Idris Elba made his directorial debut earlier this year with the release of Yardie, an adaptation of Victor Headley’s debut crime novel. The film follows Dennis “D”, a trauma-ridden character who witnesses his brother’s death in 70s Kingston. Having never fully recovered, he embarks upon a life of violence that leads him to 80s Hackney, retributive impulses guiding much of his journey. Elba, who grew up in London, is no stranger to the crime/ drama genre after finding international stardom following his role as Stringer Bell in The Wire. It is perhaps fitting that his first feature film finds him exploring the world of organised crime in his hometown London, centring characters who made up the black diaspora he grew up in.
I spoke with the film’s stars, Aml Ameen who plays D, and Shantol Jackson who plays D’s girlfriend Yvonne, about their experience of telling this story and working with Elba. To talk about how they first come across the script?
“I was on a flight,” Ameen tells me, “and Idris happened to be on that same flight, sitting next to me.” Elba started to tell Ameen about Yardie, and: “As we’re talking about this gangsta film, sitting a couple seats ahead of us was Al Pacino,” who, in case you were unaware, played Michael Corleone in crime classic The Godfather trilogy.
“It was serendipity.”
Jackson, who lives in Jamaica, tells me that she first came across the script when Elba and Ameen visited the country to do a casting call.
“The fact that they came to scout for actors in Jamaica says a lot about Idris, too.”
“He is such a talented guy,” Ameen adds, “ and he was so hands on. He was really about this story.”
Whilst both Ameen and Jackson are of Jamaican descent, Ameen was born and raised in London, making his character’s journey from Kingston to the UK’s capital feel particularly resonant. Moving to Jamaica for almost a year to prepare for his part, Ameen told his agent he wouldn’t take any other jobs while working on the film.
“It was very spiritual and personal experience. Being there, in Jamaica, did something for me that even went beyond the film.”
Ameen describes his time working on Yardie as life-changing. With an already pretty storied career, after gracing West End stages as a child, he played PC Lewis Hardy on The Bill from 2006-2007 and starred in the 2006 British classic Kidulthood. But back then, the actor had his eye on the US.
“[In the early to mid-2000s], there were no Idris Elbas. I looked up to the American actors: the Will Smiths of the world.”
Eventually moving, to the States and soon finding himself in a string of coveted Hollywood roles, with films including Red Tails, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, and Beyond the Lights. But, even with this success, Kidulthood, and now Yardie remains two of his most cherished experiences as these films gave Ameen the chance to explore the nuances of his own cultural identity.
Jackson’s career has largely been as a stage actress in Jamaica. Her first feature film, the Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith-produced Sprinter, won three awards at the 2018 American Black Film Festival and will be screened in London early next year. Like Ameen, Jackson relays a unique fondness for Yardie.
“It felt like we were a family. After we finished, I got depressed. I honestly didn’t leave my house because I’d had this amazing, magical world that, suddenly, I had to say goodbye to.”
Throughout our call, Ameen and Jackson share ease, a camaraderie, that makes the magic of their experience evident. Ameen exclaims: “International!” in full Jamaican lilt as Shantol tells me that Sprinter will have a screening in London this coming February. Jackson mocks Ameen’s casual tone when he mentions performing with Michael Jackson as a child (at 1996 Brit Awards where Jarvis Cocker flashed the audience during Earth Song ). Yardie was more than just a job for the two of them, and it feels special to witness a sliver of the joy the film gave them.
In their words, should audiences come out and see Yardie?
“Yardie isn’t just entertainment,” Jackson says, “It’s educational. It teaches you about what was going on in Jamaica in the 70s and 80s, and what people really wanted to run away from. [It shows you that when] they then got to London, they saw that is wasn’t what they thought it would be.”
For Ameen, Yardie’ s cultural relevance is undeniable.
“This is a film about British culture. This is our story.”
As our conversation draws to a close, I ask the actors what audiences should look out for next. With Jackson continuing with the press tour for Sprinter and has a few more projects that she can’t talk about just yet. Ameen has just finished Insider Man 2, a Spike Lee film starring Denzel Washington. Rather suggestively, he tells me that he has really started to embraces the titles of filmmaker and writer, and is excited to step into those roles more.
As we say our goodbyes, Ameen has one last word on Yardie:
“I’m excited for people to keep discovering this film. So much of Jamaica hasn’t seen it, so much of the US and the UK haven’t seen it. This is going to remain an important story in for years to come.”