Thursday, August 31, 2006

Shoot the (Hermetic) Messenger: BBC2.





Last night, the BBC finally screened its controversial play. Originally it was to be called “Fuck Black People”—after the slogan that the lead character Joe-the-black-teacher writes on the walls of a comprehensive school, having been suspended for an alleged assault.

The final title invites controversy, as do the final words of the play, which fall like a challenge from the playwright, Sharon Foster and the director, Ngozi Onwurah:

“I’m not taking back everything I said. You don’t like the way I said it. So, shoot me!”

Before it hit the screen, Shoot the Messenger had already taken a round of bullets. The black press and various watchdogs were keen to unleash the dogs of war on the production. On the BBC’s website, clearly set up to counter screams of “Racist”, Sharon Foster attempts a nice damage limitation exercise, warning that people should be wary of shouting that word too often because when racism really comes along it might not be heard.

So, was the programme racist? That isn’t really the issue. Criticism should begin with whether the play actually said anything to become upset about.

The primary problem with Shoot the Messenger was television. On the stage, which allows more distance, the play would have come across more accurately. The structure of the play, as a black Everyman’s progress, would have been transparent. Theatre allows symbolic episodes and short-cuts. On the tv screen, the structure was confused: some bits seemed like soap opera, some like alienating episodes out of Brecht, and some like kitchen-sink docudrama. Consequently, the quality of the message brought by the messenger was uneven. The first twenty minutes of the drama saw Joe go from IT consultant, to idealistic teacher, to fallen man, to schizophrenic, to existential outsider. It was like watching a five act tragedy condensed into one. Probably this was deliberate, to avoid empathy, and keep the audience outside the character. But this intention—if that’s what it was—hit two major problems. Firstly, the acting of Oyelowo (Joe) was outstanding. Through the power of his performance, the cartoon character kept coming alive. The enslaved Joe became Prometheus Unbound. The message was usurped by the messenger and identification kept entering the play unevenly. Secondly, the climax of the drama focused on the resolution between Joe and Germal (Charles Mnene)--the symbol of Joe’s fatal flaw: self-righteousness. This was offered as a tragic catharsis. Both had died psychologically. It was supposed to be a scene of pain and revelation. But there was no emotional charge to make it mean anything at a felt level. How really had Joe or Germal come to this point? What was being accepted and healed? In the end, Shoot the Messenger became a series of tableaux…with some highly provocative statements and ideas. But how radical where these?

Was the drama a gift to the British National Party as claimed? Well. I doubt first of all if the BNF would have understood the play…it did require a mind…but having said that…how thoroughly did the play show the underbelly of the Black Beast?


Joe entered the play with “A call to arms”. He was going to be the solution to the failure of black male underachievement. Problem: the education system needs more black teachers and this is why the system fails. Actually, not so. Research has not shown that; what it has shown is alienation created by a flawed curriculum, racism by teachers towards black males, and entrenched institutional racism consequently.

Joe adopted a disciplined line of what he called “enforced education”. Problem: black males cannot handle discipline. Actually, not so. Research has shown that black male teachers are often no different to white teachers—they all transfer coercive patriarchal attitudes into the classroom and that is the root of conflict. The play picked up on this. But it also committed an over-simplification by presenting the conflict between Joe and Germal simply as black versus black. Joe is Nigerian. Germal is African-Caribbean. That produces a complex dynamic in the classroom connected to cultural expectations and hostility. The play, though it took education as the springboard for its drama, really did not know much about education and teaching. In its classroom scenes, the play even failed to critique one of the principal examples of institutional racism: where black males are positioned within classrooms.

Joe was presented as a “House nigger” in Shoot the Messenger. Problem: raising expectations are despised by blacks because it is seen as a sell out to white culture. This is a real issue in education and a cause of black male under-achievement, but it is only half the problem: the other half comes from institutionalised attitudes to black males as loose sexual guns waiting to go off. Too much was done too quickly in the first twenty minutes for a successful critique to emerge dramatically.

How radical were some of the view-points?

1) Christianity is a kind of mental enslavement. Well, that’s not exactly news. James Baldwin studied that in detail throughout his novels. And a reading of Douglass shows how Christianity provided a slippery rationale for slavery.
2) Single mothers are bad parents who “Give more time to their [children’s] names than who should father them.” Yes, that is a contentious issue, but it has been well-aired elsewhere by the media.
3) Black people need “to get over slavery”. That has been argued forcibly for quite some time and how the teaching of slavery should be turned into what slavery teaches everyone about the importance of self-worth.
4) “Black people are cursed”. Well, that particular line goes back centuries.
5) There is a difference between the old and the new. “They went to church. We [men] go to prison”. A nice irony, swapping one institution for another, but again, that has been argued for sometime. Though Shoot the Messenger spent a lot of time on the problems of males, it never really probed what these problems were; bell hooks has written far more heretical things about the black dis(community) than appeared in this play; and why black men are driven into prison.
6) "Bring back slavery. We were good at that, at our most productive. This freedom shit isn't working." Indeed, but that is rather a philosophical issue than a specifically black concern. Being alone on the streets, as Joe put it is "strangely freeing", as he entered Beckett's world. There is nothing like being up-and-in yourself to realise that you are really down-and-out. Finding salvation outside the institution of a white capitalist suprematist society/racism is incredibly hard: trying to live outside the institutions of religion, family, education, work, relationship is enough to institutionalise anyone. And the play did raise that question well and suggest some reasons why black males are more likely to suffer mental illness.
7) Women suffer because they must live up to the “Black is beautiful” message and that causes low self-esteem. The same is true for black men who must live up to an erotic image imposed by white culture…yet that went unsaid. Racist commodification of the body goes deeper than women wanting to straighten and supplement their hair. This vital issue seemed politically nostalgic rather than hard-hitting.

"So shoot me! "What for? For opening Pandora’s black box of race secrets? Hardly. For a lot of deep and original observations about race and achievement? Not really. For being racist? Never. But as thought-provoking drama, Shoot the Messenger was a terribly important piece of television. It's a long time since I've watched anything with total concentration more than once.

12 comments:

Id it is said...

I wonder if this'll be aired in the US. It's unlikely that it will because it addresses a sensitive issue so blatantly. We Americans like to sugar coat problems/issues/evils; let them fester within until ofcourse they can't be held anymore and they explode.hehe
I would have liked to see this very much. Even though, as you point out, there were no "deep and original observations about race and achievement". Simply because it's something that we don't get to see much of in my part of the world.

eshuneutics said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
eshuneutics said...

The same is true in the UK, which is why Shoot the Messenger has had such a rough ride. The complaint has been about "washing dirty clothes in public". It was actually worse/better than that: Foster showed black issues nakedly while the clothes were on the washing line.

Unsane said...

Not quite the same in Australia. People here are very tolerant comparatively speaking -- also very blase and very dismissive.

Alfred Iwerebor said...

I never like it when people go all out to provoke other people's sensitivities. I don't believe in art that opens up old societal wounds but the one that helps it heal. If Art no more heals, what is secular society left with as a balm?
Not to be judgmental but I think the minds behind such works as "The Da vinci code" and this play, "Shoot the messenger" are exploitative and parasitic.All of society, regardless of race should unite against them.
I live in Nigeria, a very beautiful country cursed with corrupt and greedy leaders. We have peace but no prosperity. The society here wouldnt tolerate this kind of "nonsensical" behavior.
Nature goes to extra-ordinary lengths to ensure diversity. To downgrade other races is to undermine nature.
The West boasts of it's freedom of expression, which no doubt, the authors of this play would hide behind. But Here's my submission: freedom without wisdom is foolish!

eshuneutics said...

The reaction has been much as expected. I have been "amused" by the number of people who have watched it, but not seen it, even reveiwed it without watching it. There is a sort-of-desire to kill, though what is being killed is another matter. It is a feeding frenzy mentality where bodies rush in and tear because it is a chance to tear. And there is a liberal sugar coating too, a let's be tolerant and balance it all out approach. Outrage and acceptance, an avoidance of in-rage. People would rather talk about freedom of expression issues rather than what needs to be thought about.

Id it is said...

I'm one of those who's talking about the play without having seen it; do forgive me if I overstep!

Reading Eshu's post I'm reminded of 'Stand and Deliver', a novel that dealt with the same issues like those in 'Shoot the Messenger'. Written some twenty plus years ago, and based on a true life incident, 'Stand and Deliver' was later made into a movie. The movie focused on the immigrant hispanic population of California, and even though it laid bare some sensitive issues pertaining to the immigrant latino population, it did not generate the kind of outrage that 'Shoot the Messenger' has. Maybe at the time the hispanic population was inhibited vocally, but even now some three decades later, when the Latinos have made a distinct mark on the American workforce and have become a voice to reckon with, 'Stand and Deliver' remains a popular read in that community.

eshuneutics said...

Thank you for the comparison, id it is.

eshuneutics said...

Interesting point, AI, but I'm not so sure that Art is imply there to heal. Sometimes, Art has to diagnose the infection. One of the most controversial aspects about STM was its anti-Christian stance. Historically, what is said was true: the Bible was used to enforce slavery on the basis that black people had to be freed from themselves--their paganism. Slavery was justified by Biblical interpreatation read as law. "Freedom without Wisdom" and that other daughter of God, Understanding, is nonsense, you are speak truly. Yet, the Christian religion has as many widsoms and understandings as the diversity on Nature. This is terribly unhelpful, as STM pointed out.

Anonymous said...

When I read this post the first time, I only saw the racial prejudice angle you portrayed. I am glad you have helped me see the true aim of the effort, which is an attack on christianity.Lol, as a christian, I laugh to see the blindness of the world.
Men, Intellectual men, being used by the devil to attack God. This is something that has gone on through history and everytime has met with defeat. The final defeat is the physical clash spoken of in the Bible as the Battle of Armageddon...then God and His saints will re-possesss the earth.
All this may seem trite to to you, but make no mistake about it, this is a spiritual warfare.Intellectuality versus Spirituality.
Read with understanding Eshu, and not with a made up mind. The slaves in the Bible were prisoners of war. Slavery is what they were subjected to,to occupy them.The other alternative is to kill them.
Surely, they couldn't be made equal with the rest of the citizens. And, if you would bother to check, it was Christians who fought the evils of slavery.
History is replete with accounts of formidable attacks on both Jewry and Christianity.Christians are forever hated and attacked on all grounds unprovoked.See the dark ages, see how many were killed but it still stands, it still thrives.
Like I mentioned to you one time, God is Love yet He is also a man of war. He made us Eshu, how can we think to fight Him.
I say all this without any defensiveness ok. I Hope I also will be allowed freedom of expression here.
I will leave you with an advice: do yourself a favor, acknowledge God and satan, because they truly exist and they are continuing the war which they started in Heaven.
God bless you:)
Alfred Iwerebor

Soul said...

Thank you.
I had the opportunity to watch a pre-screening of this and I really couldn't see what the fuss was about but I knew there would be one.
People completely flew past the movie and went straight to the things they go to best.
They didn'y even stop to think that actually the issue was with this man and the way his naivety opened him up to coming face to face with his own internal struggles.

I was mildly irritated by the people who claimed, white people won't get it. I thought so bloody what?. It;s not about white people, can't you see that?.
Nice write up though.

eshuneutics said...

You were lucky to see the pre-screening and have a chance to review it before it was damned and pre-judged! You are perfectly right--as a morality play everything is a projection of Joe, but because people disregarded him they only experienced a "this is an attack on how the black race live" play.