Let’s talk about Rocks without invoking the ambiguous marker of ‘authenticity’
This review contains spoilers.
Rocks opens with a group of teenage girls frolicking, dancing and singing on the rooftop of a council flat building. This scene is thrown into sharp relief against the backdrop of skyscrapers that make up the capital’s financial district. Instantly, two Londons are presented to us and contrasted.
Our protagonist and titular character, 15-year-old Rocks (so nicknamed because she is a stalwart rock to her friends), played by Bukky Bakray, announces that her boyfriend takes her to the Shard all the time. They promptly call her on her bullshit – “You don’t even have a boyfriend!” – and all fall about laughing. We see London through the eyes of these East End teenagers, quite literally as the film is scattered with portrait-oriented camera phone footage, often through Gen-Z favourite Snapchat filters.
The hotly anticipated film, which premiered at the 2019 Toronto Film Festival but whose UK premiere was delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, has been met with well-deserved critical acclaim. Directed by Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane, 2007; Suffragette, 2015) and written by Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson on their screenplay debut, Rocks is the result of two years of research, street casting, workshopping and collaboration. “It’s weird how a film gets attributed to a director,” says Gavron. “What we’re trying to communicate is that this is a film by all of us”. While Rocks isn’t the first film to use improvisation and to draw on actors’ experiences for the plot, the process was uniquely collaborative, with the actors improvising dialogue and suggesting story and set ideas. For example, Somali actor Kosar Ali, who plays Rocks’ best friend Samaya, provided input into what her house should look like in preparation for her brother’s wedding.
The film follows Rocks as she grapples with her mother’s (Layo-Christina Akinlude) sudden disappearance. Citing a need to ‘clear her head’, she leaves an apologetic note and a wad of £20 notes on the kitchen counter: hardly enough to cover food and electricity, the latter of which soon runs out. Rocks must look after herself and her seven-year-old brother, Emmanuel (D’angelou Osei Kissiedu), unsure if her mother will return and terrified that social services will find out about their situation. Once social workers start hanging around her house, Rocks decides she cannot go home.
Black people are overrepresented in almost all dimensions of social exclusion; they are more likely than their white counterparts to be excluded from school, live in deprived areas, be unemployed, be taken into care and to have ill health. This reality is represented in Rocks – our protagonist is sent into internal isolation for answering the phone in class, she lives on a council estate and her mother has ill mental health – but, it’s important to note, the film doesn’t seek to portray being Black in London as a monolithic experience. By drawing on the experiences of the cast and crew, we are presented with a story that is at once unique and familiar.
Rocks goes to great pains to escape the care system, with such tenacity that we suspect that she has interacted with it before. Whatever her experience with it, she knows that the care system doesn’t necessarily have her best interests at heart. Instead, it represents the prospect of her their mother being criminalised for failing to fulfil her parental duties and of being separated from the only family member she has left: her brother. A 2015 report by the Family Rights Group found that half of sibling groups in local authority care were split up.
The response of Rocks’ white, middle-class schoolfriend, Agnes (Ruby Stokes), to Rocks and Emmanuel turning up at her door is coloured by her understanding of and interactions with the state. Those marginalised by the state – Black, brown, queer, trans, poor and disabled people – tend not to feel protected by its organs, namely the police, the criminal legal system, immigration and customs enforcement, prisons and the foster care system. So when Agnes seeks help from her parents, who then contact social services, this is a massive betrayal for Rocks, however well-intentioned Agnes and her family may have been.
This scene reflects the collision of worlds that exists in the UK’s multi-ethnic and socioeconomically unequal cities, especially in London, where immense wealth and abject poverty coexist. Rocks even falls out with Samaya, when Rocks says she couldn’t possibly understand her situation because she has her mum, dad and a nice house. It is a heart-breaking reminder of the psychological impacts of inequality.
Later, when Rocks and Emmanuel are kicked out of a hotel because they discover that she is a minor, she becomes visibly upset, disrupting the display of leaflets on the reception counter. The receptionist, a non-Black person of colour, calls her “an animal” and says, in response to her outburst, “This is all you people know”. Rocks replies incredulously: “You’re Black”. The implication is that, as a non-white person, he should act in racial solidarity with her, but here she is, reduced to a race-based stereotype.
The subject matter is dark and there are heart-rending, tear-jerking moments aplenty, but comic relief is frequently served by Rocks and her friends, as well as by little Emmanuel. And while Rocks is the one protecting Emmanuel and his wellbeing, Rocks needs Emmanuel too. In one sweet scene Emmanuel seeks to make Rocks feel better by taking her on a guided meditation. “Close your eyes and think of everything that is happy,” he says.
Indeed, it is the contrasting relationship between Emmanuel, who is firmly in childhood, and Rocks, on the cusp of young adulthood, that makes the film a poignant comment on adolescence, and more specifically, girlhood: a subject that has received more nuanced attention on screen in recent years. I am reminded of Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood (2014) and Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang (2015), in which teenage girls, whose place in cinema has, until recently, been suffused with stereotypes and directed through the male gaze, carve out moments of joy in times of adversity.
While some outlets present Rocks as a coming-of-age film due to the subject matter and age of its protagonist, the classification feels limited. Because does Rocks ‘come of age’ over the course of the film? Or is it more accurate to say that she is already expected to be an adult and, worse still, thrown into a situation she never should have had to have dealt with as a child?
The Guardian’s Mark Kermode also sees the resemblance between Rocks and Girlhood. They share the same “girl-power oomph”, he writes. But this doesn’t capture the similarity; to have watched these films and landed at the conclusion that they merely depict ‘girl power’ is, at best, cringey and, at worst, a misunderstanding of Sciamma and Gavron’s direction: a collaboration between writers, actors and director whose result is a piece of cinema that is at times almost documentary-style, with a dramaturgical flair. Isn’t girl power just a lazy (and biological essentialist) reduction of feminism to a ‘battle of the sexes’ and the motto of neoliberal #GirlBossFeminism?
The most superficial similarities between Rocks and Girlhood are that they both centre around Black girls in their mid-teens who live in deprived areas and who are acutely aware of what it means to be working class Black women in London and Paris respectively. Rocks and Girlhood’s protagonist Marieme are both going through tremendous personal upheaval, all while navigating the everyday trials and tribulations of adolescence, such as schoolwork, crushes and puberty. Both Rocks and Girlhood see their protagonists employ survival tactics to tackle the myriad challenges they face, while leaning on their friends for support.
The reduction of these films to displays of ‘girl power’ feeds into the dangerous trope of the ‘strong Black woman’. Rather than affording Black women the protection and allyship they deserve, this lazy generalisation allows society to get away with indifference at best and outright mistreatment at its most egregious. If Black women ‘cope’ in times of adversity, it’s not because they are superhuman, but because they have no option not to.
Ikoko wrote Rocks, in part, as a “love letter to [her] sister”: “She made sure that I had a childhood,” she says. “I think that a lot of black and brown girls, either by circumstance or society, have to sacrifice their softness and their childhood or adolescence for the greater good of the community or family”. What is special about Bakray’s standout performance is the way in which she demonstrates the complexity of human emotion. She is at times stoic, putting on a brave face for Emmanuel, yet at other times crumples into tears; she gets angry when yet another challenge presents itself to her, breaks into hysterics when her friends say something funny.
The Independent has called Rocks “the most authentic film about British teens in years”, but writer Ikoko is keen for the film not to be seen as a representation of authenticity. “I hate that word,” she said in a separate profile for the Independent. “I dislike this idea of black people being used as a stamp”. This is particularly prescient because, although lots of teenagers will, gladly, see themselves in Rocks – I was reminded of my own experience of growing up in East London and going to school in Bethnal Green – it is a picture of a very particular experience of adolescence.
If it is authentic, it is in how it captures the cultural nuance of Black Britishness. As Bolu Babalola writes in a recent article about Michaela Coel’s BBC series I May Destroy You, this is “a feeling that coats the chords of the show.” This feeling is similarly expressed in Rocks through, for example, slang, Nigerian sayings (Rocks is Nigerian-Jamaican) and particular dance moves that, like so many aspects of Black art, have been appropriated in the mainstream and flattened into ‘internet culture.’
Rocks might also be considered ‘authentic’ in its nuanced depiction of one teenage girl’s response to incredible hardship, compared with some of the more one-dimensional characters in the teen girl genre. But ‘authenticity’, like the term ‘girl power’, feels like a weasel word, a cipher for all that is non-white and non-eurocentric: a well-meaning exoticism, especially when it comes from a white journalist’s pen. So, while the cadence, tone and tenor of Rocks may certainly reflect Black Britishness, as Babalola describes, it is not authenticity for authenticity’s sake. As Babalola writes, “It exists to exist, just as we do.”
I am also interested in how the liminality of adolescence is portrayed through a seesawing between motifs of girlhood and womanhood. The girls swap sweets – lollipops, popping candy and Refreshers – for jewellery and other more valuable knick-knacks. They see how big they can blow bubbles from bubble gum. They play clapping games. Their sexual innocence is revealed, humorously, when Samaya coaxes Rocks to try a tampon for the first time, assuaging her fears by saying, “It doesn’t take your virginity because it’s not that long.”
And yet some teenage girls, like Rocks, have very adult responsibilities. Indeed, girls are more likely than boys to have caring responsibilities, according to the 2011 census. Emmanuel is obsessed with dinosaurs and frequently sports a dinosaur hoodie, but when he asks Rocks if dinosaurs exist, she barely hears him, so absorbed is she in plotting the next steps of their survival.
In the final scene, when she and her friends travel to visit Emmanuel in Hastings (where he has been sent to stay with a foster family), they peer through the barbed wire of his new primary school. At first they can’t find him, but there he is, in his dinosaur hoodie: the only Black kid in a sea of white children.
We see Emmanuel through Rocks’ eyes as he plays with abandon in the playground; his gummy smile is imprinted on my mind. Such is his joy and carefree spirit that we see Rocks contemplate whether to notify her brother of her arrival at all, leaving a question mark at the end of the film.
Just as it began with the girls dancing on the rooftop, Rocks closes on the gang dancing on the beach in Hastings: the dimming of the day echoing the ephemerality of youth.
Rocks tells us that where there is struggle, there are friends to help us to shoulder it, and where there is adversity, there can be moments of joy and light.
Rocks is available on Netflix and in cinemas in the UK now. Find a local showing here.
Images courtesy of IMDb.
1. We’re on the roof of a building. London’s skyscrapers are visible in the background. The six lead girls lean against the barrister while chatting to each other. They wear colourful tracksuits, skirts and shirts. Two of them wear a hijab.
2. On the same roof, the girls now sit on the floor around a blanket and chew on lollipops. Emmanuel is standing in the background.
3. A similar scene to the one above, seemingly from moments later or before. All the girls and Emmanuel are standing up, dancing and laughing. Rocks is alone on the left side, facing the rest of the group.
4. A group selfie as a ray of sunshine lights up the moment. The girls squish in to fit. Some are smiling, others are making a classic selfie duck face.