Review: Shoot the Messenger

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Shoot the Messenger was on BBC2 last night; it featured David Oyewolo (from the drama Spooks, British slang for spies) as Joe, a young black teacher who entered the profession after attending a meeting to discuss the chronic underachievement of black boys in British schools, at which one lady announced that what was needed was more black male teachers to provide positive role models. The film was no Stand By Me, however; his plans are shredded pretty quickly when he is suspended from his job over a false accusation of assault and ends up in a mental hospital and before long is living rough on the streets. The film was written by Sharon Foster (of Babyfather fame) and was shown at the Tribeca film festival in New York and at the recent Edinburgh festival. At a London venue, however, when the BBC previewed it to a select audience, a black man got up and called it the most racist film the BBC had ever made and that it reminded him of Birth of a Nation (you can read what Foster wrote about that here).

The irony of someone comparing it to Birth of a Nation would be obvious to anyone who saw the behaviour of some of the characters in this film. The protagonist gives up his job as a computer programmer to go into teaching after attending the earlier mentioned meeting. The meeting is largely dominated by people blaming the problem on racism and slavery, until the lady who blamed the lack of role models spoke. When he finally gets into the school, he finds that there are hardly any black teachers in a 70% black school, and that many of the black boys are out of control and given to insolence, violence and anything but schoolwork. He sets about remedying this through “enforced education” in detention classes. Eventually, a school bully named Germal (Charles Mneme) accuses him of assault, a charge dismissed in an internal investigation, but the boy’s mother has him prosecuted, and he is found guilty. He also tries to make his case through an obscure black talk radio station, but is shouted down by the presenter and faces angry demonstrators who call him a racist and a “house nigger” and has a tomato thrown at him.

At this point, Joe loses it, blaming black people for all the trouble he’s ever known in his life. He burns a large chunk of his record collection and is shown going back into school and spraying “f**k black people” on the wall in red paint (interestingly, he never calls black people anything other than black people). His landlord comes to collect the rent, which he doesn’t have; he tells the landlord to tell his mother he’s gone to Australia, and is found a few weeks later cowering in the corner and admitted to a mental unit. After two months there, he goes to a hostel, but leaves when he is refused a dormitory free of other blacks. He then goes out on the streets and begs (but refuses money from black people).

Joe is eventually rescued by an older black woman who belongs to some sort of evangelical church. After initially viewing her with some suspicion, he joins the church and begins to think they are “his sort of black people”. He notices that the church, which in his youth was full, is nowadays mostly attended by women (I noticed that they were mostly older women, and a lot of black churches in London are attended mostly by Africans rather than Afro-Carribeans, something he did not seem to notice). Her family arrive, and he discovers that they have not maintained her uprightness; her daughter has four children with four different fathers and all with silly names. He goes prison visiting with the old lady, meeting mostly black male inmates, and runs out of the visiting room when he sees a man he saw shoot someone dead while he was on the streets. His new-found faith is punctured when the old lady reveals her own suspicion of her own race, reading a passage from the Bible which she believes demonstrates that black people are cursed.

He goes through a series of menial jobs until eventually landing a job with some sort of employment agency. He also takes as his girlfriend the lady who helped him find a job (initially telling her that, instead of spending more than a year in hospital and then on the streets, he was travelling around Europe), and the two of them are able to help each other through some of their problems - hers in particular being a shortage of hair, which she remedies by using human hair extensions, his being his anger at black people (which comes out after he tells her how he sent Germal, who came to him for a job without qualifications after being thrown out of school before his exams, for a job down the Hoxton sewers; you might think it appropriate, given the name Germal). She eventually dumps him after a fight over race at a party, at which he hears a number of the familiar “slavery” arguments, which he notices are deemed a short-cut to winning an argument about the situation of black people today. It finishes with him being punched in the face.

He also either lost or resigned his job, and then goes to work at the mental unit in which he spent two months after his psychotic episode, and comes face to face with Germal yet again. We don’t find out how he got there, but they get talking about why Germal made the false accusation against him. Germal tells him that the black boys disliked him because he was always giving them detentions. Eventually they decide to forgive each other, and at the end of the programme Joe wins the appeal against his assault conviction.

In parts of this film I could see why some people might think it racist, but a lot of the issues raised in those parts are real. The issue of black boys’ behaviour and underachievement is real, as is the likes of the tin-pot radio station on which he appeared, on which the callers were uniformly hostile and the presenter shouted that he was just what “they” wanted: a Ku Klux Klan man with a black skin, before putting on Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. The film was made well before the Birmingham riots of last year, but in those riots the role of black pirate radio stations and their role in inflaming hostility between blacks and Asians was exposed. The man who cried racism at the BBC screening was called a “professional complainer” by what Sharon Foster called “a famous female DJ”; among those making the racism accusations is the Afrocentrist organisation Ligali ([1], [2]), which has among its other controversial positions the notion that calling “Africans” black is itself racist.

It’s possible that the first twenty minutes of this film could have been made by a right-wing white filmmaker trying to do down blacks, but it’s likely that they would have padded it out and made it end with Joe begging on the streets. The rest the film is not relentlessly negative, although there are only two genuine “good eggs” in the whole film: the lady who took him in and his girlfriend. Other than them and Joe, there’s the talk show demagogue, the lynch mob of an audience, the “anti-racist” protesters outside the courthouse (albeit quite a small group of them), the man who calls him a pussy and ruins his cleaning work, the woman who turns up for a job agency interview dressed for “business” with a skirt barely below her waist, and so on. However, it’s not the first time I’ve seen a film in which nearly all the black men are either evil or stupid - this could be said about The Colour Purple as well. But the good people who helped Joe back into reality were both black, and were not cardboard cut-outs obviously intended to push a political point. One of them is a religious older lady, the other a young woman with a mishmash of “spiritual” beliefs trying to do her best. The doctors and nurses at the hospital, for example, never take on a life of their own.

Neither is Joe himself portrayed as the sort of token right-wing black man of which the right-wing media are fond both here and in the USA. The idea that boys need positive male role models does not strike me as a particularly right-wing one, yet when the point was made (by a black man whose name I’ve forgotten) about ten years ago, advancing the idea of men sitting in on lessons where boys are taught by female teachers to show boys that schoolwork is not something only girls should be getting on with, the idea was promoted by one British tabloid as blaming single mothers and female teachers, even though the point was not that such people are bad parents or teachers, but that they cannot break the perception some boys have that work is for sissies.

In fact, Joe is not even much of a hero himself. Others, when rejected the way he was by what looks like a small section of the black community, might have simply gone back to their old computer programming career, which probably made him more money than he ever made teaching. Instead, he focuses all his anger on all black people past and present. In his later jobs, his manner of speaking barely conceals his spite for his clients (which is what motivates him to send Germal down the sewers). He cannot accept that many people don’t want to hear what he has to say, although the documentary does invite us to sympathise with his positions. I heard Foster interviewed by Sean Rowley on the midday show on BBC London yesterday, and she said that the documentary meant to tackle this issue: how we behave when people don’t want to hear what we have to say.

I can’t sympathise with the accusations of “airing dirty washing”, however. Coming from a Muslim perspective in which a lot of our dark secrets are being aired in public, not all of them relevant to the reason we are under scrutiny, the fact of black male underachievement and its results - such as people being shot dead in the streets - is a legitimate target for discussion. Even if discussion takes place in a mostly black forum, such as a black-run website or blog, or in a black newspaper like The Voice, it is open to public viewing and its contents may be linked from a mainstream medium such as a news organisation’s website. Complaint is only valid if the community is portrayed inaccurately in such a way as to give its enemies ammunition for racism or bigotry, which I don’t believe was the case here. Of course, male school underachievement is a problem among whites, as is crime and family and culture degradation, but as Sarfraz Mansoor pointed out in last Sunday’s Observer, there are already more than enough dramas satirising low-class whites. This drama was well-acted, nuanced and balanced, and does not provide ammunition for bigots that they do not already have.

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