‘I’m just sitting here, I ain’t saying much I just think, And my eyes don’t move left or right they just blink’
These are the bars Dizzee Rascal uses to open his debut album ‘Boy In Da Corner’. It’s a sobering, unflinching first few words that cuts through the frenetic 140bpm beat in the background. It emits the sort of determination and focus that could intimidate some, especially coming from a then 18 year old black boy from the east end of London.
The entire song sets the mood for what would be Dizzee’s seminal work – heavy, deep, hyperactive – vulnerable. With Serious Tingz, Abdou Cisse explores that same vulnerability by way of the ‘screwface’, asking what’s a smile worth to a people who feel they have nothing to smile about. As the first few seconds of the short film pass and the frame comes to focus, images of running feet and pointed fingers rush by – already we’re faced with a choice between fight or flight before we even see what awaits us as the camera focuses.
Hypervigilance caused by trauma, self-defence or straight rudeness – call it what you want – the screwface is a collective action performed by many black boys at one point in their lives. Performing this type of masculinity is supposed to purge the body of its weakness – as one of the performers makes clear a minute into the film – and ready it for the challenges other people, more often than not other men performing this same masculinity, will throw their way. Dizzee dedicates an entire verse to the screwface on the track ‘Stop Dat’, and in doing so expresses the multidimensional use of the look.
‘screw face means keep well away, stay away,
screw face means get out my way,
screw face means you don’t know me, what you looking at? whats your beef?
screw face means im not having it,
screw face means im not a chief,’
A warning, a call for retreat, an expression of pain – strangely the screwface carries a range of emotions for something that is supposed to hide them all. Cisse says about the film, “I wanted to question the things we did when we were younger, the things we thought made us men. Having the capacity to reflect as an adult, I now understand that it wasn’t a requirement of a man but a form of self-defence to avoid the feeling of being vulnerable”.
The screwface has a warped intimacy to it. Time is spent looking carefully for changes in expression, inflections in body language – slight movements become pronounced and the seconds that pass feel to drag for far longer. For a lot of men young men growing up the same way as Cisse, the screwface becomes innate, a state of being formed from habitual practice, it activates without much warning and deactivates without much thought. It becomes easier to turn off and on as we age and the anxiety that the vulnerability of youth gives us dissipates, but it remains in the background on high alert when needed. Although we grow older and the vulnerability we feel starts to shed, the trauma of growing up in these environments don’t stop collecting. Cisse asks at the end of his film,
‘How many of the mandem would still be boys if they smiled more?
How many of the mandem would free if they smiled more?
How many of the mandem would still be here if they smiled more?’
With each question the thought collects weight. Dozens of young black men have fallen victim to the destructive potential of masculinity. Victims and perpetrators (who are themselves victims of a different type of violence) are left to patch together the ravaging of their communities by austerity, with nothing but the legacies left by another generation who have been consistently given up on from educators, legislators and lawmakers. With little to control and little to aim toward, apathy is common – so is violence.
Again ‘Sittin Here’ gives a fitting soundtrack to this feeling, ‘I ain’t saying much I’m just vex, I seen a lot of bullshit, wondering what’s next, I’m vex at humanity, vex at the earth, I keep getting vex, till I think what’s the worth?’ As each of the boys faces light up and we’re asked to reflect on the questions, ironically, it becomes harder to smile.
‘screw face means im not happy right now thats why no smile was used.
screw face means im not pleased,
screw face means im not amused’
I had a conversation with a friend of mine about the film – below is a short extract of what he told me.
“I’m on road, I’m screwing – all the mandem know why we screw fam. More time, when I screw, I’m not screwing on purpose this is just how my face is, cos of where I grew up, cos fam on a real if I’m on road and someone’s looking at me and they’re smiling I’m thinking ‘what the fuck is wrong with you’ – and that’s just a Londoner ting.”
“Us screwfacing is not because we’re actually looking for trouble, or I’m doing it purposely so someone can come find me or so I can have a problem – this is just how my face is. And if I see another black brother, I know it’s not beef, he knows it’s not beef, we walk past each other – casual headnod. That’s it. You don’t even need to explain anything, things don’t need to be deep.”
“I’ve been on road screwing, another man has been on road screwing, I’ve seen him, he’s seen me and we’ve done the nod and kept it moving.”
‘screw face means I just wanna walk not talk,
screw face means I just wanna leave,
when I activate my screw face, gimme space
screw face means let me breathe’