While the British coming-of-age story “Rocks” hasn’t been a part of the Oscar season conversation, the BAFTAs are a different story. The movie is nominated for eight awards at this Sunday’s ceremony, and has been available on Netflix since earlier this year. Although directed by Sarah Gavron (“Suffragette”), the key figures behind this acclaimed project is British-Nigerian playwright and screenwriter Theresa Ikoko.
Ikoko co-wrote the script, her first, with seasoned scribe Claire Wilson, and the pair are each nominated for BAFTAs in Outstanding Debut and Original Screenplay.
Praised at home and abroad for its honest treatment of sisterhood among teenage girls of color, the film follows a British-Nigerian adolescent nicknamed Rocks (Bukky Bakray) forced to take on adult preoccupations when her mother suddenly abandons her and her younger brother. Amid such precarious circumstances, she finds encouragement and affection in her group of loyal girlfriends. Earlier this year, “Rocks” won the top prize at the British Independent Film Awards, as well as trophies for two of its supporting stars, Kosar Ali and D’angelou Osei Kissiedu.
“Rocks” started with a simple conceit: Fable Pictures producer Faye Ward was searching to empower female voices to tell a story about a girl in London today. There was no further concept or premise; the production wanted to create the project from the ground up. Ward eventually enlisted Ikoko after seeing her play “Girls,” and paired her with Wilson, with whom Ward had previously collaborated over a decade ago on a project that was optioned but never got made.
The team of writers and casting directors spending time at schools and youth clubs to meet teenage girls from all backgrounds. “We were just doing workshops and talking about girlhood, what it is to be able to be a woman, to be a young woman, to be a girl, sharing our experiences,” said Ikoko.
The casting team initially met with around 1,500 young women, winnowing down a list of 60 finalists for Ikoko, Wilson, and Gavron to consider. As they narrowed that list further, Ikoko recalled that throughout that period candidates were constantly leaving the workshop the production had set up to find the cast. “Since it was such a long period of time, people were dropping out and obviously finding other commitments and other interests,” said Ikoko. After nine months, the final group was formed.
Informed by the girls’ input, Ikoko and Wilson got to work on a story. However, they felt that first draft didn’t capture the magic they were experiencing as a collective. Thankfully, a year prior to “Rocks,” Ikoko had been working separately on another piece inspired by her experiences growing up in a British-Nigerian household that similarly dealt with the restorative power of sisterhood. As “Rocks” was taking shape, she decided to propose that story as the vessel to use the young talent they had found. The result is an amalgamation of Ikoko’s personal insight, Wilson’s expertise and take on female friendship, and the cast’s early input and eventual interpretation of the ensuing script, which left room for improvisation.
“I read the outline to Claire and Sarah and they immediately thought it was perfect,” Ikoko said. “There were moments and things that were added to the characters in order to give the girls ownership… It was those things that they felt like they hadn’t seen before and wanted to represent for their communities.”
Ikoko said she knew the project was heading in the right direction when she realized that the first-time performers, none of whom knew each other beforehand, were cultivating real friendships off-camera. “I don’t know if I’m being too sappy and sentimental, but I believe they’ll be friends forever,” Ikoko said.
The pair was keen on avoiding clichés. “We didn’t want to make the story hinge on a romantic relationship, which pretty much every female coming-of-age story hinges on, whether it’s with a boy or with a girl,” said Wilson. “There’s always that element that says, ‘This is what it is to be a woman, you are defined by love.’ It was really loosening to take that away and just let kids be kids, but also, let’s look at the friendships, which are really important, especially at that age.”
In turn, working on “Rocks” was a life-changing endeavor for Wilson, who is currently the showrunner on Amazon Studio’ upcoming sci-fi show “The Power,” because the crew was 75-percent women; their bond permeated everything on screen and behind the scenes. “Being around that many women trying to do something together was special. It was challenging obviously, but it also gave us a voice in this industry,” Wilson said. “Up until that point, I hadn’t been in that space before, you often don’t realize how much you’ve been suppressing yourself until you are given space to open up.”
Early on, Ikoko decided she wanted Bakray to play the lead, so she and Wilson tweaked aspects of their main character to fit the part. The young star is now also nominated for a BAFTA for Best Actress in a Leading Role. “She brings this beautiful, chaotic, joyful energy to a room,” said Ikoko.
Even though “Rocks” deals with parental abandonment, Ikoko said she wanted to inject the story with an uplifting vibe. Ikoko herself grew up in a council estate, England’s version of low income housing, but her memories are not marked with tragedy but the time spent with loved ones. Her desire to avoid the trappings of “poverty porn” resulted in a focus on the universality on the characters’ childlike view of the world around them.
“The whole film was looking at the adultization of Black and brown girls and how we look at them,” Ikoko said. “Studies show that they’re treated very differently by court systems, by police, by teachers, even by family and community. We look at Black and brown girls, not as children, but as adults. And therefore we give them such responsibility and they are unfairly burdened and punished disproportionately punished in schools because we see them as grownups and Bukky is that girl who does seem like older and wiser than she is.”
That mission didn’t just manifest as part of her storytelling, but has been inherent to her work even before entering the entertainment industry. Ikoko graduated from Oxford with a master’s in criminal justice and went on to work in youth and community issues. Writing was a passion that she nurtured on the side. She kept her day job throughout the writing and production of “Rocks;” she often found opportunities within her day to be present on set to give notes and even block scenes. But when her manager couldn’t give her time off to attend the movie’s TIFF premiere, she quit.
“I loved my job and I took the responsibility of making the world better for young people seriously,” Ikoko said. “So while I was faced with potentially one day leaving that position, I wanted to create a space in the industry that would mean that I could potentially have an impact the same way I felt like I was having every day in that job.”
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To that end, “Rocks” was built on the same inclusive spirit that its story represents. Ikoko believes since authorship for a long time have belonged to white middle-class storytellers, the creative dynamic needed to be different in this project, particularly in a story that was predominantly about a Black British girl. If they hadn’t distributed authority and ownership, the film would have become part of the problem, even more so since the outsiders would question the director being a white woman.
“I didn’t realize the hierarchical structure of film before we got to the end of production,” Ikoko said. “We worked really hard to make it clear that this was a film made by many people and to decolonize authorship and story ownership. Everyone, including Sarah, has tried to change the narrative and share power between the many people that held this film up.”
Off the back of “Rocks,” Ikoko and others in the production established an organization called BRIDGE in order to support emerging talent in creating sustainable careers in entertainment, as well as providing assistance to communities and schools to make arts and culture more accessible for young people to freely participate in life-changing experiences.
“We wanted ‘Rocks’ to be impactful on screen, but we also wanted it to be impactful in the industry, behind the scenes, and to demonstrate that you can give autonomy and authority and ownership to storytellers that look different and we’re not risks,” Ikoko said. “We don’t only need support. We need space.”
“Rocks” is now streaming on Netflix.