On the surface, Shoot the Messenger (initially titled F*ck black people) is the tale of one man's journey to blame an entire community for his misfortunes following the misguided actions of a few. Beneath the surface of this superficial evaluation lies the compromised motivation of both the author, Sharon Foster and lead actor, David Oyelowo which reveals that the purpose of the comedy drama is to characterise the African British community as apathetic, steeped in a blame culture and whose only method of empowerment is to play the ‘race card’ and attribute all their social and political problems to British slavery.
Fuck white people.
Whenever I think about it, everything bad that has ever happened to me has involved a ‘white’ person.
White people are rapists. Six in ten men have confessed that they would rape if they could get away with it.
White people make up 95% of the world’s serial killers.
White people continue to murder young African people simply because they are African.
White police continue to kill and abuse African people in custody… and get away with it.
White people run paedophile rings some of which have formed ‘aid’ organisations that work in Africa and Asia where they bribe the children with food for sex.
White people are terrorists who freely kill and maim people they don’t like… and they get away with it.
White people continue to exploit Africa, her resources and her people through corporate and politically enabled theft masquerading as ‘investment’ and ‘aid’.
White people have a serious problem with a rampant drink, drug and hooligan culture that afflicts many of their young people.
White people enjoyed and revelled in the physical and mental abuse of African people for centuries as they enslaved millions of African people for the economic gain of their respective nations. They consequently refuse to talk about this era of history let alone apologise and reparate for it.
White people kill fellow white people all the time in ‘white on white’ crime.
White people are uneducated and learn about politics by simply regurgitating tabloid headlines to each other.
White people are obsessed with the culture of ‘others’ because their own is so stagnant.
White people have an identity crisis that sees them seeking bigger lips, fuller bums, larger breasts, darker skin and they achieve these by self imposed mutilation processes
White people are fake. Their attempts to have informed discourse on immigration, human rights and political correctness masks their raging and ingrained racism!
White people should stop talking about world war one, world war two, the battle of the Somme, D-Day, Armistice Day, the Holocaust and the apparent ‘achievements’ of their Empire… it’s boring. Get over it.
Finally, white people are intolerant, ignorant, irrational and idiotic.
If you found this nauseating repetition of negativity offensive, then you might have some idea of what it was like for some of the African people sitting in the audience at the preview screening of the BBC’s latest film, Shoot the Messenger. If the opinions expressed above were subsequently repackaged and made into a two hour comedy drama called “Fuck white people” in which the main character caricatures white people and portrays them as individuals in denial about their historical and current day predisposition to violence, exploitation and general moral bankruptcy for the entertainment of the UK’s ethnic minorities, some would be inclined to deem it offensive and an unbalanced representation of european society. To many it would herald a welcome return to the ‘carefree’ days of the black and white minstrel show: an era in broadcasting before programme producers realised that it was immoral to consistently caricature one group for the sole exploitative entertainment of another.
It is also critically important that this film is viewed within the current social and political climate of the media in the UK. To compound the feelings of insult and offence about “Fuck white people”, imagine that there are never any programmes about British history and the programmes about British culture were all made by African people who are all intent on highlighting the ‘problems’ within ‘white British’ society. Remove the prime time programmes about the arts, history, archaeology, religion, social and cultural commentary and replace them with news stories about the growth of paedophile rings, the corporate exploitation of Africa by european businesses, ‘white on white’ crime and the inclination of the european psyche towards the sexual dominance and oppression of women and young children and you are left with an overwhelmingly negative view of the ethnic majority in Britain and their culture which is sure to affect your perception and interaction with ‘white’ Britons.
If you thought our treatment for ‘Fuck white people’ was offensive then you are also likely believe the author to be racist. You may even deduce that the Ligali organisation is racist for enabling the author to perpetuate demeaning and unremittingly negative truths about europeans for the entertainment of African people. For African people, these feelings of offence are our response to one of the most racist, demeaning and misrepresentative films ever broadcast and commissioned by the BBC.
Shoot the Messenger is supposedly a comedy. The BBC Press office describe it as a powerful and provocative drama and as “one man's painful journey towards self-discovery, which challenges his attitudes and expectations of his own community”. It is a tale that follows “Joe”, a teacher who “is determined to save the black youngsters at his school from a life of gangs, crime and underachievement – whether they like it or not”.
The film, which opens with the line “when I think about it, everything bad that has ever happened to me has been because of black people”, won the author, Sharon Foster, the Dennis Potter screenwriting award. When pitching the film she said; “I really wanted to look at the propensity for blaming that I thought the black community had - it always fascinated me how something was always someone else's fault.” In response, Jeremy Howe, Executive Producer, BBC Drama replied “Sharon's treatment was the last one I read [for the Potter Award] as it was originally titled "Fuck Black People" so with a title like that I thought it would be either be genius... or the opposite… I felt that Sharon really wanted to say what she wanted to say. I had never read anything like that before.”
Entertainment news website, Variety.com, state it is an ‘outrageous, funny, challenging shout out on the subject of black self image’. The British ‘Black’ Pack web site adds that the film is “destined to provoke heated debate about the perceived intra-racial challenges that impede Black progress and the fall-out from well meaning, but sometimes poorly-thought out solutions employed by progressive Blacks whose only desire is to ‘save our people’”.
Both reviews barely scratch the surface. There was a clear subtext to the entire film which is conveyed by the honesty of the author’s original title, Fuck black people; African people should forget slavery and forget their identities and cultures. African people in Britain were portrayed as a monolithic, belligerent, aggressive, politically naïve and intellectually diminished community when in truth it is the architects responsible for bringing this myopic vision to the screen who have authoritative ownership of these attributes.
‘Black’ people ‘go on’ about slavery
In a significant set piece, the main character, ‘Joe’ (played by David Oyelowo) shouts out to a room full of African people that we should ‘get over slavery’. Indeed the main character is expressing the views of author Sharon Foster who recently announced that she finds the topic of slavery ‘boring’. This is not a surprise. The BBC has revealed an uncanny knack for recruiting African people to exploit our socio-political disadvantages for commercial gain. From the likes of the British Asian, Munira Mirza to British Africans such as David Matthews and Eddie Nestor, these ‘exotic’ voices are middle England’s equivalent of a vaguely intellectual Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson. They are often deployed by the corporation to produce documentaries and programmes espousing anti-African views and endorsing blatant misrepresentation of the community for the entertainment of the masses.
In a recent BBC Radio 4 discussion on Empire, the theologian Robert Beckford cited his loss of African identity as a macro-level example of the legacy of British slavery. In a very personal revelation, he stated “without empire I would probably know my own [African] name”. Typically the BBC host Andrew Marr, dismissed his concerns, instead giving priority to the rhetoric of Niall Ferguson who, in his defence of Empire, claimed that it was a force for good for African people and that ‘Caribbean’s would not be better off if the Caribbean’s were still running it’.
‘Black’ people should forget about African identity
In a scene where ‘Joe’ is engaging in more ‘critical appraisal’ of the African British community he attacks the uniqueness of African names. The Ghanaian name ‘Kwame’ is jokingly asserted as a clichéd, fashion statement thereby diminishing its cultural value to the great amusement of the audience at the screening.
The films attack on non european names gives no consideration to cultural motivations of African Britons such as the renown playwright and cultural activist Kwame Kwei-Armah. In an interview with the Telegraph newspaper, Kwame states as a young man, he was… "full of anger". That anger lifted after his decision, aged 25, to lose the [Ian Roberts] "slave-master" name handed him by his parents, and adopt instead three names from Ghana, home of his ancestors (Kwame Kwei-Armah means "One most ancient, born on a Saturday, with wisdom to find the way"). He goes on to say; "the good thing about anger is that if you use it correctly, then you can become tremendously positive”.
‘Black’ people cause their own mental health problems
Following the screening, actor David Oyelowo stated that his character, Joe was responsible for placing a young African male into a mental health institution. The film delivers this far fetched plot device by trying to place responsibility of the mental breakdown of its two leading male characters solely on themselves, and in the case of ‘Joe’ on the African British community.
‘Black’ people are lazy
The main character entertains the audience with his willingness to accept any vocation and chastises an arrogant young ‘black’ person for refusing to take menial jobs.
‘Black’ people are violent
The main character witnesses a gun enabled murder, is assaulted by a mob of angry ‘black’ protestors and punched in the face by an irate ’black’ man.
‘Black’ people must become Christians
The main character is ‘saved’ by an over zealous Christian woman and her Christian cabal who baptise him and show him “the way”.
‘Black’ women are desperate and predatory
The main character goes to church and notices there are no men present. All the women seek his attention. The daughter of the over zealous Christian woman who has four children by four different fathers is also single and lures over Joe.
‘Black’ men are no good
There are no positive African men in the entire film. They are either in prison, in mental health institutions or angry ‘militant’ activists. The young boy who accuses Joe of physically assaulting him is a school bully who apparently refuses to study at school and subsequently leave with no qualifications. His life descends to the point that he ends up in a mental health institution.
The film continues along this line targeting and hitting almost every stereotype that exists of the African community. This includes and is not limited to;
- The young pregnant skimpily dressed woman trying to get a job
- An over zealous Christian woman who constantly regurgitates negative adages about African identity including the notion that ‘black’ people are like crabs in a bucket, constantly trying to pull each other down and informing her young grand-daughter that her hair is too ‘tough’ because her father was too ‘black’
- The predatory daughter with four children with four different fathers
- The obligatory son in prison
- The incidental witnessing of a man involved in a gun enabled murder
- The ‘angry’ irrational community and ‘militant’ activists who taunt and jeer him as he leaves court following his unjust conviction for physically assaulting a schoolboy
- The gullible, aggressive community radio presenter
- The belligerent young man who enters a job centre but refuses to do any work
Rather than challenging these age old stereotypes or presenting them as more than one dimensional caricatures, the film capitalises on the opportunity to present them as icons of entertainment. The lack of balance in this film is overwhelmingly obvious even to those who saw the film as a superficial portrayal of ‘one man’s journey’. The writer undermines and ultimately dismisses the efforts of the thousands of African people engaged in community work and instead parodies them as self inflicting victims whose only solution to empowerment is to play the “race card” and subscribe to a “blame culture”. Despite Foster’s dismal attempt to write an ‘honest’ and constructive screenplay, at no point does the film suggest any solutions, show an alternative world view or recognise the real historical background of the serious issues affecting the African community in the UK.
In an interview for the Champions of Respect Awards website, Oyelowo says “there will be many who will see it as a bit of harmless fun but I think these people don’t want to accept the ramifications this material has on young people in our society”. In this instance, he is actually referring to female nudity on page three in The Sun newspaper. Ironically, this very same sentiment also applies to Shoot the Messenger which has nothing positive to offer young people. The Champions of Respect Awards claims to “highlight young people aged 10 to 25 who are making a positive impact in their communities. Despite the bad press so often seen in the media, thousands of young people across the UK demonstrate what respect really means through the difference they make to the lives of others around them”. Unfortunately, this contradicts the impact of a film in which young people are portrayed in an overtly negative manner, with particular emphasis on the young men in the film. In fact, the film has no redeeming male characters.
The main protagonist is portrayed as a man who feels that “the black community broke his heart”. Even after his ‘awakening’ at the end of the film he shows no real remorse for the offensive comments that were made throughout the film. He maintains his assertions that the African community does not take responsibility for its issues. The film’s writer and actor defend this position by vehemously claiming that ‘they wanted to get people talking’. Their stance perpetuates a misrepresentation of the reality for African people in Britain and wilfully ignores the fact that as a community we have historically been forced to create ad-hoc structures that enable community empowerment both inside, but most often outside legislative frameworks. From community radio stations and support groups for vulnerable people to supplementary schools and Pan African organisations, our community have been both talking and working with scant resources for far too long to eradicate the socio-political inequality that has blighted our community. Shoot the Messenger denigrates and diminishes the substantial amount of positive work that has, is and will continue to be done long after this film fades into obscurity. In the meantime, this invisible-to-the-media community will continue to sacrifice their weekends, evenings and sometimes careers to be engaged in making a real difference.
Sharon Foster claims that her conscience kept her up at night when thinking about the impact this film would have. It is a statement that is very difficult to believe when armed with the knowledge that it was the BBC who told her to change the original title from ‘F*ck Black People’ to Shoot the Messenger. However, this does not earn the BBC any brownie points, nor does it absolve them of their responsibility not to use the license fee to create racist anti-African material dressed up as entertainment.
This film is yet another example of misrepresentative work which contributes to the existing and ever increasing body of negativity and distortion in the media that promotes an oversaturated vision of African immorality, violence, criminality and inferiority. As with other BBC productions like Bullet Boy, The Trouble with Black Men, etc, it seeks to completely exonerate the european community of any sense of responsibility for perpetuating the system of racism which maintains the socio-political inequality oppressing African people. Shoot the Messenger is an unrealistic story. Although Oyelowo easily manages to make his character Joe appear authentic in his hatred for his community, he fails to convincingly evoke any sense of reality about the circumstances he finds himself or indeed his descent into madness and destitution.
Depending on your ethnicity there were two interpretations to a film that highlights the scale of racism that underpins the BBC. ‘Fuck Black People’ clearly entertained the majority of europeans in the audience who found the cultural caricatures utterly hilarious. As a comedic drama projecting African ethnicity as exotica into the european psyche, it is a clear example of cultural propaganda which pampers to the racist view of African people as a group of intellectually challenged whingers whose misfortunes are the result of apathy and subscription to a ‘blame culture’.
Shoot the Messenger is un-inspirational, stereotypical and lacks the authentic socio-cultural analysis that made its past contemporaries such as Menelik Shabazz’s ground breaking ‘Burning an illusion’ a memorable and truly ground-breaking film in African British cinematic history. BBC 2 controller, Roly Keating claimed that the drama would prove a "landmark piece" like John Osborne's 1956 play Look Back in Anger. Unfortunately, the logic behind his comparison is flawed. Osborne’s play was an assault by a working class protagonist on the failings and oppressiveness of a middle class elite. Conversely, Shoot the Messenger resonates strongly with D. W. Griffith's, Birth of a Nation (1915) which served as a cultural propaganda piece and is an authoritative example of how sophisticated racist programming is made acceptable for the consumption of non-Africans.
Shoot the Messenger’s writer, director and lead actor all claim that this was a story that needed to be told. We agree, but for completely different reasons. This film is compelling viewing for African people to enable them to truly comprehend what the BBC thinks of them, and how it uses assimilated ‘black’ people to help perpetuate anti-African ideology across the UK.
There are many people within our community who believe that we should boycott its terrestrial screening, unless the BBC pulls it from its schedule. Indeed this is fully within the capability of the BBC as displayed in 2004 when the corporation decided not to air the comic animation, Popetown, following accusations by the Archbishop of Westminster that the BBC were promoting ‘rudeness and prejudice’. BBC 3 Controller, Stuart Murphy and Director of Television, Jana Bennett succumbed to external pressure by Catholic campaigners and withdrew the series on ‘editorial grounds’. A statement issued by the BBC said "Despite all of the creative energy that has gone into this project and the best efforts of everyone involved, the comic impact of the delivered series does not outweigh the potential offence it will cause... There is a fine judgement line in comedy between the scurrilously funny and the offensive… I knew when we developed the series that there was risk involved but unfortunately, once we saw the finished series, it became clear that the programme fell on the wrong side of that line." It has been implied that the fact that the BBC’s Director-General Mark Thompson is Catholic may have played a role in their decision to pull the programme.
However, the BBC has a historically consistent record of remaining unrepentant and unmoved in its decisions to screen programmes that cause offence to the African Community. The very fact that they were happy to commission this script under its original title ‘Fuck black people’ is a significant moment in the BBC’s broadcasting history. The media commentary that will ensue from the rabid right wing press and their left wing liberal pretenders will typically applaud the BBC for ‘being so brave’. But for those on the receiving end of this magnified cultural probing, it will only serve to demoralise our efforts to empower our community and add credence to the mounting wave of British intolerance that has led to an increase in racist hate crimes against African people.
Shoot the Messenger will be screened on the BBC this Autumn.
External LinksBBC previews its most sophisticated racist film everGuardian - Only guns and gangstersBBC2
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