Why I’ve never been afraid to make my own choices

By Noel Clark, a writer, actor and director (THE GUARDIAN, 03/07/08):

The other day, I came across a comment on the internet from a stranger who had seen a recent TV interview I’d done, questioning my authenticity. “How can he be like me?” he’d written. “How can he know what it’s like to grow up on a council estate when he said he had attended a university?” My first thought was, what an idiot. I grew up on an estate in west London, and I made it to uni on a grant – back when they had grants. My second thought was that his response was a problem, not just for me but for society in general.

The fact that I had managed to get out of the situation I was in and better myself angered this person. They were actually insulted. It was as though, by attending university, I had lost my credibility. So are you a sellout if you study instead of hanging out with your friends and causing trouble? Of course not, but for some young people this is the message they get. And why is this happening? Two simple words: peer pressure.

At the moment, it is almost as if we are holding our breath for the next teenage stabbing, so that the scaremongering can begin again. The horrific nature of these deaths naturally focuses our attention on the victims, which is important as their young lives are ending far too quickly and carelessly. The problem is that it also focuses us on a small minority of bad kids while dismissing the thousands of decent, school-attending, ambitious teenagers in this country.

Young people, especially the ones who grow up in working-class areas, feel that they are not spoken to but spoken at. I know that when I was a teenager, I felt totally unrepresented – and that’s made worse if you can’t afford the things that you think everyone else has got. But if you do speak to them, and give them a positive choice, they take it.

When my first film, Kidulthood, came out two years ago, it got a lot of media attention because of the pretty graphic depiction of sex, drugs and violence among a group of teenagers who lived on the estates around where I grew up. But I wanted it to have a moral message too, about choice and responsibility. At the end of Kidulthood, one of the main characters, Trife, dies after he’s attacked with a baseball bat. I wanted to make it clear that, unlike the cartoon violence we so often see in Hollywood blockbusters, in reality when you’re hit in the stomach with a bat, you don’t get up.

My sequel, Adulthood, released last month, picks up the story six years later, and has a similar message: that there are consequences to every action. It follows Trife’s killer, Sam, on his release from prison and explores how he handles the pressure to get involved once again in drugs and violence when he returns to his old neighbourhood.

So how do we combat this peer pressure? How do we stop our children going down the wrong path? I don’t have an answer for everyone, but I can tell you how I did it. My mother, who brought me up on her own, instilled in me early and strictly the importance of being an individual. And at every point in my life when I was presented with things that could have taken me down the wrong path, I decided not to because I’ve never been scared to make my own choices.

But right now society doesn’t teach young people this. What we are teaching them is to buy the same trainers and wear the same labels. We’re teaching them that they can get the money for a house by going on some reality show.You ask a lot of young people what they want to be when they are older, and their only answer is “famous”.

We give media attention to supermodels who take drugs or attack their staff. We give it to pop stars who get off jail more times than is funny, and to singers who are killing themselves before our very eyes. And we give it to the reality-show public who end up “famous” and make their money by either (for men) causing trouble and shagging around or (for women) appearing everywhere in their underwear.

Giving press to these people does two things. It makes young people think they are not punishable for crimes: “If so-and-so can get away it, why can’t I?” And it makes those kids who can’t afford the trainers and the watches feel inadequate, and as if owning those items is the only way they can ever be accepted.

I’m all for rehab and second chances, but what about concentrating on people who never mess up in the first place? Positive role models are not highlighted enough. I’m not talking about me – but for the record, because I’m with my wife and mother of my child I am thus deemed boring and not pressworthy.

If young people don’t feel they have to act like their peers to fit in then they won’t do it. If they understand that you can get somewhere through hard work, or by standing your ground and being an individual, then they will do that instead.

I remember when Kidulthood came out, I was warned that the people it was aimed at would be too busy spending their money on booze to buy a cinema ticket. But that wasn’t what happened then, and it hasn’t happened this time either. Predictably, some of the young people who’ve seen Adulthood have told me that they didn’t like the ending, because it finishes on a hopeful note. (I didn’t want to make a mindless film that just perpetuated the cycle of violence.)

But they watched the ending, and that’s what’s important. At the same time, they also saw that a boy from a council estate can go on to make movies, and that leaves them with no excuse.