Dystopian visions of near-future cities can tell us a lot about who we are now while also warning us of what’s to come. In Kibwe Tavares and Daniel Kaluuya’s film The Kitchen, set in a not-so-distant London, the power of privatization threatens to crush the last standing independent neighbourhood.
In this complex, compelling vision, community proves an immensely powerful force against such oppression. Gentrification has all but won. Police brutality ensures its victory. But there’s one last bastion of resistance, the neighbourhood known as The Kitchen, where residents hold firm in their homes on the Thames’s south bank.
As well as making his directorial debut with The Kitchen, Kaluuya co-wrote the script with Joe Murtagh (The Woman in the Wall, Calm with Horses), blending social realism and sci-fi elements, and digging into social politics, inequality, grief, and family through protagonists Izi (Top Boy star Kane Robinson) and Benji (Jedaiah Bannerman).
A sharp, poignant prediction for a capitalist future that slowly diminishes individualism, The Kitchen feels like a cautionary tale, an allegory for where cities like London are headed. It’s less of a fantastical hypothetical as it is a grim premonition that doesn’t feel out of this world. And while the film is anchored in London, as the marketing tagline reminds us, “Every city has its Kitchen.”
What is The Kitchen about?
Tavares and Kaluuya, who both grew up in London, describe the film as “a love letter to our city.” Set in the heart of England’s capital, The Kitchen takes full advantage of the city’s Brutalist, monochromatic architecture for a futuristic feel (though The Kitchen’s exterior is actually the Damiers de Dauphiné in Paris). The film is intentionally dateless but seems close enough to our present to feel uncomfortable. In this future, the wealth gap has become more of a canyon. Utilitarian but luxe private developments dominate the skyline; social housing has been all but eliminated, forcing people onto long waitlists for expensive, cookie-cutter apartments with no alternatives.
Resources are skint in The Kitchen, instead reserved for these wealthy developments, and brutal police raids of this so-called “privately owned property” are constant — all monitored by a fleet of hovering police drones. However, amid its crowded marketplace of neon lights, dining spots, and scaffolding, The Kitchen remains a stronghold of resistance, organically maintaining a sense of humanity, self-expression, and creativity as the rest of the homogenous, sterile city threatens to swallow it whole.
Izi is working hard at a funeral home with the hope of someday getting out of The Kitchen when he meets 12-year-old Benji, who is grieving his mother and scrambling to find a sense of family. In a gentler role than his famed Top Boy run, Robinson imbues Izi with a sense of solitary determination, rattled only by his newfound connection with the stoic but sporadically cheeky Benji, played to perfection by newcomer Bannerman. Robinson and Bannerman’s chemistry develops organically; according to Rolling Stone, the film was shot chronologically, assisting this gradual process, and Kaluuya encouraged as much improvisation in his leads as possible. Sharing the experience of forced independence through circumstance, Benji and Izi develop their bond despite the constant threat of raids and Benji’s gravitation toward a young, more actively political crew led by Stapes (Top Boy‘s Hope Ikpoku Jnr).
The Kitchen realises a dystopian future rooted in reality
Technology in The Kitchen isn’t all hoverboards and the dramatic stuff of sci-fi; it’s more subtly embedded in the city, whether through holographic shop signage, AR barber shop tools, or smart mirrors displaying your emails and health vitals. Blade Runner, this is not. However, like Blade Runner, fancy tech in this future London is used primarily for two things: advertising and oppressive, targeted policing. Police drones careen about the skyline, monitoring the residents of The Kitchen — though they’re no match for Staples’s crew’s slingshot.
Within The Kitchen itself, while technological advancements are woven into the homes and businesses of the residents, it’s the older forms of technology that define the neighbourhood’s sense of community, from an underground roller disco to Lord Kitchener’s vinyl-fuelled pirate radio broadcasts (more on those later). However, unlike in other futuristic dramas, like Ben Wheatley’s 2015 adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise, the members of The Kitchen community don’t tear each other apart — instead, they’re united in their fight to remain in their home, however crumbling it may be.
Notably, unlike the majority of dystopian films, The Kitchen centres the Black experience in near-future times; the predominantly Black neighbourhood of The Kitchen is regularly raided by violent, white police squads who callously drag people from their homes. It’s a rarity for the genre, with only a handful of films like the satirical Sorry to Bother You foregrounding and forecasting future contexts for Black characters that directly stem from our present reality.
The Kitchen is held together by community
Credit: Hugues Lawson-Body / Netflix
Though the core narrative of The Kitchen focuses on Benji’s adolescent grief and Izi’s sudden sense of paternal responsibility, the film is largely an ode to joy and resilience in the face of persistent dehumanisation.
Against the well-funded authorities, the residents of The Kitchen struggle to retain their homes and businesses independent of the city’s corporate overlords. They’re connected daily by the exuberant pirate radio broadcasts of the elusive Lord Kitchener (former Arsenal footballer Ian Wright, in a brilliant role that nods to the Trinidadian calypso legend). He provides crucial neighbourhood updates, birthday messages, news of marriage proposals, and tips on lifted food deliveries, reminding residents to only take what they need and to support each other. “They can’t stop we. They can only stop we if we see we as I,” he preaches over public speakers.
Not just a prominent voice of the community, Lord Kitchener also functions as an omnipresent glue for the film itself, also wielding a mighty vinyl collection to provide The Kitchen‘s diegetic soundtrack. While the streets of London sit in conservative silence, The Kitchen is alive with music — Alhaji K. Frimpong, Fela Kuti, Salvatore Adamo, Champaign, Kofi Nti, Ofori Amponsah, and Barosky boom through the neighbourhood’s old speakers in various scenes thanks to Lord Kitchener’s covetable catalogue. This collective communal defiance through music comes through other scenes too, including a joyous underground roller skating club — a highlight of the film.
In the same sense, collective sound defines danger in The Kitchen. Clanging of pots and pans signifies the coming of police and becomes a chillingly constant presence. Scenes of police brutality tear apart The Kitchen community, as friends, neighbours, mothers, and fathers are treated like nothing. “Remember, they ordered us to leave, and we said, ‘No. This is our home. We ain’t goin’ nowhere,'” Lord Kitchener broadcasts after a raid. “They cut our water, they cut our supplies, and we said, ‘No. Fuck you. We ain’t goin’ nowhere.’ Now, the target is us.”
Tavares and Kaluuya have realised a truly compelling and realistic dystopian film that doesn’t ignore our present, with strong performances and savvy world-building. The Kitchen simultaneously functions as a cautionary tale and a mirror, reflecting London’s history while condemning its gentrified future.
How to watch: The Kitchen premiered at the BFI London Film Festival and is now streaming on Netflix.