Shoot the Messenger, is a 2006 BBC Films production directed by Ngozi Onwurah (Welcome II the Terrordome), a story about a newly appointed black school teacher attempting to readdress the racial imbalance in schools, in a landmark film in the history of Black British film. Available on Blu-ray for the first time released by the BFI.
Joe Pascale (David Oyelowo, Selma) is a teacher in an urban South London secondary school, he is the only black teacher teaching in a largely black populated school. He’s given up a good job as an I.T. consultant to follow his calling in life, which is to help educate black children marginalised in the education system. He’s strict and doesn’t take any nonsense from the students and even uses after school detentions as a means to get the students to study more.
Everything seems to be going to plan until an innocuous incident with a student Germal (Charles Mnene), who is holding a grudge against him, accuses the teacher of hitting him. Joe turns down the opportunity to defend his case in the local press, thinking nothing of it but the allegations start mounting resulting in him being suspended and losing his job.
The downward spiral continues affecting his mental health drastically and heightening his anger and paranoia but he eventually finds support in the guise of a good Samaritan Mabel (Jay Byrd) who helps him find God and he meets his girlfriend Heather (Nikki Amuka-Bird), a clerk at the job centre, who helps him find some kind of salvation as he battles with his own twisted thoughts.
Written by Sharon Foster, it’s a very raw and emotive look at the racial concerns within schools and black identity in society. David Oyelowo’s teacher Joe is looking to improve the system from the inside by demanding more from his students but instead finds himself a victim of the very system he wants to change after the nefarious accusations of the student and being labelled a white man’s crony by a baying crowd .
You can’t help but be drawn towards Joe’s character with his strong opinionated moral compass before realising that it is also flawed in its methods, which only adds to a nebulous argument. It raises other interesting themes from the opportunities or lack of them for children in school to the impact on later life and careers. It also briefly brings into the spotlight the influence of the media in the pursuit of justice with an insincere radio broadcaster and an overly zealous guest walking all over a silenced and bemused Joe, who is unable to defend himself in an argument which has gone to another level within the community. He faces a medieval like mob waiting outside the court for him who need no further convincing of his guilt, which makes an already confusing argument worse knowing his relative innocence in this instance.
Joe is seen speaking to camera like in a documentary giving his inner thoughts on the situations unravelling, which brings both an element of heartfelt empathy but also bewilderment as it draws you into his mixed-up racial anguish. The acting is particularly theatrical from David Oyelowo who sounds more Shakespearian than South London but this is in keeping with the exaggerated theatrics throughout, including some humorous stereotyping at Christmas time and an example of why you shouldn’t bring up slavery at a drinks party. These all help to maintain a rye entertaining tone despite the seriousness of its subject matter.
The director Ngozi Onwurah has contributed a lot to the conversation on race and identity and doesn’t shy away from controversy. Deeply provocative it raises a lot of arguments that will be upsetting and divisive. It caused plenty of controversy at the time of its release not least for its release through the BBC because of its largely white audience and will no doubt continue to spark further debate for its audiences. As for poor Joe, he’s probably heard one too many voices on the matter.
Film: Shoot the Messenger
Director: Ngozi Onwurah
Stars: David Oyelowo, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Charles Mnene, Jay Byrd
Run time: 1hr 30min