A young Black woman is on the phone to her friend, tears running down her face. The housing office won’t help with the rent on her London flat and she’s at the end of her tether. “They look at you like you’re worthless,” Cheryl says. “I shouldn’t be where I am now. I want more.” On the TV, an ad plays – a perfect family, living a perfect suburban life. “We’re dealt the hand we’re dealt,” her friend replies. Cheryl hangs up and closes the front door behind her. What if you could cut off that hand? What would be the price to pay? That’s the dilemma at the heart of writer-director Nathaniel Martello-White’s The Strays.
You might recognise Martello-White from acting roles in Billie Piper’s I Hate Suzie and Steve McQueen’s Small Axe: Mangrove. But it’s as a socially conscious horror auteur that he’s starting to really make waves. His 2017 short film Ca’am is a funny and cutting take on gentrification, and now Netflix has given him a “big swing” at his debut feature.
The Strays is an unnerving suburban horror, with shades of Jordan Peele and Ari Aster. It picks away at the intersecting issues around race and class in the UK, and examines the psychological toll of ‘code-switching’ – or the ways members of underrepresented groups adjust the way they speak, behave and look, to fit in with the dominant culture.
“Code-switching is something that a lot of Black people don’t even realise they’re doing,” Martello-White tells The Big Issue. “It has just become a sort of subconscious survival mechanism.”
The next time we see Cheryl, she’s no longer Cheryl. She’s Neve, an upper-middle-class mother of two and deputy headmistress at a posh school, living in an idyllic country town with her white husband. On the surface, she’s stepped out of her old life and into that telly. Wearing pastel shades and pearls, natural hair hidden under a wig, the code-switch is complete.
“In the context of the Black space, I was really interested in – if a woman really self-styled herself on those people in that suburb, what would be the cost? And how much effort would that take?” says Martello-White.
“Once she makes that code-switch, we understand that to operate in that class, you really do have to become one of them. Otherwise, you can’t really exist in that space. There are ideals, there are etiquettes, there are things that they do that she has to adhere to. And even then, she has to deal with the microaggressions or racist moments.”
But it’s not just fellow yummy mummies getting in a sly dig by saying she’s “practically one of us”. There are other hints that Neve cannot truly conform, clues that she’s still haunted by her past. Those wigs are itching. And as shadowy figures show up on the edge of her life, inveigling their way closer, everything begins to unravel.
Horror fans will recognise the sensation that follows. It’s the moment when Rosemary realises who’s the father of her baby. The final assassination at the end of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. The nosebleed as a mysteriously altered friend tells Daniel Kaluuya’s character to “Get Out!” in Jordan Peele’s masterpiece. Or – again from Peele – the identical family on the driveway in Us.
These are the cinematic moments that pierce our comfortable world. The great horror auteurs have always used them to attack injustice – and The Strays firmly ensconces Nathaniel Martello-White in that lineage. What Peele does to the American Dream, he’s doing for the Black British experience.
“I think there is a British dream,” Martello-White argues. “It’s almost like this insidious thing nobody really talks about, but it’s like: do you own your home? Do your kids go to a good school? Did you get any inheritance? Are there books in the house? Did your family go to the theatre? Is culture part of your formative experience?”
Nathaniel Martello-White grew up in a “strong, matriarchal family” in Brixton Hill, south London. He describes his home as a cultured environment, but creativity and sensitivity were not accepted for the boys at his state comprehensive school. The dissonance shaped the artist he’d become.
“Growing up in that hypermasculine environment, you are weirdly developing your inner writer,” he remembers. “Suddenly, you’ve got this conflict. And then you think, I want to put that down on paper.”
When Martello-White won a place at prestigious drama school RADA, he could fully devote himself to creativity – but still he didn’t really fit in. “It was in so many ways incredible, because I was exposed to all these incredible plays and different people,” he says. “But on the flip side, it was a culture shock. I think RADA has much improved and evolved as an institution, but when I was there, it was very hard to feel like you could be authentically yourself.
“When you’re a south London kid and you suddenly find yourself mostly with people who have been to Eton or Harrow, or even have come from Cambridge and Oxford, you learn a lot about yourself.”
It’s not hard to see why that kid, used to both fitting in to the hypermasculine environment of an inner-city school and to the rarefied world of RADA, would later be interested in the implications of code-switching. Even now, Martello-White says he’s aware of how he’ll be viewed if he goes out in a hoodie at night, and takes steps to make himself seem “non-threatening”.
The Strays is a chance to process his experiences as a Black man in Britain. But that didn’t stop people suggesting that it would be easier to get it made in the States.
“I met with a producer once just for coffee,” Martello-White recalls. “And he was like, you should just relocate that to America. And I was like, ‘Well, sure, we could relocate it to America. But that’s not the point. The point is, these are British issues.’ Maybe it’s good for America to realise we also have this complicated society with these different layers to it.”
Nathaniel Martello-White held his ground, but why use horror tropes to get those ideas out there?
“They stop you being sentimental,” he says. “They stopped me falling into that trap of pathos. When you’re tackling an issue, that’s the one area you don’t want to fall into, because then everybody just feels like they’re being preached at. There’s just something really honest about horror. Because it’s thrilling. It’s directly affecting you; it’s making you feel something – and those are things I think a movie should do.”
The Strays, directed by Nathaniel Martello-White, is in select cinemas from February 17, and on Netflix from February 22.