I’m prone to an occasional reverie in which I line up all the snotty, bitter, self-adoring literary critics – especially those who’ve been sniffy about my novels in the past – and instruct them in three ground rules for reviewing books. One, describe the book in neutral terms for the reader’s information. Two, consider how well it works in its own terms – in other words, does it achieve what it set out to achieve (as opposed to what you pompous little shits think it should have been trying to achieve). Three, make a considered judgement about the wider worth of the enterprise in terms of enriching life on Earth.
To me, these seem like excellent criteria for ascribing value to a cultural product. What choice, then, do I have but to follow the same guidelines as I put on my TV pundit’s hat? As promised I watched Shoot The Messenger rather late last night, aware of the rumblings it has already stirred. Here’s what I thought of it.
One. It tells the story of young black Briton named Joe who gives up a good job to become a teacher after attending a meeting about the educational failures of black boys. A surly and disruptive black, male pupil falsely accuses him of assault. As a consequence Joe loses his job and then his sanity following a black-led campaign against him. In the process Joe comes to despise other black people. And his contempt does not lessen as he recovers. Indeed, it evolves into a full-blooded critique of their attitudes and aspirations, including those of his girlfriend Heather, whom he loves. He becomes an isolated, angry figure who only begins to find peace with himself after making peace with the pupil who brought about his ruin.
Two. Shoot The Messenger was written by Sharon Foster, a black British writer. Joe is largely a vehicle for expressing her dismay at what she sees as black Britons’ propensity for blaming troubles with such as criminality, under-achievement and family breakdown in their communities on others. The question Shoot The Messenger angrily asked was when is this ever going to stop? It was asked very bluntly and with greater and subtler power the longer the piece goes on. Some characters and scenes were a little too obviously there to Make A Point and the collapse of Joe’s mental health was not entirely convincing. But the crumbling of his relationship with Heather was both affecting and astute, Joe losing patience with her obsessions with self-esteem and with her hair. His frustration with what he sees as his fellow black peoples’ capitulation to “street” attitudes, churchy platitudes or a victim mindset led to a violent row at a party, where Joe verbally assaulted every taboo. This was the whole purpose of Shoot The Messenger and in that sense Foster’s film delivered and fiercely so.
Three. What, though, has it achieved beyond that goal? Black critics of Foster’s film have attacked her for its lack of balance. They have a point: apart from Joe every black character in it is shallow, venal or rotten with bad attitude. But that’s a bit like berating an apple for not being an orange. This was never going to be a balanced piece. It was a polemic, a harsh one, that urged black Britons to raise their sights above a parapet of grievance and see what else might be available. I doubt Foster believes that if black people would just stop whining all their troubles would disappear. But I suspect she does think that those who are angriest with her for opening up “family business” to a wider audience are also those with most to gain from maintaining the closed-up thinking Joe rails against. In this, my guess is that she is right.
I can't say what the effect of the film will be on debate among black Britons. As for its effect on me...Well, it did not persuade me that Britain’s black communities are solely responsible for their own troubles: in other words, it didn't cause me to doubt that racism continues to exert a real and debilitating pressure on black peoples' lives. Shoot The Messenger did, though, reinforce my belief in two other things. Firstly, that much of British society is kind and liberal enough for even groups of people who endure prejudice to become the principal authors of their own destinies, if only they detect that this is so and embrace the resulting possibilities. Secondly, that identity politics, ethnic or otherwise, while valuable in their time, now risk imposing new forms of exclusion on those they are meant to liberate – a theme I have explored once or twice before.
For these reasons above all, I admired Shoot The Messenger greatly. Sharon Foster was born and raised in Hackney, where I have lived for a quarter of a century. It’s a slender association. Nonetheless, I’m rather glad of it.