THE STORY – In a dystopian future in London where all social housing has been eliminated, Izi and Benji fight to navigate the world as residents of The Kitchen – a community that refuses to abandon their homes.
THE CAST – Kane Robinson, Jedaiah Bannerman, Hope Ikpoku Jr, Teija Kabs, Demmy Ladipo, Cristale & BackRoad Gee
THE TEAM – Daniel Kaluuya (Director/Writer, Kibwe Tavares (Director), Rob Hayes & Joe Murtagh (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 98 Minutes
In the near future, the myriad of social housing tower blocks that characterize much of the inner city of London have become sparse. Instead, dilapidated, Lego-stacked buildings stand in their place. In one of these such structures lies The Kitchen, one of the last remaining social housing communities. Oscar-winning actor Daniel Kaluuya (“Judas And The Black Messiah“) teams with British filmmaker and architect Kibwe Tavares to co-direct (and co-write) a searing yet sensitive sci-fi drama that explores the value of community in the face of crisis with “The Kitchen.”
Rising each day at 7 a.m. to the broadcast sounds of their D.J., Lord Kitchener (played by Arsenal F.C. legend Ian Wright), residents receive a series of building updates, including birthday shout-outs and water shut-offs. Our initial character perspective begins with Izi (rapper and songwriter Kane Robinson). Peering through the slit in his cell-like front door, he makes his way through the winding and well-worn corridors to the shower room, where it’s mere moments before a siren blares relentlessly, and he bows to the unforgiving shouts of the crowd waiting outside for their turn. The inconvenience doesn’t appear to phase Izi. Brushing his teeth, he scans emails that appear across his mirror, a notification reminding him of the three weeks he has to put down a deposit on Buena Vida – a luxury apartment complex. Presumably, this escape toward a better life has been paid for by a job at Life After Life, a zen-like fusion of garden center and funeral home where low-income families who cannot afford the cost of burial for their loved ones are sold ‘fond farewell’ packages in a bid to persuade them to merge the remains with a plant instead. While the option to plant a tree of remembrance for the deceased currently exists, the act shifting from one of environmental and sentimental consideration to one of financial necessity is indicative of the film’s believable escalation into the dire circumstances presented.
While taking a break from selling afterlife solutions, Izi meets Benji (Jedaiah Bannerman), a young boy attending his mother’s funeral alone. Benji spots Izi lurking and later confronts him about his apparent connection to his mother and the identity of his father. The two cross paths once more when Izi spots Benji back at The Kitchen, newly befriended by Staples (Hope Ikpoku Jr) and his crew, residents known for robbing delivery trucks and distributing the goods amongst the locals. Disproving of Staples and the risk of his bold actions, Izi reluctantly steps into house Benji for a few nights. What follows is a dystopian social drama that may be set in the future, yet the seeds of its existence grow and bear fruit in our very present.
To say “The Kitchen’s” release is timely is a gross understatement. A UK housing shortage has seen rents and property prices rise significantly faster than incomes, acutely impacting lower-income communities. A cost of living crisis further deepens the already well-entrenched divisions between the rich and poor, with the working class, predominantly consisting of Black and Brown people, increasingly at the mercy of policies that have contributed to their displacement or actively sought to diminish their right to affordable living. This necessary context makes the film’s themes of community and resistance all the more profound.
The depiction of a neighborhood determined to survive against all odds is where Kaluuya and Tavares shine in their direction. Scenes of repeated government-sanctioned assaults are intense yet wisely juxtaposed with atmospheric shots of bustling market stalls and a thriving underground roller disco. The film does the important work of illustrating joy as well as suffering within the community, showing people preserving and celebrating their culture. Underscored by an eclectic, buzzy soundtrack, courtesy of Labrinth and Alex Baranowski, it’s heartwarming to see that no matter the circumstances, when Cameo’s iconic ‘Candy’ starts to play, people know it’s time to dance.
With its near-future setting and soft tech upgrades, including holographic signs and surveillance drones, it’s somewhat inevitable that the sci-fi horror anthology series “Black Mirror” comes to mind while watching “The Kitchen.” Kaluuya himself starred in the critically acclaimed season two episode “Fifteen Million Merits,” reflecting a similarly bleak landscape in which people are oppressed by a twisted extreme of capitalism that sees them forced to cycle on exercise bikes to earn a means of living and social mobility. A further comparison to be drawn is with “Top Boy,” the recently wrapped Netflix crime drama following drug dealers on a fictional housing estate in East London. It’s through “Top Boy” that Kane Robinson, also known to a generation of grime music lovers as pioneering rapper Kano, made his 2011 acting debut. His leading role as sociopathic drug boss Sully saw Robinson quickly stand out, with his striking portrayal of a ruthless yet deeply traumatized man criminally underrated in terms of BAFTA consideration. There are echoes of Sully’s guarded nature in his performance. However, as Izi, Robinson dispenses with the cruelty and retains the essence of a self-interested loner, slowly opening up to the notion of emotional intimacy and collective responsibility.
The relationship between Izi and Benji bears the hallmarks of the lone-wolf and cub trope, yet despite solid and authentic chemistry between both actors, this narrative thread sometimes feels the weakest. The persistent questions about the identity of Benji’s father feel forced, and the script doesn’t always do justice to the emotion and potential of each scene. Robinson and Bannerman do a great job of convincing the audience of their growing attachment, and Izi’s reckoning with whether his dream of isolation in the glossy confines of Buena Vida is worth leaving behind life with Benji is engaging enough to stand without the need for well-worn quibbles about parentage.
“The Kitchen” stands as an impressive directorial debut from Kaluuya and Tavares, with their passion and empathy felt in each frame. While the storytelling is hampered by a lack of sharpness, it is nevertheless elevated by likable performances, strong world-building, and a social message that rings loudly and urgently.