Thursday, August 31, 2006

Shoot the Messenger

I hesitated to get involved in the debate about Sharon Foster’s single drama Shoot the Messenger screened on BBC2 last night, because it would mean being serious for once but there is a writer under fire here so I’m weighing in.

Foster, who wrote Babyfather, won the Dennis Potter award for Shoot the Messenger which tells the story of Joe Pascale, a black man who quits his comfortable job as a computer programmer to become the only black teacher in a challenging, inner-city school. Before even being aired, it had been called ‘the most racist programme in history’, by the African equalities organisation Ligali.

The story begins in a blaze of fury as Joe rails, ‘When I think about it, everything bad that has ever happened to me involved a black person.’ His crude efforts to mentor his black male students with tough love backfire when he is unjustly accused of abuse and his life descends into madness and homelessness. Joe’s fatal flaw is his failure to appreciate that oppression has within it a complex power structure and some very sophisticated coping mechanisms, all of which are interdependent. You do not cure oppression with more oppression. He pays the price for his naivety and arrogance.

Where other people thought they were looking at realism, I assumed I was seeing allegory. Where other viewers detected self-loathing, I thought I was seeing a very human response to betrayal. Joe goes into his misguided crusade with no self-awareness. His reaction to what happens to him is paranoid and his self-examination and ultimate redemption come only after exhausting all other avenues of blame. What Foster herself says about her motivation is illuminating,

‘Shoot the Messenger is a reflection of debates which are ongoing within the black community, and questions some of the stuff that black communities tell themselves and their children. It's like a fable. Some of it may be uncomfortable for people to hear, but ultimately it's about learning to accept and love people as they are.’

Foster uses the cover of Joe’s madness to air an extremity of views that are normally disguised in polite obfuscation, if heard at all. She is from Hackney, where I live. She must have witnessed, as I have, an endless stream of initiatives to mentor young black males whose disaffection and academic under-achievement are all too real. The latest of these was a visit from the homophobic evangelist Nicky Cruz, brought here by the local police to appeal to young black men not to join gangs. Now that is a cliché. But real.

Liberation is often fraught with internal disagreements and debilitating undermining of each other by group members, all of whom are pursuing the same goal. Certainly living through the feminist years there were plenty of times when I just threw my hands up in horror and felt like screaming, ‘can we just fucking get on with it then.’

Black Britain focused its criticism on the film’s director Ngozi Onwurah,

‘The film is told through the eyes of one person making general statements, which is based on Onwurah’s own perspective and feelings about her culture, which doesn’t necessarily reflect or represent the whole truth about the absolute reality lived and experienced by all black people living in a western society.’

This is eerily reminiscent of the debate about Brick Lane. The suggestion that it is incumbent upon writers and directors of fiction to represent whole truths and absolute realities is ridiculous. That is the job of reporters and documentary makers. Neither does authenticity imply uniqueness. Artists are entitled to draw their inspiration and perspective from any source. That’s a basic tenet of free speech.

Of course it’s easy for me to preach objectivity, it isn’t my culture up there being critically examined but the answer is not to shut down debate by stifling brave, young, black, female voices - surely. I saw Foster interviewed on Breakfast yesterday. She is equal to the challenge. The gauntlet has landed.

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