CANNES, France (Reuters) - The Cannes film festival is a world way from the tough streets of east London where British rapper Ben Drew grew up, but the 28-year-old has come to the glamorous Riviera resort to promote his debut movie “Ill Manors”.
The hard-hitting drama follows six interweaving lives — junkie, drug dealer, ex-con, gangster, prostitute and central character Aaron, a kind of moral compass amid the violence, fear and abuse around him.
The action is set on the streets where Drew, best known by his stage name Plan B, was raised, and his motivation for putting a successful music career on hold to direct sprang as much from social engagement as from a desire to be a star.
“I think a kid can watch this film and go ‘think about it’,” he told Reuters in an interview in Cannes, where he is talking to potential foreign distributors for the picture. It hits British theatres on June 6.
“Next time he’s in the gang environment and is being asked to do something, just think, maybe you are being manipulated here,” he added in a swanky marquee lounge on the Cannes beachfront.
Drew could be talking about his character Jake, played by untrained actor Ryan De La Cruz who was 13 at the time the film was made. Jake craves acceptance, but his desire to please the criminals who adopt him leads to tragedy.
The movie has been described by MTV and others as a “hip-hop musical” — Drew decided to tell each main character’s back story through a rap track matching the images on screen.
He underlines the link between abuse and neglect of children and addiction and crime as an adult — what he calls the “domino” effect.
The musician believes disadvantaged young people are rarely motivated to shake off apathy and look for opportunities. He hopes his film, music and a new charity will help change that.
“I want to put the time — not just money, but the time into helping those kids fulfill their potential, and for the first time have somebody in their lives say ‘actually, you’re good at something’,” he said.
To accompany the movie, Drew is releasing a soundtrack album, and the title single from it “Ill Manors” has already come out to critical acclaim.
In it Drew addresses the 2011 riots across Britain, and, while he says he does not condone them, he wants to show that society bears some responsibility for alienating what he calls the “underclass”.
The Guardian newspaper called it “the greatest British protest song in years”, underlining Drew’s growing reputation as a socially engaged artist who also enjoys mainstream success.
Drew’s 2006 debut album “Who Needs Actions When You Got Words” was well received, while the follow-up concept album “The Defamation of Strickland Banks”, which saw a switch from hip-hop to soul, reached number one in Britain.
He said he was in a unique position to tackle issues that rarely troubled the world of mainstream music.
“The only people who can help kids in this environment is people who have lived their life,” Drew said. “Yes I do know what it’s like, this is where I come from, and I went to prison, and I was addicted to drugs, but I turned my life around.”
He believes he can help others do the same, albeit on a modest scale.
“Do I think that my film will change the world the way I want it to? No, but ... even if it’s in a small way, I want to change that world, that environment.
“I’m never going to eradicate the big issues that are there, but I want to make it better and I know some of the solutions, especially when it comes to the young kids.”
Drew said his interest in cinema was partly inspired by watching “La Haine”, a 1995 black-and-white French film with similar themes to those of Ill Manors.
“I was so ignorant about international films, I would not watch black and white ... subtitles no way, and I saw La Haine and it completely opened up my mind, changed the way I looked at European cinema.”
With music, acting, directing and now charity to keep him busy, Drew admits he will have to “juggle them better” to succeed.
“It’s definitely all of them. There will be more albums, more movies, more expression. There could be a book next, who knows?”
Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato