As black women, we’re made to feel like we have to have a hard exterior,” says Kosar Ali, the 16-year-old star of knockout coming-of-age drama Rocks. “But we shouldn’t. It's OK to show our emotions. We’re only human.”
The tender, joyous film follows a teenager from a Hackney estate – nicknamed Rocks after defending her friends from bullies – who is left to care for her younger brother when their mother disappears. Bukky Bakray is Rocks, Ali her best friend Sumaya, from whom Rocks keeps her predicament a secret. She doesn't tell a soul, in fact, worried that she and her brother will be taken into care and separated. “I don’t need you,” she says, tears in her eyes, when Sumaya tries to convince her to open up. The girls shout, fall out, and Sumaya is left feeling confused and hurt.
“Rocks gets very angry and defensive,” says Ali, who, as Sumaya, vibrates with a mix of warmth and impishness. “And Sumaya is like, ‘Why do you think you can't speak about how you feel? You have all these emotions, but you can't ask for help?’ But it’s OK to ask for help, it’s OK to give up.”
Still, she adds, Rocks’ behaviour is hardly surprising given the expectations put upon black women. “That's what I meant by black women having to be strong,” she says. “People can't decide if they want black women to be their shield or their target. Which one do you want us to be? Black women are beautiful, strong and amazing, I can't form us into words. Think of everything we've been through and how we have handled it, from our ancestors to now.”
Neither Ali nor Bakray had any professional acting experience when they were selected by street-casting specialist Lucy Pardee (American Honey, Attack the Block) to star in Rocks. Ali was 13 when Pardee and director Sarah Gavron came to her east London school to observe how girls behave in the classroom. “We thought they were teachers at the back of the room so we weren’t paying any attention to them,” she says. Next thing Ali knew, she was invited to do workshops for the film. Nine months later, after the initial 1,300 schoolgirls had been whittled down, Ali was eventually offered a part. When we meet on a video call, she looks different to the young joker we see in the film. Two years on, she’s wearing gold hoops and mascara, her hands flying through the air as she talks, words tumbling out at a speed only teenagers can achieve.
“When we were filming, no one knew Rocks would become what it is today,” says Ali. “Everyone was kind of chill about it. Now that it’s out, especially on Netflix, everyone is losing their minds. When I get home from school, I’m probably going to watch Netflix, do you know what I mean? So to see myself on Netflix, it was just like…” She leans back, mimes her head exploding. “It hasn’t sunk in.”
With its raw authenticity, Rocks has been compared to Celine Sciamma’s Girlhood and Ken Loach’s Kes – but where those films were a mixture of scripted dialogue and improvisation, Rocks is almost exclusively the latter. The girls were given a story outline, but no dialogue. “We filmed it in chronological order so we all knew what was going to happen next,” says Ali. “When we came on set, Sarah and the writers [Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson] would give us a brief breakdown of the scene, then we would have to bounce off each other and form the words as we went along.”
Sometimes the girls weren’t even told the cameras were rolling. “Sarah wouldn't say action or cut,” says Ali. “Often we would just naturally flow into conversation and then they would record that.” Gavron wanted the filmmaking process to be a true collaboration, and even reshot a classroom scene when Ali told her it wasn’t working. “It didn’t feel real,” says Ali. “It didn't feel authentic or how a classroom would in school. So we did it all again.”
Ali says that having her opinions listened to in a non-hierarchical setting felt like she was “in utopia”. “I’m used to being in school and adults having the power,” she says. “You just have to go with the rules and mind your own. But on set, everyone had an input. If we didn’t like something or didn’t want to do it, we just said it. It was like talking to my sisters or my aunties or my best friends. I felt like I had a voice, whereas in school, sometimes you don’t.”
The process has made Ali want to pursue a career in film. She's already been cast in the BBC Three comedy PRU, about children who are excluded from school, and has also written two shorts, including one about a girl with an autistic younger brother. “I hope to make a feature film one day and direct it,” she says, smiling.
Ali’s vision of her future has been transformed by Rocks. Before, a career in film was “never” something she felt she had access to, because she hadn’t seen herself represented on screen. Ali grew up in Forest Gate, the youngest of four siblings in a British-Somalian Muslim family, and she’s always competed for her voice to be heard. “I'm always there like, ‘Hey guys, hey!’” she says with a laugh. “And they're just like, ‘Move.’” She describes her family home as “very loud” with a “loving, exciting energy” – much like Sumaya’s in Rocks. “Usually, when I see Muslim representation on screen,” says Ali, “it’s always like we have to be the victims or the attackers. We can't just be normal people. When I read scripts and there's a Muslim character in there, it's like, ‘Wow, look, there's a Muslim character in here! Oh my God! She wears a hijab!’ I'm like, ‘Wow, OK bro, we're just like anyone else.’ There's so much emphasis on it. I don't understand that, or why we always have to have this stereotype that women with hijabs are oppressed.”
Ali is fed up with watching films where Muslim women come across as if “we are unhappy with our religion”. Rocks is different, she says, because “Sumaya is just Sumaya. Yes, she's Muslim. But that’s not the only thing she is. She's just a young girl who happens to be Muslim. It's part of me, but it's not all of me.”
There is one thing conspicuously absent from Rocks: romance. Where a Hollywood version would surely find a love interest for its protagonist, here, she has other priorities. Is that true to Ali and her friends’ experience? “Yes!” she says, exasperated and amused. “I don’t get this stereotype that girls are always chasing boys. No, that is not the case. When I'm with my best friends, we're talking about fun stuff or running down the street skateboarding. We don’t care about boys. That is not a focus at all.”
For Ali, there is nothing more important than her friends. “Black female friendships are just... From going to my house and eating noodles in front of Netflix, to having custard fights in food tech...” She beams. “I can't even explain the love of it all.”
Rocks is available on Netflix now
Read the rest of our Rising Stars interviews here.