Did we like it?
This feature-length drama has been branded as the BBC’s “most sophisticated racist film in history.” Indeed, this was never an easy programme to watch and lead character Joe was a self-hating racist black character. Yet dramas such as these are few and far between – dramas that provoke debate and that are uncomfortable to watch. It was also a first class piece of writing, the acting was uniformly excellent and the direction innovative.
What was good about it?
• Briefly, the story concerned a young middle-class black professional, Joe, portrayed by David Oyelowo, who is kicked out of teaching for allegedly assaulting one of the black pupils, Jamal (Charles Mnene). Joe’s anger at the injustice is intensified by the fact that he left a good job in computing to try to become a role model to young black boys. His anger turns to madness, which leads to homelessness. He is rescued eventually by a Christian black woman who aids him as he re-builds his life, only for it to slowly crumble again as his hatred of his own race takes over his life. Not exactly an easy set of issues to tackle, so this in itself was a great feat by the writer, Sharon Foster.
• Despite the fact that it has been labelled as a racist film, the drama actually effectively challenged the prejudices of the viewer, forcing us to confront our own pre-conceived ideas and measure them against the often offensive beliefs held by Joe.
• All of the main characters, Joe, Germal, Heather and Mabel were superbly acted with almost frightening realism.
• The film has been criticised for being full of negative stereotypes. Yet this seems to ignore many positive points. Joe’s girlfriend Heather was a sympathetic, intelligent character. Mabel, whose religious zeal and bottomless pit of love helped salvage Joe’s life, was a positive character. All of the four back kids that featured at Joe’s school had positive points – one was clearly a dedicated pupil, another wanted to be a dedicated pupil, while Germal at least achieved some kind of redemption. In fact, the vast majority of black characters in the film were highly likeable characters. The film was courageous enough to admit that there are problems in the black community, and perhaps with young black boys in particular. Is there any sense in denying that? Of course, all communities have problems – but that wasn’t the subject of this particular film.
• The device of having Joe speak to the camera was effective. Sometimes this can be seen as a little lazy, but it was probably needed in a screenplay like this and Oyelowo’s internal thoughts that we heard were constantly enlightening. There was also a dark pay-off to all of this when he said, in front of some black acquaintances, “We must get over the slavery thing,” before looking at the camera and asking if he had said it out loud. He had, and was punched.
What was bad about it?
• The scene at the radio station where Joe tried to present his side of the story was one scene that seemed a little over the top, particularly Richard Blackwood’s comment at the end that both guys were great because of the argument.
• At the end, when Joe put together several happenings in his mind that finally showed him his own prejudice and his misguided, arrogant attempts to help others, we were treated to a series of flashbacks. A minor criticism, this, but hopefully most viewers would have been ticking off Joe’s errors (humiliating Germal in class, trying to force self-esteem on to Heather and so forth) as the drama progresses, and these flashbacks seemed a little unnecessary – more credit could have been given to the audience.