‘South London is changing, that’s why having this film is important’: the director and stars of Rye Lane on the joys of setting a romcom in Peckham
Early on in Rye Lane, it becomes very clear that the audience is in for something special. After meeting at an art exhibition, the two leads formally introduce themselves on a busy corner of the eponymous Peckham high street. “Dom, right? I’m Yas,” says Vivian Oparah, rocking a leopard-print scarf, yellow mac and shocking pink fake-fur bag. “Nice to meet you,” says David Jonsson’s Dom, offering a polite handshake. Yas stares at the outstretched palm, grins and returns a pretend curtsey, then playfully adds a street fist-bump to her chest. It’s sweet and funny, with an easy chemistry, and it perfectly captures the culture clash that Raine Allen-Miller’s directorial debut so singularly dismantles.
Because for David Jonsson and Vivian Oparah, being the stars of a major romcom isn’t something that was ever meant to happen. “On paper, we’re not meant to be romantic leads,” Jonsson explains, matter-of-factly.
Jonsson, of course, is already well known as one of the stars of HBO’s edgy, sex in the City drama Industry, while Oparah was in the Doctor Who spin-off Class and is set to star in Sky’s soon-to-be-released thriller Then You Run. Given those credentials, it’s tough to hear Jonsson put that thought into words, nearly a quarter of a century after Richard Curtis’s classic Notting Hill (1999). But there it is, we’re just not used to seeing Black British actors as the stars of romcoms.
It’s great, then, that they’re the faces of Rye Lane, one of the freshest British films to hit cinemas in years. Written by Tom Melia and Nathan Bryon, Rye Lane tells the story of Dom and Yas, twentysomething, heartbroken strangers who meet by chance and spend a day roaming around south London, opening up about their dreams and disappointments. Sparks fly, they kiss, they clash… but it’s surely no spoiler to note that things will eventually work themselves out by the end.
It is a beautiful film that cleverly captures the charm and colour of Peckham and Brixton – Caribbean food shops, aunties in the hairdressers, local extroverts – and the leads feel relatable and familiar. From its setting in the real south London locations to its cast, Rye Lane feels fun and unique, and it’s not something that went unnoticed by its stars.
“I love that Dom goes hard, or goes home,” Jonsson says of his character. “He’s a legit emotional being and he doesn’t apologise for it. It bites him, obviously, as it leads to him breaking up with his Mrs. But I love that; you can’t live [by] half and I think sometimes as young Black men, we do.”
When we meet Dom, he is weeping in a toilet cubicle, crushed over a break-up. Despite the relationship ending in extraordinary fashion six months ago, Dom is plagued by thoughts of his ex-girlfriend moving on without him. It’s this vulnerable presentation of a young Black man that really made Jonsson feel that his character, and this film, was special. “That’s what we haven’t seen very much on screen, or in a film that’s based in Peckham,” he notes. “Would you catch me crying in a toilet? Probably not, but I’ve learnt a lot from Dom. If you feel it, do it sometimes.”
Similarly, Oparah is completely enchanted by her character. Impulsive and free-spirited, Yas drives a lot of the action in the film, pointing out the silver lining of every cloud and bringing the strait-laced Dom out of his shell. Eventually, we learn that some of her confident exuberance is a defence mechanism – inside, she’s battling career anxiety and relationship troubles of her own. For Oparah, playing a character with a romantic arc is also something, sadly, that feels out of the ordinary.
“As young, dark-skinned women, we’re often hypersexualised or de-romanticised,” she says. “You can’t be viewed in a romantic context; you can only be viewed as a sexual object. To be a representation of just a Black woman in all her complexities, and visually with my West African features… yeah – it feels fab.
“I can’t quite believe it,” she adds with a laugh. “I think that is also what drew me to the film. I was like, ‘Someone wants me, as one of the leads in a romcom? OK, cool – clearly these people are tapped in, they get it.’ It made me give my all in the audition process, even more. Because I’m in the audition, and everyone clearly looks like us.”
This was no coincidence: Allen-Miller and head of casting Kharmel Cochrane were determined that the film would specifically feature dark-skinned lead actors. As a Black woman of a lighter complexion, Allen-Miller is aware of the biases that often result in people with darker skin tones getting looked over in favour of those with lighter skin – and made sure that her film wouldn’t fall into the traps of others that came before it.
“There’s a world where even somebody that looks like me is chosen first for a role like Yas or Dom,” Allen-Miller says. “I felt it was important that we have two leads that are dark-skinned because I want to see more of it. It’s as simple as that. It’s also that they were the best people for the job, but I wanted the leads to be dark-skinned Black people. We need to see it.”
As the excitement for Rye Lane’s release grew online, so did the dissenting discourse, with some questioning whether the big screen exposure of these London neighbourhoods would contribute to gentrification in those areas. Never mind the fact that Peckham has undergone a rapid process of gentrification in recent years, and saw a 45.7 per cent increase in property prices between 2014 and 2018. You’re as likely to find a cut-price nail salon as you would an artisanal bakery in these parts, but still, a Guardian article asked whether the film would do for Peckham what Notting Hill did for the area in which it’s based, 24 years ago. This is a point that Allen-Miller’s prepared for: she rolls her eyes upwards and exhales with exaggerated annoyance when the subject comes up.
I wanted the leads to be dark-skinned Black people. We need to see it
“All I wanted to do in this film is capture the things that are so special and important about south London,” she explains. “It is changing, and that’s why having this film is important. If it does change, at least we have this to look back on.”
Allen-Miller moved from Manchester to a council estate in Brixton at age 12, before moving to Peckham during her time studying illustration at Camberwell College of Arts. Despite still having traces of a Mancunian accent, she deeply considers herself a south Londoner – and through putting her home on camera, Allen-Miller considers Rye Lane a homage to the places she loves. “This is how I see Peckham and Brixton, and this is how a lot of people that I know that grew up in those areas see it,” she says. “I think gentrification is sad, and it is happening all over London. But all I’m trying to do is capture this place for what it is, and what’s great about it. And I’m guilty too: I love a flat white, I love a sourdough. But I also love a patty. It’s important to capture those special things like Jamaican takeaways and Nour Cash and Carry in Brixton, right now.”
A lot of the discussion surrounding Rye Lane touches on the fact that, despite it being 2023, it’s hard to think of any other British romcoms with Black actors as leads. Where many people’s instinct would be to think of Love Actually, or the Bridget Jones films first, they’re also productions that have few examples of London’s diversity.
With this in mind, the cameo appearance of Colin Firth is more than a fun surprise. For once, a veteran of the genre isn’t who the audiences have come to see; Firth, who starred in both Love Actually and Bridget Jones’s Diary, has a brief scene that represents a passing of the baton to a new batch of talent. “I really wanted to have a cheeky nod to all these types of films he’s in,” says Allen-Miller. “There was no doubt that people were going to make comparisons to other Brit romcoms when ours came out, so I really wanted to have a clear reference to it.”
For both stars, Rye Lane is an example of the work they hope to do in the future; work that breaks through the ceiling of what roles Black actors are traditionally asked to take on. “Sometimes we don’t get those off-kilter, slightly weirder characters to play,” Oparah says. “It’s about being trusted to tell the more unconventional stories, and not having to have any redeemable characteristics; just to be human and complex. We exist in all shapes and sizes, good and bad, ugly and evil and fantastic. There’s no limit.”
Though there’s much to say about the importance of a film like this, the goal of both stars and the director is simple: Rye Lane’s purpose is to entertain.
“I want people to be happy and to have had a nice time,” Allen-Miller shrugs. “There’s so much out there that can make you feel sad, and that stuff is really important. But this film isn’t that. It’s the one that you go to, to just smile.”
Rye Lane is in cinemas now