It’s been described as a “British Get Out” and compared to the grueling nihilism of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games – but Nathaniel Martello-White’s directorial debut The Strays is a much more complicated, unpredictable movie.
Arriving on Netflix this week, The Strays tells the story of Neve (Ashley Madekwe), an upper middle-class woman of mixed-race heritage who has a perfectly constructed personal and professional life.
But that all changes following the sudden arrival of Marvin (Jorden Myrie) and Abigail (Bukky Bakray), who start integrating themselves into her world.
From the outside, it looks like Neve is pushing away the only two Black people outside of her family in the predominantly white Wiltshire neighbourhood – but the truth turns out to be a lot darker.
The film is a rollercoaster ride of twists and turns, seamlessly blending social satire with psychological thriller, so you will be surprised to discover the character of Neve is very loosely inspired by someone the director’s mother knew in real life.
“When I was younger, my mum told me a story about another parent she knew, a white-passing biracial woman, who’d had kids with a white man with very fair skin”, he explained to Zavvi.
“She was asked if these were her only two children, and she said yes – but my mum knew this wasn’t true, she’d had two children who were Black from a previous marriage.
“This really upset my mother hearing this, and I found it shocking to hear, but it was also really fascinating that this woman was essentially living a double life.
“I started digging into that and began thinking about how this led to generational trauma, how events would lead to someone lying about their past – and that opened up everything, suddenly the idea for this movie was born.”
Speaking about The Strays whilst avoiding spoilers is a near-impossible task, with the script constantly revealing new layers to the identities of the characters and subverting our sympathies towards them at every turn.
Martello-White was inspired by twisty thrillers such as The Hand That Rocks The Cradle and David Cronenberg’s A History Of Violence, “psychodramas about white-picket fence communities where one dark secret causes one perfect person to unravel completely”.
It’s a genre we tend to see come from Hollywood than the UK, which is largely why the writer/director thinks it was greenlit by the streaming service giant:
“Like me, I think they wondered ‘why doesn’t the UK make movies like this?’ Translating this genre to English suburbia, with all the complexities that come with Black Britishness, makes it so much more exciting to me.”
The director believes this setting helps heighten the paranoia, playing with the expectations that come with “placing two Black outsiders in white suburbia”.
“Sometimes, when you go to these suburbs were there aren’t many other Black people, you can feel a sense of danger just walking down the street or doing something completely mundane”, the director explained.
“And that’s where I wanted to start with those two characters – all they’re doing is existing in this space and we can see that’s unnerving for Neve.
“The way we dig into that and discover that these are two lost children, is almost like a fairytale in a way. There’s something very Hansel And Gretel about it.”
Madekwe, who stars as Neve, was fascinated by the character from the moment she read the script. As she explained to Zavvi: “I’m a person of mixed-race heritage, so I’m always fascinated by the exploration of identity and the themes surrounding that, especially when it’s through such a challenging character.
“I think you’ve always got to back the character you’re playing and stand by their choices to make your performance believable.
“So, whilst outwardly looking in I don’t think Neve is particularly sympathetic, I still think she has her motivations – I just think she could have probably handled everything in her life a bit differently!”
Her co-star Myrie had an even bigger challenge, playing seemingly sympathetic newcomer Marvin who reveals a sinister edge as the story proceeds.
This was the first time the actor, the nephew of BBC News host Clive Myrie, had been given the opportunity to play a menacing figure, something which he had great fun with.
“I’m quite biased towards him: I see the pain in him and know what makes him tick. I’m on his team, but I don’t agree with almost anything that he does!
“He’s different to who I am, which is a great challenge. For certain scenes, it was a struggle to get into his headspace – I was on set, listening to the Halloween theme tune in my headphones, trying to unleash my menacing vibe.”
That a film led by a wealth of Black British talent is launching on Netflix the same week the BAFTAs awarded an all-white list of winners shouldn’t go unnoticed.
For Madekwe, a previous BAFTA nominee for her supporting turn in social realist drama County Lines, the fact that Britain is still producing challenging works like The Strays is a sign that the film industry isn’t taking a step back, despite the lack of diversity amongst its top award winners.
“I don’t want to speak for every person of colour, but I think that as a community, we’re not interested in being nominated and winning awards simply because of the colour of our skin.
“It all starts with the material that’s out there – and I don’t want to undermine the fact that we still had historic nominations this year, like Michelle Yeoh (for Everything Everywhere All At Once), so fantastic performances are still being recognised.”
With The Strays likely to start conversations this week, all eyes will be on what Martello-White will make next.
The answer is a series adaptation of his 2012 play Blackta, previously in the works at HBO, which he hopes will be the “British Atlanta”, Donald Glover’s surreal comedy series about the hip-hop world.
The satirical play follows a group of friends as they audition for the single Black role in a major production, seeing the fallout in their relationships as they all chase the same goal.
“I think it’s unlike anything we’ve seen in Britain. I wrote the play in 2010, so it feels strange to call it the ‘British Atlanta‘ when that series came afterwards – but a satire about these industry guys falling into a Mulholland Drive-esque place naturally invites those comparisons!”
Whether you love or hate The Strays – and trust us, it’s bound to provoke reactions – you’ll be excited to see where the filmmaker goes next.