Review: The Ballad of Olive Morris

Written and directed by Alex Kayode-Kay, in 1969, 17 year old Olive Morris gets violently caught up in an incident of police brutality as she intervenes to help a Nigerian diplomat being wrongly arrested for stealing his own car in Brixton. Starring: Brianna Douglas, Curtis Walker, Jonathan Nyati, Philip Yapp, Simeon Willis, Lucy Speed, Tom Padley and Michael Jinks.

Given the heinous amount of racism and injustice faced by minorities living in Britain in the 20th Century, it’s disappointing that more stories like that of Olive Morris (Brianna Douglas) haven’t made their way into history classes, television and film. That’s not to say there haven’t been any but it’s a part of the nation’s history which is often swept under the rug, when it’s undeniable that there is a huge culture of racism in the UK. Alex Kayode-Kay chose to highlight a key example of that experience for the Black community in 1960s and 70s London, one that if you didn’t know already, you won’t forget in a hurry. When tackling films about injustice one of the more unusual ways that you know it’s a success is how infuriated and outraged it makes you. The Ballad of Olive Morris is primed to make you incensed by the barrage of racism, as well as sexism, these characters face in a short ten minutes.

It would be very easy to dive into exploring all of the different ways that this film highlights how Black people were dehumanised, and how the police were one of the worst perpetrators of that behaviour. However, that would take an essay because Kayode-Kay covers a lot of ground in this film so to make it simple, his writing is effective, powerful and impactful. There’s a real justice in this telling of the strength and resilience of Olive Morris, as well as the community behind her. She may anchor this story but it’s also made clear that she was not alone, even a quick search will show you how often and relentlessly the community fought back against the repeated injustices. The story moves with a great pacing, and manages to encompass how Olive Morris’ life changed after the incident, how she channelled her experience into a life of activism. It uses its time succinctly and fits in as much as it can without feeling rushed.

While all of that may sound thoroughly harsh and dispiriting, cleverly Alex Kayode-Kay builds a more balanced energy with his direction. The opening is lively and funny, it does a really great job of setting the scene for its era. There’s also a good sense of style to the direction, it moves and changes alongside the tone of its story. It has a great mix of being initially more casual then holding a stillness in its heavier moments, before picking up that movement again to instil some inspiration and dedication. One of the great things that it achieves is that it will make its viewers need to know more, you won’t just watch it and leave it there, you’ll want to know about Olive Morris’ life and those like her.

Which of course has to also be attributed to the fantastic performance from Brianna Douglas. It takes a formidable presence to pull off this kind of role and Douglas has just that. She introduces her character to us in such a bubbly, cheeky and kind way, which is so perfectly disarming for what comes next. As the incident takes hold she portrays the fire that it lights inside of Olive so beautifully. The refusal to backdown and the pointed manner to her speech, effectively capturing the evolution to who she was, which is an impressive thing to achieve in such a short amount of time.

The Ballad of Olive Morris tells a powerful, inspiring and also infuriating story with style, respect and admiration. Alex Kayode-Kay’s writing is strong and succinct, it gets across the huge personality to Olive Morris and the harrowing impact of her experience, as well as how it changed her outlook and drive. The direction reflects both the confidence and the trauma, it’s adaptive and intensifies the story. If you didn’t know who Olive Morris was going into this short film, you’ll undoubtedly come out of it asking yourself why not? Because this is a story that should be told, taught and revered. There are few people who would risk their life for a stranger, let alone then be treated with such hatred and violence, and turn that into a life of activism, outreach and charity.

Verdict: ✯✯✯✯✯ | 10/10

Screening next at Cambridge Film Festival on 24 & 25 October then at Aesthetica Short Film Festival 1-6 November | For more info click here

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