An Immigrant Story Is Handled With Care In Skepta’s Gritty ‘Tribal Mark’ 🎞️


Words: Yemi Abiade

It’s official: Skepta can do everything. After closing out 2023—a year where he primarily swapped rapping for carving a lane in house music with his Más Tiempo record label—the grime legend, fashion designer, DJ and mogul continues to keep his foot on the neck of British culture in his latest incarnation: film director.

Tribal Mark, the brainchild of Skep himself, is his directorial debut which, at 24 minutes long, leaves little room for embellishment or pampering. Instead, it reflects the coldness of what is a complex issue: migration and its effects on mental health. Shot immaculately with an arthouse aesthetic, the feature, co-directed by Dwight Okechukwu and produced by 1PLUS1, employed a 90% minority ethnic cast and production team—a rare feat in British cinema across the board that brings sentiment to its intention of portraying the pain and anguish of reality for its characters.

The film flips the immigrant story on its head. Following the titular Mark from childhood to adulthood (the adult version played by Skepta), the short film examines his battle with assimilation as a newcomer to British shores. Where many migrants come to the UK with hopes of achieving their dreams, the harsh confines of London life hit our main character almost immediately. Tribal Mark makes no bones about the impact of migration on the human psyche; in fact, it leans into the struggle, with Skepta’s deft narration compounding his inner turmoil. “Pain is the only true feeling in life,” he announces as the film title fills the screen. “It either breaks you or it makes you.”

It is somewhat fitting that teenage Mark, portrayed with poise by Jude Carmichael, embraces the pain and confusion of migrant life once he grows up, despite being a gentle soul. His maturation is soundtracked by the familiar sounds of grime, fumes of weed smoke and the looming prospect of violence. Food is a key thematic device throughout Tribal Mark, used to comfort a homesick Mark and a constant reminder of his heritage in a new land that has moulded him differently. It’s powerful in that, throughout Mark’s trials and tribulations, he can rely on Nigerian cuisine—from jollof rice to pounded yam and egusi—to keep him somewhat at peace. The film constructs this idea of cultural resilience deftly, as it clashes with other prominent themes of oppression and racial prejudice.

Tribal Mark’s shining quality is rooted in its relatability. At all levels, many characters are seen: the young, fresh-off-the boat-child in a strange, new place; zealous teens going nowhere in a hurry; good kids caught up in a madness. Veering dangerously close to conflict, this balance eventually catches up with Mark when he’s arrested for possession of a firearm, bringing to light just how far he’s fallen after his arrival to the UK. By film’s end, Skepta, now in the adult incarnation of Mark, calls on food to make a statement; that he continues to endure in the concrete jungle—warts and all; that life in the UK hasn’t, and will not, break him. As he previously mused, pain made him, rather than broke him.

The film is a blistering debut effort by Skepta, a careful consolidation of a topic that clearly means a lot to him as a first-generation immigrant who, in many ways, achieved the migrant dream, who achieved the better life his parents hoped for when they took the plunge and landed on UK soil. But it is simultaneously a love letter to those still trying to work their place out in their new reality. Tribal Mark is a reminder that culture can be your comfort and your mental respite.

Posted on January 26, 2024