Exclusives Interviews 12 February 2024
Author: Niall Smith

Daniel Kaluuya & Kibwe Tavares discuss ‘The Kitchen’, Black British entertainment & more

12 February 2024

Black British filmmaking has come a long way in the past 40 years. Emblematic of this change is none other than Kibwe Tavares and Daniel Kaluuya’s 2024 directorial debut, The Kitchen. “I’ve been developing this film for ten years,” said Kaluuya. “Stepping into the director’s chair wasn’t too much of an adjustment. Even as far back as Skins, I’ve always been writing. In fact, I started my career writing.”

The film stars Kane “Kano” Robinson as the Akira-esque lone wanderer, Izi, Jedaiah Bannerman as Benji, the emotional core of the movie, Hope Ikpoku Jnr as Staples, one of Izzy’s primary acquaintances, and Arsenal legend-turned-thespian Sir Ian Wright as Lord Kitchener.

While not set in any definitive time frame, one can assume the film catapults viewers around four decades into yonder. So, as The Kitchen charts an optimistic course forward for Black British media and an equally analytical look at gentrification, family and community, let’s briefly look at the past 40 years of Black British entertainment and examine how The Kitchen beautifully intertwines itself with that legacy.

Image: Netflix/Press

In the early 1980s, there was a pivot shift in Black media representation. Notably, the advent of Channel 4 in 1982 meant that marginalised creatives were finally given a spotlight. During the Betamax and LaserDisc skirmish, auteurs like the late Franco Rosso canonised and crystallised the Black British experience through the lens of Jamaican sound system culture and socio-political critiques in his silver screen opus Babylon (1980). 

As sand granules slipped through time’s hourglass, a cluster of Black British brilliance spurred from the underbelly of the municipal sprawl. Building atop Channel 4’s visual foundations, Tracy Chapman, Terence Trent D’Arby and Soul II Soul’s stellar debuts navigated the worlds of folk, funk-soul fusion and R&B—demonstrating the bleeding edge of what Black innovators were truly capable of.

This wave of creativity was in due part thanks to the mass cultural reshuffling happening across the United Kingdom. By 1991, the census revealed that Black Londoners constituted around 500,000 individuals in a city of seven million.

The revised Black London populous included numerous Caribbean, Nigerian, Ghanaian, Ugandan, Kenyan, Zimbabwean, and South African immigrants who had made Britain their new home. As a result, their kin birthed a new, post-Windrush generation of youth culture.

Whilst Seal’s self-titled debut album sat at a comfortable #1 on the UK charts, 1991 also saw the release of the Isaac Julien-directed Young Soul Rebels, a coming-of-age story documenting late 1970s youth culture and class-based oppression in the UK—with Valentine Nonyela and Mo Sesay leading the picture with their charismatic performances, laying the groundwork for future Black British stories on the big screen. 

As the 1990s dawned, Black entertainers continued to ascend the mainstream monolith. Whether it was slice-of-life family sitcoms like the razor-sharp Desmond’s (1989-1994), comics Curtis Walker and his cult classic BBC2 sketch comedy show The Real McCoy (1991-96) or Lenny Henry dominating the stand-up arena, these performers typified the Black African and Caribbean experience in the UK—paired alongside the booming electronic, jungle and rave music scene.

Spearheaded by Rebel MC, Shy FX and Goldie, this melting pot of culture became a magnet for eagle-eyed Pirate Radio stations, offering a cargos-worth of UK hip-hop and electronic music that commandeered the ears of many inner-city teens. 

Image: Netflix/Press

Growing up amid this revolution was a young Kibwe Tavares and Daniel Kaluuya, hailing from South and North London, watching their city undergo “urban redevelopment”. One by one, boroughs like Wandsworth, Camden and Newham were split at the seams by gentrification, cleansing much of the Ethnic-centred food markets, hair shops and community centres in favour of gastropubs, tourist hotspots and cutlery-shaped sky towers designed for ‘living’.

Now, both Tavares and Kaluuya are accomplished. The former excelled in the short film space and architecture, applying his keen eye for detail to short films like Robots of Brixton (2012) and Time Machine (2018), as well as working with the prestigious Royal Opera House on their adaption of Malorie Blackman’s book Nought’s and Crosses.

The latter is now an Oscar Award-winning actor with a litany of credits under his belt—embodying everyone from the spirit of Fred Hampton in his biopic Judas and the Black Messiah (2021), as well as securing a double-billing over at Marvel. Taking on the roles of W’kabi in Black Panther (2018) and Spider-Punk in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023).

On the other hand, Tavares’ work is just as impactful, albeit more behind the scenes. His own technology and animation collection, Factory Fifteen—his credits extend to the BBC, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the Kia automobile company and much more.

Tavares and Kaluuya demonstrated the meaning of Black excellence across their careers, and now, with their latest work, they’re inviting us inside of their occipital lobes. “There’s a lot of King’s Cross in this movie,” said Kaluuya. “I grew up around there and watched things like the Eurostar get put in and how things changed so rapidly. You see the same thing down in Brixton, too.”

Using almost 40 years of Black British scripture, gentrification and culture—as well as their vehicle and an apt partnership with Netflix and Film4 (and, by extension, Channel 4) we as an audience have been plucked out of time like George Orwell once did in his novel 1984 and given a chance to reflect upon the ramifications of social cataclysm. “We want audiences to be immersed,” said Tavares. “It’s set within a world we know, but it’s been heightened and told abstractly. It’s a real human story.”

In mid-2022, we got a call from Netflix and were invited to visit the film production set. Honoured to partake in such a historic event, I bolted to Bethnal Green, vaulting from the Northern Line to the Central Line and pacing up the high street in pure excitement to the movie’s filming location for the day.

Upon entering the set, I was greeted with a concrete plaza similar to the one in the final film. It was kitted out with dystopian Police vehicles, multi-level infrastructure and countless extras populating the film’s world, truly bringing it alive. Seeing the set so lived in and not solely crafted in the editing suite was truly spectacular—especially in an era where VFX artists are stretched thin and film budgets balloon to unrecoupable levels.

The Kitchen movie still.
Image: Netflix/Press

Since I was 11, I’ve grown up with Kaluuya as a fixture on my television screen. As a kid, I first caught him in the family comedy sequel Johnny English Reborn (2011), where he played an M17 agent and sidekick to the titular hero. Ironically, when meeting Kaluuya, this formative part of his lore festered to the surface when one of the movie’s producers jokingly showed me a photo from the film he paraded around as an on-set joke.

Funnily enough, the first thing he said to me wasn’t about The Kitchen: it was about my Snatch x Places + Faces Film Club tee. “Where the fuck did you get that t-shirt from?” shouted Kaluuya. “I’m texting Ciesay [founder of the brand Places + Faces] right now.”

Setting the tone with a very conversational, laid-back demeanour, I sat down with both Kaluuya and Tavares to discuss the film at length.

GRM Daily: Thematically, what does The Kitchen mean to you?

Kaluuya:The Kitchen represents Mass Gentrification. I did a lot of research, and a personal take is embedded here. A lot of the time, people’s views on gentrification comes from an article people read in a magazine or what have you—they’re not living in it. So, this movie was about getting down to the root of it all through both of our lead characters, Izi and Benji.”

Tavares: “The film used to be set in the 2040s. After a while, we decided to take out that date and leave it ambiguous. The film’s not dated or bound to any year in particular because we wanted the themes to carry themselves and be as open-ended as possible. It’s an introspective film, so thematically, I don’t want to say anything too concrete. One viewer might take one thing from the movie, and someone else could interpret something differently. It’s a human story at its core. If I had to summarise, The Kitchen’s themes are firmly rooted in ideas of fatherhood, gentrification and territory”.

Image: Netflix/Press

Kibwe, you initially spoke about The Kitchen in an interview back in 2017. How does the finished film compare to your initial framework?

Tavares: “The film’s evolved loads. Looking back at some of my original pitches and documents—quite a few things have changed, characters have shifted around, and what have you. But at the film’s foundation, it’s remained more or less the same.”

Can you think of any fragments of culture or even direct inspiration when crafting this movie?

Kaluuya: La Haine. Do the Right Thing. City of God. The artist Gil Scott-Heron. Elephant and Castle market. Garage music. Oh, and Bagleys. Bagleys was a club that used to be in King’s Cross; I used to roller skater there.”

Tavares: “So many things come to mind. Mostly, I’m inspired by the creatives in and around the film. A lot of the time, Black culture gets treated like a monolith. Having a commanding presence like Ian Wright—the primary voice in the movie Lord Kitchener—was key for us because that went a step ahead to show that we’re breaking away from that monolithic representation.”

The film features droves of UK talent—both on the soundtrack and in front of the camera. From Sampha and Giggs to Backroad Gee and Hope Ikpoku Jnr, and of course, Kane “Kano” Robinson as the lead. What did you see in these creatives specifically?

Kaluuya: “They had the right soul for the film. Plain and simple. Going in, the idea was to stretch our talent’s creativity. Even someone like Cristale, she’s getting so much attention right now because she deserves it. I don’t see artistry as flat. London is a place that’s constantly looking for a language for expression. You see Kane picking up acting and so on. This film is a showcase for depth.”

Kibwe, how’s it been pivoting from short films to a feature-length project?

Tavares: “Directing this film has been a blessing. Throughout the entire process, we encountered countless ideas and scenes that had to be omitted due to either pacing or logical reasons. However, this experience taught me a great deal. My background as an architect has definitely fed into the overall vision. As a result, the final product feels authentic and one-of-a-kind. The film feels quite grounded and singular, as it’s lived with us for so long now.”

As a first-time director Daniel, what challenges have you faced bringing The Kitchen to life?

Kaluuya: “I didn’t know a lot of things going in [laughs]. I didn’t know how to design characters or character relationships. It’s one thing bringing other people’s characters to life and another thing to make them—they’re two different disciplines. I feel more open as a director. I was working on this film for almost ten years. I’ve been writing and fine-tuning this for a long time. Even now, I’ve got so many scripts sitting on my laptop. Whenever I wasn’t acting, I was writing. Overall, I’ve learned the importance of clear communication, especially when you’re working across all these different departments of film production.”

Image: Netflix/Press

What inspired you to partner with Netflix and Film4?

Kaluuya: “I believe in the accessibility of high art. I want people to watch it. Film4 and Netflix are great partners. So was Fiona Lamptey, the former Head of UK Film at Netflix; she helped get this film off the ground. I think Netflix and Film4 understood the vision. They knew exactly what kind of film we were trying to make.”

Why 2024? Why is this film coming out now versus five years ago or five years from now?

Kaluuya: “I think people are ready. Watching the trajectory of a show like Top Boy—going from Channel 4 in 2011 to Netflix in 2019 was major. Watching stories like Top Boy break through and become as huge was major in more ways than people realise. I think the culture had to change. I did Black Mirror when I was 22, and that societal shift has taken so long to manifest. Not only that, but I think people are more open and receptive to different perspectives and ideologies.”

Tavares: “I believe this film fills a necessary gap in Black storytelling in the mainstream. As I briefly mentioned earlier, this film has a strong Black fatherhood storyline throughout, and outside Top Boy and the hood-adjacent stories we have—which are great—that alternative angle for Black storytelling rooted in belonging and togetherness is seldom seen.”

The Kitchen is out now via Netflix.