A well-made, often moving, fictionalisation of the story of Britain’s first black footballer, who was killed in action in World War One. However, with little known about Walter Tull’s actual life, it was impossible to gauge how much of the play was fact, how much was guesswork and how much was dramatic licence, which left a gnawing cavity at the core of your enjoyment. Still, better that than to have not made it at all.
What was good about it?
• OT Fagbenle as Walter gave a sympathetic performance, sporadically drawing on a facial expression to convey the frustration of the suffocating bigotry in the army training camp from the officers and fellow cadets, or the impetuous rush of blood of romancing the relatively open-minded Cassie.
• But the saddest moment came at the very end, as Walter lay mortally wounded in No Man’s Land at the Somme, and a look of puzzlement crept across his failing features, as if he like millions of other young men from both sides were destined for something so much greater than this senseless slaughter.
• Although evidently on a tight budget, the war scenes were effective. Perhaps it’s just the bristling discomfort of World War One, but it is an epoch forever associated with the muddy trench and young soldiers with a doomed look in their eyes, and that’s pretty much how it was painted here, with a German machine gun nest or two to embitter the flavour.
• While we’re unsure of the veracity, the world imagined by Kwame Kwei-Armah was at least plausible – Walter was initially spurned in his quest to ascend the ranks, being informed that “officers must be of pure European descent”, which appeared to be the officer class masking their bigotry with the dubious practicality that soldiers wouldn’t follow “a negro officer” into battle – similar risible ruses are used today to impede or prohibit women and gay people enlisting. Of course, at the end Walter was seen leading his troops over the top, and whether this was a romanticised view or not it was still a worthy conclusion to his struggle, even if it did end with his abrupt death moments later.
• The supporting cast were barely wisps of people, ciphers acting instead as various elements of Tull’s personality or the world surrounding him; but this was all they really needed to be. Eddie, his brother, was his common sense and Connie his cautious sense of belonging in Britain as he had found acceptance and affection with a white woman. Meanwhile, his fellow cadets were emblematic of racist snobbery, the stark pragmatism of the resistance to Tull in the ranks and an incompetent comrade whom Tull frequently helped out, and who became the nearest thing he had to a friend.
What was bad about it?
• Because Fagbenle gave such a sympathetic performance, the endless monochrome flashbacks during his officer training to his combat experiences that had left him with shellshock were superfluous. After the first instance when we saw Walter recoil as he recalled the death of his officer and the horrors of the trenches, simply the expression on his face would have been enough to tell the viewer what he was going through.
• At the beginning, we were told that because there was so little definitive chronology of Walter Tull’s life, the drama would be a work of fiction. This was an albeit unavoidable shame as it meant the way in which Walter overcame the obstacles placed before him by his own side were sketched with the substance of a nebulous chimera – we asked ourselves if was Walter really so persecuted by his peers, while the way in which he surmounted the challenges was tainted by theatrical increments, first he befriended a woman, then he won over the other cadets, and then he achieved his goal.
• All of these are fine dramatic precepts, but when inserted into a biography it didn’t ring true – it did however make the powerful conclusion all the more startling, as Walter’s triumph at the academy led directly to his early demise in life.
• The lack of facts in the script also waterlogged the most interesting aspect of Walter’s life – what had driven him to fight for his country? He told his brother Eddie that he wanted to reach a height that no other man of his colour had accomplished. But was this Kwei-Armah’s interpretation or Tull’s own testimony? And this subject was barely touched on again, and its tentative treatment led us to think that it might be the author’s own vision for Tull, which may have been the truth or not.