Shoot The Messenger: the message is wrong
Date: Tuesday, September 05 @ 19:20:16 UTC
Topic: Black and White

The BBC2 drama Shoot the Messenger was a monumental disservice to the African-Caribbean community, says Gary McFarlane

"Everything bad that has ever happened to me has involved a black person." So says Joe, the central character, espousing the recurring theme in Sharon Foster's Shoot the Messenger which went out last week on BBC2.

Foster's 90-minute diatribe does indeed have a message, and it's one that should be shot down in flames. It is that black people themselves are to blame for the problems of racial discrimination they face.

This is a film that dresses up half truths as serious political and social analysis.

Although a story does not have to be anchored in reality to succeed, this is so far removed that it becomes boring as drama and irritating and offensive as social comment. Every subject Foster touches (she was one of the writers of the appalling Babyfather) she distorts through a prism of middle class prejudice.

So it's all here - black men don't bring up their kids, black people always try to bring down anyone who succeeds, black people are always blaming slavery and racism instead of looking at the faults inside their own community, black kids aren't interested in education - you get the picture.

But in truth black people are more likely to applaud anyone who succeeds in this racist society than they are to run them down. Black kids, far from despising the few black teachers that might be in a school, are more likely to hold them in high esteem and to look to them for guidance and help.

Many of the issues Foster identifies as "black problems", such as academic success being seen as uncool, are in fact wider class issues, which in the case of black people are amplified by the added burden of living in a racist society.

Joe works in computing but decides to become a teacher, the only black teacher in a school with a large number of black kids. He is a disciplinarian who comes to be hated by the black kids.

Gemal, who Joe humiliates in front of the class as an academic failure, gets his own back by falsely accusing him of assault.

Bizzarely, Joe becomes the subject of a campaign against "racism" launched in defence of Gemal and against the black teacher!

Greeted by angry protesters outside the hearing at which he is found guilty, Joe begins his descent into madness.

That's right, it's not a racist society that consigns disproportionate numbers of black people to mental institutions but the misguided actions of black community activists.

Eventually Joe is rescued from a life on the streets by a black church, and by a particular backward parishioner who is happy to repeat racist interpretations of the Bible. To be fair even Joe finds this a bit much, but only a bit.

There is of course a grain of truth in all this unrelenting negativity - that there is no automatic unity of the oppressed. Black landlords, for example, exploited early migrants to Britain. There is a class divide in the black community, like in all others.

But the fact that the tittle-tattle and drivel this drama represents has been greeted positively by mainstream (white middle class) critics speaks volumes.

At the preview screening in the West End some months ago the largely black audience greeted it with howls of derision. Many in the black artistic community, and beyond, took a conscious decision not to watch it.

They are asking why this prejudice masquerading as social comment was commissioned in the first place, especially when there is so much talent out there, and real untold stories to tell about the black experience.

Well, when you have black "leaders" like New Labour apologist David Lammy writing that the "inner city is a state of mind", or Trevor Phillips telling us the Notting Hill Carnival has nothing to do with promoting multiculturalism, you begin to see how the confusion of some in the black community can lead them to sleepwalk straight into the arms of New Labour's anti-working class (black and white) politics.

I spoke to BBC Newsnight Review critic Bonnie Greer - whose recent hit play Ella, Meet Marilyn tells the true story of how Monroe helped break the colour bar for Ella Fitzgerald - for her take on the show.

"They could never get away with doing this in America, there would be riots in the streets," she told me.

Her play has a line in it where Ella explains that the only time black people could get work was when Porgy and Bess and Showboat came to town. "Thank god those days are over," she exclaims. That was in 1955.

But wait a minute - Porgy and Bess and Showboat will both be opening in London shortly. That about sums up the artistic establishment in this country. Shoot the Messenger is a monumental disservice to the African-Caribbean community.

Sure, it can be viewed as satire with Joe as some kind of devil's advocate, but by the end of the film he affirms that everything he said was basically about right - which presumably includes the little nuggets like "we were more productive under slavery".

One black media monitoring group has launched a licence fee boycott. After trying to rewatch the film before writing this article, I have to say I'm inclined to agree with them, despite the fact the screenplay was written by a black woman and features a great black cast.

And to compound it all there are, predictably, no solutions on offer from Foster.

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