Pretty Red Dress
Photograph: BFI
  • Film
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Pretty Red Dress

4 out of 5 stars

Daring to be different, this London gem delivers a tender but hard-hitting exploration of Black masculinity


Time Out says

This hugely promising debut from Londoner Dionne Edwards takes that classic Hollywood garment – the red dress – and turns it from a Technicolor magnet for the male gaze and into a centrepiece for a frank, touching exploration of modern Black masculinity.

Fresh from a stint behind bars, Travis ‘Mad T’s (Natey Jones) appetite for a return to the comforting familiarity of his South London neighbourhood couldn’t be stronger, but as many before him have found out, things are never the same as you left them. His partner Candice’s (one-time The X-Factor winner Alexandra Burke) has West End ambitions – she’s up for the role of Tina Turner in a new musical – and they’ve left her on the cusp of outgrowing her ‘bad boy’ phase. Their teenage daughter Kenisha (Temilola Olatunbosun), meanwhile, has a rebellious streak that has only worsened in his absence. 

Travis scrounges together his earnings from his part-time job to buy Candice a dazzling red dress for her upcoming audition. Chivalry comes in all forms and Pretty Red Dress’s knight in shining armour just happens to wear a Nike hoodie and a battered ankle monitor; a poignant reflection of the film’s unpolished charm. 

Candice’s pursuit of a musical career provides Burke with ample opportunities to showcase her vocal chops, including an electrifying rendition of the late Queen of Rock and Roll’s ‘River Deep, Mountain High’. But it’s in the couple’s Lambeth council flat where the dress comes into its own. With the coast seemingly clear, Travis eyes it like a child about to stick his fingers in cake batter, before finally caving to his curiosity and trying it on. Jones quietly lets the ex-con’s battle-hardened exterior give way to the sensual comfort of a backless dress and waxy lipstick. Inevitably, this moment of bliss is short-lived – Candice catches him red-handed (and lipped), leading to bemusement, unconvincing alibis and a sense of betrayal. 

It’s about daring to be different, but mostly just yearning to be understood

Travis insists that he’s ‘not gay’ but the precise words to articulate his sexual exploration are elusive. ‘I don’t know what’s going on. I just like being pretty sometimes,’ he says in a vulnerable conversation with his daughter (who is also experiencing her own identity struggles). Writer-director Edwards refuses to spoon feed her audience, instead allowing viewers to experience Travis’s every jolting, ill-defined emotion. His proclivity for mascara doesn’t detract from his explosive menace or his devotion to his family – and why should it?

Warm, self-assured and free-flowing, Pretty Red Dress is the long overdue expansion of Black masculinity that the big screen has been crying out for. It’s about daring to be different, but mostly just yearning to be understood.

In UK cinemas Jun 16

Cast and crew

  • Director:Dionne Edwards
  • Screenwriter:Dionne Edwards
  • Cast:
    • Temilola Olatunbosun
    • Natey Jones
    • Alexandra Burke
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