Ben Drew A.K.A Plan B is a very talented 29-year-old. From the streets of Forest Gate, London, he came onto the scene as a refreshing hip-hop artist with the critically acclaimed album Who Needs Action When You Got Words.
A stark contrast to this first gritty, bleak, and obscenity-strewn album, Drew’s next release – The Defamation of Strickland Banks – is a soul-inspired concept story of an alter-ego artist who is wrongly convicted and sent to prison.
As if these two stylistically and tonally contrasting records didn’t showcase Plan B’s talent enough, he has also proven his worth in the film industry – both behind and in front of the lens.
He has starred in two Noel Clarke films: Adulthood and 4,3,2,1; and has turned in memorable performances in the Michael Caine vehicle, Harry Brown, and most recently, the big screen remake of The Sweeney, alongside Ray Winstone.
Drew is a natural talent in front of the camera, and he is also beginning to prove his abilities as a director too.
Ill Manors is the story of the dangerous, crime infested back-streets of modern London. It’s played-out through the experiences of four drug dealers, one drug-user, two prostitutes, and Drew himself as narrator.
These characters are all trying to either thrive on or escape from this seedy side of life, and as their paths cross and intertwine, their fortunes ebb and flow.
Similar to ‘Strickland Banks’ before it, Plan B’s third major record release, which shares this film’s title, plays intermittently throughout the film. Each track narrates the individual characters’ journey, and as they unfold, we are brought ever closer to their plights.
At first, the soundtrack feels a little too disconnected from the on-screen action. The seamless, almost diegetic fade-in/out of music we have become accustomed to in mainstream films is instead replaced by sudden introductions and sharp endings as Plan B spits out his angry words. Especially with the first couple of tracks, this musical narration offers little more than the contributory equivalent of a finger following words as you read.
After a few tracks and around half an hour into the film, the music begins to embed itself into the growing stories, becoming part of the natural progression of these tales. From this point onwards the soundtrack becomes acceptable, and at times, even integral, both for the quality from its lyricist and its relevance to the film’s aesthetic. It’s worth noting, when appreciated separately from the film, the album Ill Manors is as prolific as both of its two predecessors.
In hindsight, Ill Manors could almost be viewed as one long music video. Albeit a very technically proficient and visually arresting one.
The film stars a variety of familiar faces and new talents, and the effective and well-suited cast is headed up by the always watchable, ever burgeoning talent – Riz Ahmed.
Most of the actors play characters who happily reside on the wrong side of the law, and most of them are not shy when it comes to using violence and profanities to wield power and persuasion. But these strong character traits are almost requisites for this new sub-genre of British realism.
The most shocking elements are in fact the morals, or lack of them to be precise, from almost all of the characters – and most of the time. From pimping out girls in fast-food shops at midnight, to selling babies and grooming young girls – no crime is left unattempted and all are shrugged off with ease by the offenders.
Ben Drew is a jack of many trades, and he’s becoming a master of all of them. Rap artist, musician, singer, actor and now, director. But above all, he is a storyteller. With Ill Manors, he speaks of issues which are all around us, everyday. They are overflowing from the back streets into the public conscience. But where most of us are happy to read about them at arms length, or prefer to see them in the form of a colourful graph or pie chart in the daily paper, with Ill Manors, Drew recreates some of these everyday horrors, and rather than coat them with a Hollywood gloss, he displays them to us in their true form – shocking, grimy, disgusting, immoral and criminal – sometimes all of these at the same time.
Ill Manors is a sharp, gritty film with a strong pulse, and splashes of real creativity and artistry throughout. It takes on some of the most poignant and current issues our capital, and indeed our society, have been burdened with in the 21st Century, and shows us the destructive power of mis-education, mis-guidance, and mis-treatment – which is rife on our streets, if only we cared to look.