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The Kitchen ★★★★



Director: Kibwe Tavares & Daniel Kaluuya

Cast: Kane Robinson, Jedaiah Bannerman, Hope Ikpoku Jr, Ian Wright, Teija Kabs, Cristale & BackRoad Gee

Release: London Film Festival 2023

Kibwe Tavares and Daniel Kaluuya’s The Kitchen takes on a multilayered meaning. In the Netflix-distributed film, it’s the name of one of the last social housing districts in a dystopian London. Set in the near future, water supplies are rationed, biker gangs mobilise, steal and hijack food trucks to feed their starving community, and government-sanctioned police raids spread terror, fear and violence on a daily basis. The only salvation comes from Ian Wright’s Lord Kitchener, host of The Kitchen radio station, who spreads hope and joy through the music he plays and rallies the commitment to keep fighting for their home. The other relates to a very common phrase – if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen!

Tavares and Kaluuya’s film is the type of science fiction escapade that is right up my street – a socially conscious and grounded adventure with a relatable edge that reveals more about the state of humanity, the opposing forces which threaten its existence (be it totalitarian governments or institutional laws and rules), and its conscious fight to find purpose and meaning in rising against those odds. And when done right – as The Kitchen showcases – the experience is utterly satisfying in a strong debut by the directing pair.

We see this through the eyes of Izi (Kane Robinson, aka Kano), who lives a solitary life and works for Life After Life, an ecological funeral home for grieving residents where they’re offered the opportunity to turn their loved ones into planted trees. His dreams of escaping the Kitchen comes to fruition when he is offered a one-bedroom flat at Buena Vida – a new, fancy luxury apartment complex. But his plans to move are disrupted by the arrival of Benji (Jedaiah Bannerman), a teenage boy who recently lost his mother. Together, the pair form a bond, navigating Kitchen’s pitfalls and forcing Izi to choose between his dream or his community.

Whilst the concept isn’t original, borrowing aesthetics from Blade Runner, Children of Men and District 9 (and a sprinkle of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing), it’s almost funny to see a technologically advanced London with its smart mirror displays, barbershops with augmented reality hairstyles (to try before you buy), police drones and hologram billboards and yet Poundland still exists in this dystopia! But that sets The Kitchen apart in defining its voice and reality. As a first-time director, worldbuilding plays into Tavares’ strength as an architect, where its favela-like community is a living and breathing entity where you could almost step into that world and find a story to tell. Wyatt Garfield’s cinematography and Nathan Parker’s production design add scale and depth to its amplified scenery as Izi rides around the city on his motorcycle. Those intentional beats are beautifully offset with the so-called prize of Buena Vida (a place that promises “the good life”) or the clinicalness of Life After Life. Still, by design, they’re a soulless and artificial byproduct of corporate gentrification and greed.

Serving as co-director and writer for his feature-length debut, Kaluuya alongside writer Joe Murtagh strikes a chord when the script riffs off the “there’s no place like home” vibe. It speaks volumes about the long-term demonisation of the working class and the natural displacement that comes along with it. The script places its heart and faith in the vibrancy of its community. Throughout, it finds sincere moments to highlight this through its ‘needle drop’ soundtrack and score –  the locals dance to Cameo’s Candy or Staples’ gang riding through the Kitchen on their bikes to Fela Kuti’s Zombie. When it comes to resilience or defiance, it comes through a rallying community armed with pots and pans using it as a warning siren for oncoming police trouble or a powerful funeral scene in its third act that highlights the damaging repercussions of police brutality. 

But on a deeper note, it goes to show what the British film industry is capable of when budget and ambitiously-driven narratives are given a chance to progress ahead of the traditional, award-candidate prestige films. But particularly for Black British cinema, it’s another showcase opportunity to view the culture in a way that refuses to conform to stereotypes. To see the achievable should be a lesson learned and a path forward to seeing more films commissioned on this scale.

There are occasional moments where the narrative struggles to find its focal point within its 98-minute runtime; Izi, Benji and Staples (Hope Ikpoku Jr), leader of the biker gang, are captivating. With no obvious father figure in his life, Benji’s pull between Izi and Staples becomes apparent as he connects with two different viewpoints around the kitchen – one who seeks to escape versus someone who fights for his community. But with so much to grapple with, these narratives are either spread too thinly or lack the clarity to capitalise on their arcs. However, when it does work, the restraint and intimacy displayed throughout Kaluuya and Murtagh’s script always find the soul behind these characters and what drives their actions.

Robinson’s magnetic presence conveys so much of the film’s emotional weight. Through his eyes, he translates a power and gravity that showcases why he’s one of the most underrated actors in the business. In key scenes where Izi’s guarded lifestyle is rooted in generational trauma and his stoic acceptance of the reality of the Kitchen, he explains the constant need to run away and the gradual realisation of becoming a father figure and his growing impact towards an impressionable Benji. Equally, Jedaiah Bannerman is a revelation in his first breakout role. Together, they make one hell of an on-screen partnership.

Up until its powerful last shot, The Kitchen is a compelling and accomplished piece of Black British cinema. Thematic intention and ambition ultimately win it over, and I can’t wait to see what Tavares and Kaluuya can come up with next.

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