‘Yardie’ Is a Jamaican Throwback to Gang Dramas of Old

Idris Elba tries his hand at directing in “Yardie,” based on Victor Headley’s novel.

Aml Ameen plays a young courier named ‘D’ in 'Yardies'. (Courtesy of Rialto Pictures)

They are the familial and relational conflicts that preface and define their violent stories: Grangerford or Shepherdson, Greaser or Soc, Shark or Jet, Native American or Dead Rabbit. In his directorial debut, Idris Elba takes us down a very familiar road of revenge, factional and cyclical murder in his directorial debut.

Based on the novel “Yardie” by Victor Headley, the film begins in Jamaica during the 1970s. It follows the life of D (played in his youth by Antwayne Eccleston), a Jamaican boy who grows up idolizing his older brother, Jerry Dread (Everaldo Creary). Jerry Dread is a local DJ and the archetypal pacifist. He sets out to soothe tensions between the area’s rival gangs, Tappa and Spicer, using his booming sound system and bouncing Reggae music. Apparently, his tune sounds discordant to somebody, and he’s abruptly murdered during a formative time in D’s childhood. As he grows, D (played by Aml Ameen as an adult) comes under the employ of King Fox (Sheldon Shepher), leader of the Spicer gang. The gang violence subsides but D’s anger about his brother’s murder lingers. His dealings with King Fox soon take him to London, where he’s caught in a triple-bind, having to appease King Fox, a London drug lord named Rico (Stephen Graham) and Yvonne (Shantol Jackson), his lifelong love interest and the mother of his child.

The world “Yardie” creates is populated with many genial people like Jerry Dread, who, willingly or otherwise, find themselves in the midst of retributive violence. This movie’s main method of drama is to endear a character and then thrust them into danger. It’s a strength and a weakness since this cycle can be riveting but also wearisome. 

“Yardie” evokes an instinctive urge to root for the story to end. Not because the film’s not entertaining — it’s efficient in its operation and every moment brings a new imperative — but because there is no lasting profit in the successful drug run, negotiation, or clash. The only hope is for the characters to quit this game without winners. When Yvonne moves to London with her daughter, she believes she’s escaped, upscaling on the impoverished neighborhoods of Kingston with an apartment in a tame London housing complex. D crashes into their life and brings a taste of his previous life, and its accompanying dangers, with him. The members of the Jamaican diaspora encountered by D in London are caught between two cultures. They switch between pleasing British and Jamaican patois at will, and the film’s helpful subtitles guide the uninitiated.

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Reggae and dancehall have a firm hold on the ethos and plot of “Yardie.” Jerry Dread’s music and D’s improvisation on the mic reverberate from the opening scenes. D and his compatriots are deep into the culture of sound clashes: music competitions that originated in Jamaica and spread around the world, where DJs are pitted against each other, like Battle of the Bands but with turntables in place of guitars, and plenty more dreads.

“Yardie” lavishly drapes Jamaican and Jamaican expatriate culture around a familiar story of gang violence. It’s an entertaining and nuanced exploration of a few niches of the 20th-century Jamaican experience. Elba, who has West African roots and grew up near Jamaican influences as a child in London, is the perfect person to lead the entertaining yet nuanced exploration of the 20th-century Jamaican experience.

Email Dante Sacco at [email protected]

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