Shoot the Messenger: ‘I hear you’re a racist now’.
Despite its topicality, Sharon Foster’s drama Shoot the Messenger, shown on BBC2 (30.08.06), is less Play for Today and more postmodern picaresque. In the first thirty minutes the narrator, Joe, gives up his well-paid job in computers to become the only black teacher in a London school where 70% of the students are black, because he wants to ‘make a difference’. He is falsely accused of assaulting Germal (Charles Mnene), one of his students, before being hounded by the local black community, and found guilty: he loses his job, his flat and his mind. After a spell in an asylum he is on the streets. This whirlwind descent from smug bourgeois to down-and-out is not represented in the style of gritty realism but rather as a surrealistic fable. This is emphasised by the use of direct address to camera, in the tradition of Shakespearean monologue –David Oyelowo who plays Joe is famed for his role as Henry VI – via Malcolm in the Middle. The knowing, ironic asides, raise the question of who Joe is addressing. Is he talking to a black or a white audience? Is it possible to address both at the same time? Are we meant to feel complicit in his often racist diatribes on, for example, the ‘stupidity’ of the names black parents give their children – L’Braia, Kwame? Does Joe, as he insinuates to camera, ‘know what we are thinking’?
The viewer may begin by assuming Joe is a reliable narrator: he is articulate, has a good job, and is highly personable but we realise rapidly that he is paranoid and self-hating. The drama begins with a clip, taken from the scene after Joe’s false accusation, in which he claims: ‘Everything bad that has ever happened to me has involved a black person’. But we are not meant to take this at face value; since his main critique of black people is ‘blame culture’ this is highly ironic. The litany of his complaints, beginning with an incident in a school playground – ‘he was black, she was black’ – makes it clear that it is as irrational for Joe to blame everything on black people as it is to for black people to blame everything on whites. Moreover, Joe admits later: ‘Sometimes I see things that aren’t there’. So our perspective on London is through the highly distorted lens of a racist black man. It is not only the descent into madness but also later events in the play that are highly ambiguous and ironic. On his release from the asylum he is rescued by Mrs. Morton (Tanya Ronder), an Evangelist; he climbs back up the employment ladder and has a relationship with a woman called Heather (Tracey Willis) but his version of these events is not necessarily reliable. This is underlined by his final aside to the audience — ‘I’m not taking back everything’ – an implicit admission that he got some things wrong.
Shoot the Messenger appeared amid a blaze of controversy. The black press condemned the play as a composite of negative stereotypes which showed failing black boys at school, black men in prison, black men in mental asylums, lone black women in church, black single mothers, and black Christians singing the praises of a god who had cursed them for 500 years. Simon Woolley condemned the play as ‘an insult to black Briton’ (Operation Black Vote, 31 August 2006). The media campaign group Ligali called it ‘one of the most sophisticated racist programmes ever to come out of the BBC’. No doubt it was the prospect of ninety minutes of nigger-bashing that led the BNP website to bill it as unmissable.
The drama was championed in the liberal white press, sometimes on the dubious grounds of authentic representation. Sam Wollaston in The Guardian (31.08.06) declared that if it had been the work of a ‘white middle-class girl from Cheltenham’ it might have been questionable but it was ‘so obviously written from the inside, by someone who knows this community’. Although growing up in Hackney, as one of eight children of Jamaican parents, would certainly give Foster insider knowledge, it would not exempt her from the charge of racism. Also, from the controversy over Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, through Hanif Kureishi’s My Beautiful Laundrette, to Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, it has become clear that the ethnicity of the writer is no guarantee that they speak for a community. Communities are made up of individuals who do not necessarily agree with each other; moreover some will object to having their dirty laundry washed in public. Given that the two most recent films to be set in London’s black community, Bullet Boy and Kidulthood, focus on guns, drugs and teenage pregnancy, there is a case to be made about negative representations. Sunny Hundal argued in The Guardian: ‘One only has to follow the storm surrounding BBC2’s Shoot the Messenger to understand that, if a wider range of dramas and news stories centred on black Britons were produced by the corporation, there would not be an issue with this one’ (28.08.06). There were calls for a boycott, although in the event there were no demonstrations outside Bush House.
Interestingly, the film itself contains scenes which anticipate the debate over the issue of representation. When Joe, who has been dishing out extra detentions to black boys as a means of ‘enforced education’, goes on the radio to defend himself, he is easily made out to be a ‘Ku Klux Clan man with a black face’. When he leaves the school, demonstrators hold placards denouncing him as a ‘House Nigger’. His final address to the audience – ‘Don’t like the way I said it? So shoot me’ – is an ironic prediction of the play’s reception and the way Sharon Foster was cast as the BBC’s Uncle Tom.
Even more interestingly, Shoot the Messenger also contains a critique of its own agenda. What connects all of the very different characters in the play is self-hatred. Mrs Morgan, the Christian woman who takes Joe in and cares for him, describes black people as ‘crabs in a barrel’—no need to put a lid on it because they will keep each other down. She tells her grandchildren that ‘anything too black is no good’. Joe’s beautiful and successful girlfriend, Heather, recounts a painful story of a childhood beauty contest in which she was placed last by her own family: ‘Skin too black. Hair too knotty’. Joe confronts what he sees as the symptoms of Heather’s self-hatred by burning her false hair and sweeping her how-to-love-yourself books from the shelves. She leaves him with the poignant rebuke: ‘I don’t feel good about myself when I’m with you’. Similarly, throughout the film Joe is haunted by Germal, who reappears at significant moments. At each point Joe repudiates him and is dismissive of Heather’s suggestion that he could learn from an ignorant youth. It is not until one of the final scenes — in which Joe is a carer and Germal is a patient in the mental hospital — that Joe acknowledges him as his double and embraces him. When Germal says that all the black kids had hated Joe because ‘we was never good enough for you’, Joe realises that his well-intentioned plan to raise educational standards through public humiliation and punishment was counter-productive.
Along with self-hatred, slavery is a central issue. In one of his most savagely ironic asides Joe announces: ‘We should bring back slavery. We were good at that.’ At a Christmas party in an expensive hotel, members of the black bourgeoisie exchange variations on the theme of ‘Jesus was black … We built the pyramids … White people keep us down.’ Joe explodes — ‘We have got to get over slavery!’ – which appalls the others. It is certainly galling that the prevailing rhetoric has gone from ‘Britannia rules the waves’ to ‘we must stop apologizing for the Empire’, without any recognition of the profound and enduring damage that slavery inflicted. But Foster, perhaps, has a point. When James Joyce wrote Dubliners in the early 1900s, Ireland had been subjugated by the English for centuries, making the Irish ‘the slaves of Europe’. Joyce decided to give the Irish ‘one long look at themselves in [his] nicely polished looking glass’ and his collective portrait of Dubliners – the women on their knees, the men drunkenly boasting they would die for Ireland – took years to find a publisher who would dare to take it on. But for Joyce, blaming the English was a self-defeating addiction which, along with Catholicism and alcoholism, kept the Irish in a state of paralysis. Like Shoot the Messenger, which has only bit parts for white actors, Dubliners barely contains an Anglo-Irish character or bothers to mention the English except in passing.
When Joe is sacked he sprays ‘Fuck Black People’ – Foster’s original title — on the school wall. It is sadly all too easy to imagine that BNP supporters will see this as the message of the play, which will be relished all the more because it was written by “one of them”. If the often negative characters and situations in Shoot the Messenger had been represented as straight realism then it might well have appeared racist but the device of the unreliable narrator, the use of doubles and surrealistic effects, make it much harder to pin down. I don’t think this is ‘sophisticated racism’; rather it is a recognition by Sharon Foster and director Ngozi Onwurah that such emotionally complex and politically charged questions cannot be represented simplistically. It is a sophisticated drama about internalised racism, brilliantly performed by the entire cast.
To Cite This Article:
Susie Thomas, ‘Review: Shoot the Messenger’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 4 Number 2 (September 2006). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/september2006/thomas.html. Accessed on [date of access]