Meet the east London schoolgirl making her movie debut
Plucked out of obscurity from an east London girls school by the same woman who discovered Sasha Lane, 17-year-old Bukky Bakray is the star of ‘Rocks’, a new movie about family and sisterhood set on her home turf.
Photography Amber Pinkerton
In September last year, Bukky Bakray, a 17-year-old from east London, left her city and crossed the Atlantic to the Toronto Film Festival, where a movie starring her and a cohort of other east London girls premiered. Directed by Sarah Gavron, it’s called Rocks, and Bukky is its lead star. Set in an all girls school in Bethnal Green, it follows Bukky’s titular character, a 14-year-old student and aspiring make-up artist, as she tries to skirt child services and care for her younger brother after her mother leaves. All the while, she hangs out, fights and makes up with friends, desperately attempting to regain some kind of normality while her world goes into freefall. It’s a by turns brutal and beautiful social realist look at life in London’s suburbs, powered by Bukky’s honest and impressive performance.
Bukky had almost given up on that childhood pipe dream of acting in movies by the time she was cast in this one. As a kid, she’d watch American classics and Kung Fu movies with her family. “I think that's just how my house was,” she says. “I grew up watching stuff like Training Day, Boyz n the Hood… that’s what made me want to be an actor back in the day. I can remember watching Training Day and seeing a scene with Denzel, and I stood up in my room and was like: "I want to do this. I have to be an actor." This was 10 years ago, and then the process just seemed not feasible, so I stopped.”
There are obstacles in place for young Black women in British cinema; so much so that those who want to pursue their passion may be deterred by the bright white state of the industry. No matter how strong your aspirations are. After all, Black British screen talent is the lifeblood of our cinema’s future, but we know those stars who are historically celebrated and elevated: Oxbridge or Eton educated white actors, in most cases, from families with a direct tie to the industry.
But there are stories to tell with a wider world view that are seldom given the silver screen treatment; ones that are deeply indebted to the experiences that those from illustrious acting backgrounds couldn't ever do justice. Rocks arrived in Bukky's life like a gift she wasn't expecting: when casting director Lucy Pardee — responsible for discovering Sasha Lane for American Honey, a performance Bukky’s feels in harmony with — arrived at her school, seeking someone who could approach and understand the film's protagonist. She auditioned, and after some back and forth, got a callback. “I remember that day like it was yesterday,” she says.
She met Lucy and Sarah in a cafe in north London with a group of the girls she had auditioned alongside. Having initially been turned down a few weeks prior — the circumstances of casting big ensemble projects with newcomers sometimes lets people temporarily slip through the net — her presence had lingered in their mind for a little longer. They backtracked, and wanted to meet again. When they did, Lucy and Sarah told Bukky she’d got the lead role. “I was trying to be cool because I didn't want them to see me react like an idiot, but if it was up to me then I would have jumped up out of my seat!” she laughs. “I would have been just crazy. [Instead], I was just like, ‘Oh my gosh, thank you so much’. My cheeks were literally like I had 20 shots of Botox, I was just smiling so hard.”
For a debut role, Rocks asks a lot of Bukky: a performance that requires both a youthful, teen naivety that anyone young and with a normal upbringing would possess, while also asking her to dive into deep moments of gruelling emotion. The movie forces you to reckon with the idea of how you too would navigate a situation like Rocks faces at her young age. Bukky describes those scenes as “the most intimidating things I've done in my life”.
In preparation for those moments, Sarah would ask Bukky to go sit by herself, away from the cast, and think. She’d listen to music: melancholy piano pieces and Motown ballads. “I would just put myself in Rocks' shoes, and imagine if this was happening to me,” Bukky says of those days on set, before admitting: “I know that sounds mad simple. I'm still learning. I'm still trying to become a better actress. I had to sort of eradicate all the embarrassment that I felt.”
Still, there was always someone there to make her feel better afterwards. Rocks, at its heart, is a rare, realistic portrayal of teenage sisterhood, and how the backdrop of life in an ever-shifting city — where anonymity, if wanted, can be found — changes that. Though boys appear fleetingly (the only constant is Rocks’ kind-hearted little brother Emmanuel), not once do the girls argue over them. “I think the way women have been depicted in film and TV has been really repetitive,” Bukky says of that rare, core sisterhood. “I heard something about [the Bechdel test]: female protagonists in film and TV only have conversations where they are talking about male characters in a romantic way. I didn't realise that until somebody told me, and I was like, ‘Wow, is that what people think women are?’ I think that's what makes Rocks so cool,” she adds. “A patriarchal society doesn't want to see women vibe and they don't want to see sisterhood. And the fact that Rocks is showing that, I definitely think it’s a universal message.”
For Bukky, the past six months have been spent waiting for the moment Rocks reached its audience. (It was originally supposed to hit UK screens in April.) Time that might have otherwise been spent doing interviews like this, or auditions for movies, were spent in her family home, waiting for the pandemic to pass. She wants to work on projects like If Beale Street Could Talk, and would one day like to star alongside LaKeith Stanfield or Viola Davis in something. Finally, now, the opportunities that Rocks was destined to manifest will come through. “I was upset, because I feel like this year was the year for British movies, so I was like, ‘Oh, why did it happen to Rocks?’” Bukky says. “But at the end of the day, I'm not trying to get lost in the sea of despair. Everyone is going through what's going on in the world right now, and I know with this situation, we just have to adjust. Hopefully, even though we're doing this in another way, it will still have the reaction that we intended… because Rocks isn't a flashy movie. We didn't do this because we wanted a hit at the box office. As long as the people see it, that's what I care about.”
“I'm good,” she stresses. “I'm grateful.”
Rocks will be released in UK cinemas on Friday 18 September
All images courtesy Amber Pinkerton