The BBC’s programme Shoot the Messenger caused a bit of a furore. When I sat down to watch it I was already aware that its working title had been Fuck Black People. To say the least I felt somewhat uncomfortable, not least because this a story about a black IT worker whose idealism leads him to become a teacher — which is also a remarkably accurate description of me (though my idealism is of a different brand). Although I didn’t get to relax during the course of the programme, the nature of my discomfort changed.
Criticism of Shoot the Messenger came from quarters to whom, at least on issues of black oppression and racism, we would normally be sympathetic. Ligali, a campaign group that challenges the misrepresentation of black African people in the British media, has described it “one of the most sophisticated racist programmes ever to come out of the BBC”, while a review in Socialist Worker argues that the programme’s message is that “black people themselves are to blame for the problems of racial discrimination they face”. I don’t agree.
The film, written by Sharon Foster, the child of Jamaican immigrants from Hackney, follows a man called Joe, played by David Oyelowo, who decides to become a teacher to help tackle black boys’ educational under-achievement when he hears someone say that “what we [black people in Britain] need is positive role models”. However, his confrontations with rebellious black male students lead to one of them, Germal, accusing him of assault and his dismissal from his new profession.
A pariah to misguided black activists, Joe gradually descends into madness, part of which is (self-)hatred of black people. (“Fuck black people” is what he scrawls on the wall of the school as he leaves.) Shoot the Messenger follows him onto the streets and through his attempts to put his life back together.
In the course of all this, we encounter a variety of black people who are, as the critics say, stereotypes. Black-on-black gun crime, educational under-achievement, pregnant teenage girls seen as lazy and promiscuous, absent fathers, mothers who have multiple children with different fathers... This is indeed an orgy of negative stereo-typing.
However, Joe is not presented in positive terms either. He is irrational and self-righteous, an anti-hero rather than a hero. Moreover, it is clear from the start that the incident in the school was provoked by his draconian, undemocratic attitude to his students. Germal is a figure haunts him throughout the film and at the end explains how it was his authoritarianism in the classroom, his lack of faith in those he was teaching, that led to his downfall. One of the most telling bits is the last ten minutes, when Joe has to admit that he was the greatest cause of his own troubles.
When Socialist Worker’s reviewer Gary McFarlane writes that “by the end of the film he affirms that everything he said was basically about right”, I’m honestly not sure what he means.
The film is uncomfortable, painful even, because it deals with problems that do exist in real life. They exist in all sections of the working class, not just the black communities. White working-class people face negative media portrayals every day, but this does not mean that every portrayal of the problems that exist in white working-class communities is anti-working class. Shameless is not the same as the “anti-Chav” bile of the right-wing press.
Sharon Foster has been quoted as saying that the purpose of Shoot the Messenger is to start an “honest debate” about the failures of black people to succeed in society. Now obviously we would not pose the debate in these terms. The society in which black people disproportionately “fail” is a racist capitalist society, and this programme does not offer any positive alternative or solutions.
Equally, it does insist that a victim mentality is not the solution, and begins to explore the fact that black communities are not monolithic oppressed blocs, but divided by all sorts of differences. For instance, it raises the issue of colour prejudice within black communities, something which in some ways functions similarly to the South Asian caste system and further divides the working class and the victims of oppression.
Refusing to even think about these issues is to “shoot the messenger” before reading the message. More, not less, debate is necessary if we are going to gain an audience for positive socialist solutions to the problems Shoot the Messenger raises.
• Shoot the Messenger was shown on BBC 2 on 30 August.