cinemas from 17 Mar