Newly BAFTA-Nominated Bukky Bakray On Being An Unapologetic Black Girl
The breakout star of Rocks is taking the industry by storm. EE Rising Star nominee Bukky Bakray is Britain’s next big thing.
"If you had told Bukky back in the day that this was going to be your life, I definitely would've slapped you."
Last year, 18-year-old Bukky Bakray from east London starred in Rocks, a coming-of-age film from Sarah Gavron (Suffragette) which took the industry by storm for its authentic depiction of Black and brown girls growing up in inner-city London. Rocks took us on a magnetic journey through survival, friendship and trauma set against the contrasting backdrop of London skyscrapers and tower blocks.
I meet Bukky over Zoom at the end of February. She's zipped up in a black hoodie, soaking up the sun from her bedroom window in east London during the UK's third lockdown. "The last lockdown I was a champion, running every day. Then the second one slapped me in the face, I was so lazy. But I'm blessed, I'm happy and healthy. The recent weather has been really beautiful, I've been lacking in vitamin D."
Bukky's performance as 15-year-old Jamaican-Nigerian Olushola — nicknamed "Rocks" — earned her the Young British/Irish Performer of the Year honour at last month's London Critics' Circle Film Awards and she has been longlisted for the BAFTA Award for Leading Actress. Other names on that list include Kate Winslet, Viola Davis and Carey Mulligan.
And today it is announced that Bukky has also been nominated for BAFTA's public-voted EE Rising Star Award alongside Kingsley Ben-Adir, Morfydd Clark, Conrad Khan and Ṣọpé Dìrísù. Previous winners include Letitia Wright and Daniel Kaluuya. "I can't articulate the feeling because I've never felt like this before," she tells me. "I guess I just feel blessed but blessed doesn't cut it, I feel lifted."
Her agent told her the news while she was in a cab, returning home from a COVID test. "I was like, 'What are you lot saying?' I was flabbergasted and shocked. That feeling is crazy. I'm gassed about the awards but I'm not fussed about it because I know who has won it previously and has been nominated in the past. That feeling of being on the same pedestal as Letitia Wright is crazy."
Bukky had no professional acting training before being cast in Rocks; she was plucked out of a number of girls Gavron discovered in an east London girls' school. "I thought about acting once when I was really young but I just typed in 'how to be an actor' and it's like typing 'how to be an astronaut'," she says. "It's one of those careers that is so out of reach. Just seeing white people everywhere is one of the things that I'm facing in my head right now because I don't look like an actor."
Despite feeling nervous on set – "It was like being naked in front of everyone" – Bukky was a natural. Towards the end of the film there's a hard-to-watch scene when Rocks breaks down as her brother Emmanuel (D'angelou Osei Kissiedu) is taken into care. Screenwriter Theresa Ikoko told her it was her "Viola Davis moment".
Although Bukky has found her passion in acting, she's acutely aware of the glass ceiling for Black and brown women in the industry. "There are so many barriers of entry for Black British women, especially when you don't fit into the ideal. I try not to think about it and try to focus on the performance element because essentially that's all that matters," she says. "You train and you try to be a good person and a good performer and you read and listen to people but in this world that we live in, that's not enough."
It's startling to hear someone so early in her career talk so bluntly about where she feels she fits or doesn't fit in the industry as a Black woman. "This is what I mean about not being in love with the industry because it's not really going to love me," she says. "It's not going to love these Black women that I have met who are outstanding. They [the industry] really do pick what they want to pick, and I want to be picked. I don't want to be picked last on the sports team. I want to be captain because I'm not just doing it for me but for people around me."
Bukky kisses her teeth and cites Michaela Coel's recent Golden Globes snub as a harsh reminder that Black women aren't appreciated. "I always say Black women are my livelihood but if you ask me who my favourites are, I don't know. Obviously Letitia Wright is up there. I know a lot of Black British women who are absolutely amazing and I've had conversations with them, but I wonder, How does the rest of the world not care for you? Knowing you were supposed to win doesn't cut it anymore, we've been knowing what we deserve."
She is reminded of another conversation she had with Ikoko. "She told me to not make acting the love of your life because it's the only thing that is never going to love you back fully," she says. "It is the love of my life but I know that unrequited love is heavy, boy. It's heavy."
The impact of Bukky's role in Rocks has been relatively positive for young Black and brown girls, who are so rarely depicted in British cinema. Some have reached out to Bukky on social media to thank her. "I can't believe it, I'm like, to me? Really? But then I'm always going to have imposter syndrome," she laughs.
"Being an influence on young Black and brown girls, it's insane to me," she continues. In an acting class (after filming Rocks), another student told her that big Black girls could never be leads, only secondary characters. "I was like, 'Baby girl, it's happened'. So I guess to be that reference for anyone is amazing."
Bukky wants to continue along that path. In many ways, Rocks felt like a personal project and unlike the normal industry experience because "the dynamic between the cast was such a nice relationship, everyone was so giving and receiving, and everything flowed on set," and she's excited to work on more meaningful feature films that show range in Black women. "I want to dive into narratives that people don't see people like me [in]," she says. "I love receiving a script and seeing that it has been written for someone else so I can show the directors that I can do this."
She continues: "I recently was shown a script in which the character was super skinny and that is not me. I ended up getting that role and I felt really proud of myself because I was able to change the writer's mind of how they viewed the character. That's what I want to do."
Bukky adds that acting is a form of escapism for her. "We all want to be that Black girl who is unapologetic but it's hard when you lack confidence. Acting allows you to do that." That doesn't mean she wants to do everything, just for the sake of it. "Not everything is for you. You have to allow people who are meant to tell these stories to tell these stories."
She's a huge fan of the show Insecure and wants to star in a UK version. "We need one. It would be so crazy. I cried at the end of Insecure because I relate to Issa Rae. I'm also an awkward Black girl," she laughs. "I watched it in quarantine and it was like living my life through her screen. Yes, I'm team Issa. Sorry, but Lawrence was a bum. There's a difference between being a bum and trying, and he wasn't trying at the start."
Like everyone else who watched the finale of season 4, Bukky wanted Issa to have a happy ending. "I wanted her and Lawrence to get back together or [for her] to get back with Nathan. I wanted her to have a wedding and the family. But it's not going to happen in the final season," she sighs. "And Molly? I don't know how she messed it up with Asian Bae."
But it's Barry Jenkins who is top of Bukky's list of directors to work with in the future. "He was the first time I ever saw someone really focus on human beings, he's really obsessed with the human condition and what makes a body," she says, giddily. "When I watched Moonlight for the first time, I saw Black people well-lit, he paid attention to the colours and palette, and his attention to detail is insane. His work is like a painting."
Bukky is hugely passionate about art as a subject. "I started painting and art is one of the only things I was good at in school. I try to paint here and there and I sketch using pencils but because I do it in school, it's not really as fun as it used to be. I'm looking forward to finishing school and being able to paint for leisure and pleasure," she says.
While she waits to finish her final year of sixth form, the future is looking bright. Bukky is booked and busy filming for the rest of 2021, including feature films which are yet to be announced. What kind of roles would she like to go for in future? "I would really love to play a lawyer or something," she says. "I want to be able to tell stories and tell important stories [about people] who are, again, heightened bits of myself. I'm excited for my body to pick its roles in the room it ends up in."
During lockdown she has watched The Last Black Man In San Francisco and Judas and the Black Messiah for inspiration and binged The Wire ("I had time"). She also read bell hooks' All About Love. "I'm hooked on bell hooks," she laughs. "Although I wish it didn't have that title because I think the word love has been diluted nowadays. I really respect bell hooks' writing, it's inclusive. She talks about feminist theory that is so palatable and would make even a non-reader feel empowered."
"The book made me look at feminism differently because in school I saw different feminism. I was marginal, the only Black girl in some of my classes. And while I loved my friends at school, I couldn't see feminism through their gaze. I couldn't identify. There are so many layers to intersectional feminism, which is why it's so important for me to learn about it because if I lived my life from only what I see, it would be a disservice to myself and other human beings around me." Bukky has contributed an essay to gal-dem's Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff's Black Joy, a collection of writing on race and belonging which is being published in September.
For the remainder of lockdown you'll catch Bukky listening to Lauryn Hill's The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill Unplugged, André 3000 ("his pen is crazy"), D'Angelo and Sade, as well as learning to play the guitar and piano. She's always wanted to write songs for others but doesn't believe it will happen in this lifetime. "It's not about not believing in my sauce; the industry has no respect for women so I can't be arsed. I like to be behind the scenes, I just want to have a friend who is a musician so I can be in the studio, I'd have the best time."
Like everyone else in England, Bukky is excited for 21st June to arrive. "Me and my friends are gonna link up. The link-up is due. I just want to chill outside for a long time." If there's one thing Bukky truly understands, it's the power of being humble. Even at such an early stage in her career, she's hopeful that her position in the industry will help others to believe that they too can be successful. But she won't let her achievements go to her head. "A BAFTA doesn't make you a good person," she tells me. "How I treat people around me matters, how I treat my brothers and my parents matter, the people I work with, how they see me is the most important thing."
"At the end of the day, when most people ask for advice, they know what they want to hear but they need to hear it for a second time. Listen to your own advice and believe in what you preach because you're preaching the good news."
Public voting for the EE Rising Star Award is now open at ee.co.uk/BAFTA and the winner will be announced at the EE British Academy Film Awards on Sunday 11th April 2021.