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Brooklyn Nine-Nine is prime time copaganda

Something outgoing NUS Black Students Officer Fope Olaleye tweeted about the police sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine stayed with me (see above). It made me think about the ACAB (All Cops are Bastards) acronym and whether I can talk about police in broad strokes. I was pushed on to Brooklyn Nine-Nine by a friend, after avoiding it for years. One reason because it just looked ridiculous, but the more important reason is that I did not feel comfortable that a comedy should be made of an inherently violent institution. I like the show, but in hindsight of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and the other victims of the recent spate of murders by police, I am re-evaluating these shows and television like it.

No matter how pretty the writers try to dress up the Nine-Nine; no matter how diverse the cast is (great), police will always be police and this show is a prime time copaganda.

My degree is in creative writing and I do spend a lot of time watching film and television series. I do believe artists and storytellers, especially screenwriters and TV writers have a responsibility to accurately portray the institutions they are depicting. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is in a fairy tale version of the world we live in and is nowhere close to a true likeness of the NYPD (New York Police Department), the same department that prosecuted five Black and Latino boys for a rape and attempted murder they didn’t commit, of a white woman. Linda Fairstein, the prosecutor of the exonerated Central Park 5 then went on to have a career as a crime novelist, also advising on the early seasons of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (more copaganda).

The actual Linda Farstein (left) and Linda Farstein (right) played Felicity Huffman in Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us (Netflix), on the Central Park 5

When I think about television depictions of police and law enforcement more generally, most of it is copaganda. Then I think about how the rap group N. W. A were on the FBI’s most-wanted for speaking their truth about personal experiences with the Police and how they began to empower Black people all over the world. In the late 1980s, Black Britons resonated with the conscious lyrics N. W. A wrote, which speaks volumes. Public Enemy’s Chuck D in ‘Louder than a Bomb‘ said “your CIA, see I ain’t kiddin’ / both King and X, they got ridda both” but the depictions of law enforcement in film and television are always positive. They’re the good guys. Supposedly.

There’s a privilege in believing law and order have your best interests at heart, even if you’re not the guilty party; often this comes with a whiff of class and / or white privilege.

Then we come to shows like Cops that do not even try to hide their anti-Black sentiment. In Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore argues that white America has an innate fear of Black people. Black people are entertainment for white people. They always have been: from blackface minstrelsy that came after slavery to public lynchings in the Jim Crow era. Yet, Blacks, historically have been stereotyped as the violent ones. In Ava DuVernay’s 13th the activist-academic Angela Davis says how the FBI branded her “armed and dangerous”, and that ties into to how historically criminality is just code for Black, which leads into Reagan’s War on Drugs.

Activist-academic Angela Davis

Network television has portrayed Black people as a race that carry weapons and if you try to talk to them they will kill you. Whenever someone is stabbed in the UK, I know in some circles I will be expected to have an opinion because more often than not the mugshots I see of the victims and perpetrators are young Black boys. Anti-blackness is global and Black police also fall into the trap of racial profiling, even their own people. Police officer first, Black second; that tribalism, that supremacy is pervasive and we cannot pretend that police violence is just about racist police officers.

I first listened to ‘Fuck tha Police’ at 13 years old; I recall Ice Cube saying “Cause they’ll slam ya down to the street top / Black police showin’ out for the white cop / Ice Cube will swarm / On any motherfucker in a blue uniform…

If you’re Black in this country or the United States, you’re branded a criminal. The prison / stop and search data speak for themselves. Shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Cops, are, to say the least, problematic, especially as a Black viewer, someone that does not fit into the pretty little box of white privilege. I try to watch shows like Nine-Nine in the same mind I watch a Disney film, within the realms of escapism. Pure fiction. Yet, in light of the recent international civil rights movement against racial inequality, including institutional racism, I am struggling to even accomplish that.

The Wire is one of the greatest there is (HBO)

I bet it’s ironic that one of my top ten shows of all time is a police crime drama. The Wire, a show that does not glamorise policing and truly shows how ineffective it can be due to the flawed internal structural mechanics and other hidden agendas, that lean on the political. It paints a grim picture of US crime, where 1 in 4 of the world’s inmates are in US prisons (13th). David Simon’s show also supports #ACAB where Brooklyn Nine-Nine does not. That despite doing their jobs, the show says “all cops are bastards” because they carry out the horrific acts, at the behest of the institution.

There needs to be more shows like The Wire and fewer like Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Post-George Floyd, I don’t think there’s a place for shows like Nine-Nine, glorifying bumbling cops and glamorising office violence as innocent. Maybe it’s time to let it die with the same dignity police allow their Black victims.

Badlands: In Response to ‘a Racist and No Solution’

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

In reading @5teveh‘s blog, what immediately struck me is the personalness to it. When someone seemingly attacks a thing you have an attachment to, you will immediately to get defensive. So, Dr. Steve Hallam, now a Criminology lecturer after thirty-year career in policing now hearing different forms of “police are racist” will naturally feel something. Thinking “I was police” and still am. He may have retired but you can’t take thirty years of policing out of someone just like that. Is it fair to call The Police racist? I wouldn’t call it fair but what is true is not always what is fair. The Police use violent practices backed by policies that disproportionately impact Black and brown people.

I think there’s a lot of people right now saying “I don’t consider myself racist” and there’s more backlash to being called racist than the act itself. I’m not sure it is possible to be in the Police and not be part of what Macpherson called “canteen culture” (1999: 46), what I would call “club policing”– where if you’re in, you’re in. But if you’re out, you know you’re out. And police officers that remotely critique police practice in anyway are not part of the club. Compliance is your entry pass, which leads to how someone like George Zimmerman was acquitted after murdering Trayvon Martin. That despite being guilty, he was acquitted because he was club and American laws back “canteen culture” policing (Stand-Your-Ground Law).

Steve asks, “why the label?” of police being racist. I respond with: as much as his experience of policing has been one where he doesn’t consider himself racist (nor do I consider him to be), The Police rather than police officers is racist. I think in making it about him, there is a fragility there. Not a “white fragility” where “white people have been “socialised into a deeply internalised sense of superiority” (DiAngelo, 2019: 2) but a natural reaction to challenged authority (past or present), as police. Since this concept breaks the boundaries of race, as Black police officers defend the badge before their blackness (as put by NWA in Fuck tha Police, 1988). I may not consider Steve a racist but I do believe that because we all came through the same systems in this country, racial prejudice does lie within him as it does within all people. It’s whether people act on it which turns it into racial discrimination (the act). When there are Black police that racially profile, what stops it being racism is their lack of institutional power in British society. As a white man who worked in a white institution, Steve’s whiteness would be the determining factor because his whiteness is backed by “the power of legal authority and institutional control” (DiAngelo: 2019: 20) separating Steve’s intent from the default power he has in society built in his own image.

From an outsider’s point of view, (though I may be naive), The Police seem to allow no room for juniors to scrutinise the bosses. Yet, senior officers can criticise the juniors. If a junior officer sees their boss acting with racial prejudice, the flawed mechanics in the structure would mean that officer could not in fact challenge their superiors without putting their job at risk, worse if they’re a woman. Policing: where egos can do as much damage as bad policies and where bosses are outside the remit of grassroots critique.

Photo by King’s Church International on Unsplash

Policing is more than “bad apples”, it’s also a lack of accountability and room to enforce accountability, even to each other. That’s before we think about violent policies; and ill-thought out strategies like arming every Northamptonshire Police officer with tasers, whilst simultaneously trying to improve relations with Black and Asian communities and up diversity in policing. That’s before we think about the institutional racism and overt racism that makes the lives of Black and Asian officers that much harder.

I think in order to develop as well, Steve must think about specifically on how white people don’t live in a society where they have to think of themselves in racialised terms; in society Steve is simply a man, not a white man

He must come to terms that all human beings are varying degrees of prejudiced. Except when police are concerned, that prejudice is often transformed into racism (and violence), which is shown through numbers like 184 Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic [BAME] deaths in police custody (Inquest); or Black people are stopped at nine times the rate of white people (UK) in Northamptonshire (Stopwatch, 2018/2019) – or how over 40% of inmates in youth offenders’ prisons come from Black and Minority Ethnic [BME] backgrounds (Lammy, 2017) – or how Black people are four times more likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act (Gilroy, 2019).

Photo by Claudia Wolff on Unsplash

Despite Steve saying that policing in the US is much different, we must remember our history. That race relations in the US is the brainchild of Britain. Colonialism left that behind, just as we left the same police structures in India after partition in 1947. You cannot talk about the history of America and not mention race or British colonialism. That includes how law enforcement treats its Black communities. I agree the British population taking on the US narrative is problematic. We need to write our own story and look at commonalities when they present themselves.

I further agree that over the years “institutional racism”, as popularised by Macpherson (1999) has become synonymous with saying all police are raicst. Especially, with my generation, where Stephen Lawrence is not in our popular memory. Mark Duggan is more our Stephen Lawrence moment and yet, I admit our race literacy needs a lot of work. Steve talks about his experience of students finding out he was once police. When I found out, I was in shock, that I liked him! I also have the same distrust of police his students have, because my family’s history with police is not a positive one.

Photo by Jacky Lam on Unsplash

However, with a name like Stephen ‘Steve’ Hallam, I’m quite surprised I did not clock it sooner, as it sounds like it came straight out of The Bill! With Steve, I don’t see the ego or the attituide I see in other officers. Nor the inability to talk about race in policing. I just see a man who was once an officer and is astute enough to admit that the service is flawed, and in that I think he might be an anomaly. That’s a first for me, and that includes my introductions to Black British and British-Asian officers who refuse to acknowledge that you cannot talk about policing without stories of race. I understand Steve feels attacked by what’s going on. Yet, I would say this is nothing new. Black people as victims of police officers goes back to 1919 and the events surrounding the Liverpool Race Riots, where a Black man was lynched by a white mob at Albert Docks. It also speaks to riots in Notting Hill (1958) Detroit (1967) Brixton (1981) and Toxeth (1981).

I would answer Steve’s comment on police distrust and Black communities with stories about racism, as this is a tale blessed by history, in both this country and the United States of America. Whether we call them police, or slave catchers for the criminal justice system is another question. I think many of the answers lie in the history books and for people to truly investigate the relationship between criminality and race as a construct.

Watching A House in Time, David Olusoga shows me that history is more accessible than we think it is. It is fact-finding and contextualising; it is soul-searching and joining dots. It’s making links and telling stories. It looks a lot like journalism. Steve asks “how can community relations be fixed?” My response is, I’m not sure they can. Because they are not broken. The system was designed that way, a system that privileges certain people as “[…] white privilege is an absence of the negative consequences of racism… an absence of your race being viewed as a problem first and foremost” (Eddo-Lodge, 2017: 86) and this is no more evident than how The Police police communities of colour, regardless if that’s by Black or white officers.

Photo by humberto chavez on Unsplash

Steve says ” […] most policing seems to take place in areas of deprivation where the disadvantaged are committing crimes against the disadvantaged” and it so happens you are more likely to be in poverty in Britain if you are not white [Institute of Race Relations, 2020]. Class issues exasperated by a racial prejudice endemic in British culture. A societal racism that I do not believe will be improved by legislation. Black skepticism to police, is under a wider umbrella of skepticism to authority bodies, since we have no reason to trust them. This is a skepticism evidenced by history: from colonialism to Grenfell to deaths in police custody to stolen DNA to Black and brown

people as labrats being experimented on by scientists; so, is it surprising why Black and brown communities are more skeptical of authorities, even now as COVID vaccines are being targeted at those very same communities?

Some of the answers to Steve’s questions about racist police may lie in stereotyping. However, the story of racism is deep-rooted in how race was made. Race is constructed, so in theory it can be unmade. Police are an easy target for racism because it is so public. And when there is a scandal, it really goes big. Every institution is racist, yet policing is so easy to scrutinise because it is wide open, rather than curricula in the education sector which quite evidently panders to a white supremacist model of knowledge.

Steve goes on to talk about his dissertation student that held bias against police due to bad experiences of racism. Steve says “policing is dominated by white males and despite recruitment drives to address the ethnicity gap, this really hasn’t been that successful. If it was meant to help solve a problem, it hasn’t.” Do police want to address these problems or simply want to be seen to address them? Virtue signalling 101, especially in light of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement when it is now popular to be seen to be advocating for diversity, inclusion and anti-racist causes.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

It is beyond reasonable doubt The Police are guilty of racism, but that is not exclusive to the boys in blue. It’s a symptom of a society that fosters a culture of race hate, and that goes back centuries. In Staying Power, historian Peter Fryer talks about the links between transatlantic slavery and the demonology of race, through influential racist writers and “Africans were not merely devilish, monstrous, ape-like, lustful, treachourous and given to cannibalism. They were also inherrently lazy: ‘generally idle and ignorant'” (Charles II’s hydrographer qtd in Fryer, 1984: 143). Scary stuff.

Society made race, racism is a symptom; and the rich, wealthy political elite have benefited from it ever since.

Steve writes about policing from a vantage of privilege, but that does not make his experiences any less valid. We are in a time of reactive policing rather than policing by consent. People of colour, espeically Black communities draw the short straw. The term ‘police racism’ is problematic because it speaks to “The Police and The Rest”. There is racism and that impacts everyone. There is specific anti-Blackness, which is global and practiced by all ethnicities. ‘Police racism’ and ‘police brutality’ are scabs that hide the more important nasty tumour of embedded white supremacy.

Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

In this time, it would do well for us all to remember that this convenient term ‘police brutality’ is not exclusive to white racists. Black and other minority police are just as problematic. It’s not just white supremacy problem, it’s a supremacy problem that comes with the police as an institution. And how the badge comes before blackness. Black police officers historically shell out for white power. Stephen shells out for Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Django Unchained. Boris leans on the model minority in recruiting British-Asian MPs to his cabinet but they are just as problematic as white MPs that get branded with the label of racist.

Steve’s experiences are valid even if they are through the lens of white male privilege. I agree in fixing society you will fix policing. Policing is part of the rotten tree I call societal racism, and so is education and corporate. It is very easy to throw policing under the bus; but British society is racist, it’s the society we live in and this label fits like a white glove.

Referencing

DiAngelo, R. (2019). White Fragility. London: Allen Lane.

Eddo-Lodge, R. (2017). Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. London: Bloomsbury.

Fryer, P. (1984). Staying Power. London: Pluto Press.

Gilroy, R (2019). Mental health detention rate over four times higher for black people. Nursing Times [online]. Available from: https://www.nursingtimes.net/news/mental-health/mental-health-detention-rate-over-four-times-higher-for-black-people-30-10-2019/

Home Office. (1999). The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. (Chair: William Macpherson). London: TSO. ​

Inquest (2017). BAME deaths in police custody’, inquest.org.uk, [online]. Available from: https://www.inquest.org.uk/bame-deaths-in-police-custody

Institute of Race Relations (2020). ‘INEQUALITY, HOUSING AND EMPLOYMENT STATISTICS’, irr.org.uk, [online]. Available from: http://www.irr.org.uk/research/statistics/poverty/

Ministry of Justice (2017). The Lammy Review. (Chairperson: David Lammy MP). London: TSO.

Black Lives Matter: An Open Letter

Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

Dear All. I hope you are well. Since I’m now at the end of my tenure with the Students’ Union, I thought I ought to address the future. And to those of you that have had meetings with me over the past year, I am grateful for your help and allyship. I hope this is not the end, but the beginning. Many of us have told ourselves that we are all equal but we know how false that is. This is not the time for idealism and I am sure you know that I do not stint when it comes to social justice, particularly with race. In the tint of an international civil rights movement against racism and racial inequality, the latest victims of white supremacy in the United States have made myself, students and other like-minded individuals think about issues closer to home.

That in this county, Black people are nearly nine times more likely to be stopped by the police than white people (Stopwatch); that in Britain, 184 Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic [BAME] people have died in police custody since 1990 (Inquest) – that in youth offenders’ prisons, over 40% are from BAME backgrounds [Lammy Review, 2017]. All this is before I begin to talk about the disproportionate impact COVID-19 is having on people of colour, in terms of deaths and infection. These are our students and their families. 

This statement (June 4) is vague as to what change they aim to bring about, and looks nothing more than what many institutions are doing, virtue signalling

Out of this, I am deeply concerned over the future of race equality at the University. The statement that was released on June 4 was vague. It didn’t go into detail on really anything and it felt performative. Honestly, I’m quite perturbed by the their reaction to Black Lives Matter and the protests; this is not the time to be apolitical when massive portions of the University community are experiencing racial trauma (including the genetic trauma that comes with being descendants of the Transatlantic Slave Trade), and the Black members of staff having to maintain professionalism!

And the fact it so long to release a statement (11 days after George Floyd’s murder), makes me uncomfortable. Notwithstanding, it took a tweet from me to get things moving. Racism is not a comfortable subject, nor should it be; it is nasty and the University needs to understand that. 

From Wednesday, I will no longer be your Vice President BME at the SU and there is no intention to replace me. Already, the next sabbaticals have arrived. Are they as interested in equalities as the last team? Well, we won’t know until they acculturate to their roles. Whether that is on decolonising the curriculum or the state of race in higher education, I really couldn’t say. However, I have plenty of thoughts and even recommendations that the University can implement. Yet, I am worried the institution is not willing to have this conversation, nor hear the unpleasantness that comes with discourse and discussions on the state of race relations in this country. 

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

I have lots of ideas about curriculum and disciplinaries, also policing and security (yes anti-racist work is more than posts on social media, and yes I agree social media is useful). 

From an outsider’s perspective, the University response to Black Lives Matter looks nothing more than virtue signalling. At the moment, I do not think it takes these issues seriously at all. Now leaving altogether, I am still going to be in the area. And, I am still willing have this conversation in my role as an incredibly concerned member of the local community, a place that has been my home for nearly 20 years of my short but active nearly 25 years fighting and experiencing racism in this country and county. 

Nothing about Black Lives Matter is comfortable, and issues with policing in the US are also happening here. Students that currently study with the University can relate to the plight of George Floyd’s family, and the other victims of police violence. And the University needs to understand that Black Lives Matter goes beyond policing. Black Lives Matter goes to awarding gaps, accommodation, curriculum, disciplinaries and more. Black Lives Matter is every institution’s problem, particularly in higher education.

I am willing to start this conversation now, as a preemptive strategy to help the University long-term. This institution sees an awful lot of bad press from local media and also from the community, but it really doesn’t have to be that way. I so want to see this place succeed, as I know it can (if it takes these issues seriously, and takes the help of concerned community members, including myself, and others who I know who are also concerned about the University’s approach towards issues of race). In the sense, its approach to these subjects is nonspecific. “BAME” doesn’t help anyone.

What HEIs more generally should be doing is looking at the subtleties of race and identity, since BAME doesn’t take look at nuance or cultural heritage, locking culture, history and identity into a draw never to be seen again.

What the University is currently doing is not good enough. Advertising the diversity of students whilst simulataneously not investigating issues that hurt students, including racism. Diversity is a con, as it:

“often creates a happy impression; it is how an organisation appears
welcoming to those who appear different by drawing on those who appear different. Diversity can appear as an invitation, an open door, translated into a minorities welcome! Come in, come in”

(Ahmed, 2018: 334).

There is a scab over a tumour throughout the sector. That tumour is institutional racism. Sir William Macpherson spoke about this in the Macpherson Report, investigating the flawed police investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Wendy Williams doesn’t mention it by name, but she doesn’t need to, in Windrush Lessons Learned. Neither did Baroness McGregor-Smith in her review into race at work. Whilst these are not HE-specific, they all have correlations with universities. Institutional violence is pervasive in all institutions. Look at the relevant recommendations.

Now more than ever, in this historical moment, with Black Lives Matter and Coronavirus; as an institution, it should be studying institutional racism and structural inequalities, but more importantly and specifically, institutional violence. Black Lives Matter and COVID-19 are linked. Health and race have a history that go back to the days of the Windrush Generation when the women of that generation were called to fill labour shortages that still exist today. Especially, in healthcare, pertinent when we are currently in the worst public health crisis since the Spanish Flu in 1918.

Photo by James Eades on Unsplash

To understand race, we must study racism, how it came to be and why. Which would mean interrogating higher education’s ties to histories of slavery, empire and colonialism. Race doesn’t exist, it’s a construct. It was created. We must stumble around in the dark and come face-to-face with the architects of colonial racial thinking. The people that allowed British colonialism to be so successful. That’s one way we help students.

We know who constructed Nazism and that ideology because how Britain defeated Hitler is embedded into the national consciousness. So, why should we treat Britain’s colonial history any different? We need to find the Joseph Goebells characters of the British Empire and study them.

Penultimately, I will end in asking why the University made the FBL BAME Project Lead redundant in July 2019?* A person whose job it was to do research into the ethnicity award gap. Someone who wrote reports and made recommendations. In the axing of this role, I’m inclined to believe the University did not like their recommendations, and thus did not act upon them. The signals it sends that they discontinued this role while the award gap is seemingly important to all universities baffles me.

In addition, does the University intend to replace the Diversity and Inclusion Lead in HR, whose contract ended.* The D&I Lead did some sterling work this last academic year, both in setting up staff networks as well as her work for LGBT History Month and Women’s History Month, all while on fixed-term part-time contract (at two days a week). If the University is going to take equality seriously, it needs to put resources behind it and recruit people that are specialists in that area.

Passionate people that will do the work and two days a week part-time fixed-term is not good enough. Only one staff member with little support? It very much looks like the University is cutting back on equalities. You can do better.

I will end in saying, when we do not look at the roots of a problem, they fester and that hurts everyone. Case in point: racism and policing. And the recommendations in The Macpherson Report have simply remained recommendations. When we want to solve problems, we don’t look to the leaves, we look to the roots so we can stop them happening again. From Wednesday, I will no longer be at the Students’ Union but I will still be a worried, concerned local resident. How the University has responded to Black Lives matter is simply not good enough and if they continue on this path, it risks damaging its reputation beyond belief. You. Can. Do. Better.

However, this needn’t be goodbye, but hello and the start of something. There is a community on your doorstep that want to help. Let us.

Yours,

Tré Ventour (Vice President BME) – 2019/2020

PS: To anyone, including students that want to discuss issues of race further in this time of uncertainty (as we should all be discussing them always) or simply want to keep in contact, you can message me via the blog or you can get me via social media (Twitter / FB / IG), which is simply my name

Photo by Neil Thomas on Unsplash

*Note from the editors – the Criminology Team has been contacted by a representative of the University’s Human Resources department to clarify that the Equality and Diversity Lead left at the end of the fixed term contract period. In addition there was no redundancy in relation to a post in the Faculty of Business and Law (FBL).

Referencing

Ahmed, S. (2018). Rocking the Boat: Women of Colour as Diversity Workers. In: Arday, J., Mirza, S. (eds). Dismantling Race in Higher Education: Racism, Whiteness and Decolonising the Academy. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 331 –348.

Other Sources of Interest

Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategry (2017). Race in the Workplace: The McGregor-Smith Review. (Chairperson: Ruby McGregor-Smith). London: TSO

Home Office. (1999). The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. (Chair: William Macpherson). London: TSO. ​

Home Office (2017). Report of the Independent Review of Deaths and Serious Incidents in Police Custody. (Chairperson: Elish Angiolini). London: TSO.

Home Office (2020). Windrush Lessons Learned Review. (Chairperson: Wendy Williams). London: TSO.

Ministry of Justice (2017). The Lammy Review. (Chairperson: David Lammy MP). London: TSO.

Northamptonshire Rights and Equality Council. (2020). ‘Our Nine-Point Plan to Advance Racial Equality in Northamptonshire: June 2020,’ https://northantsrec.org, [online]. Available from: https://northantsrec2013.files.wordpress.com/2020/06/9-point-plan-to-advance-racial-equality-in-northamptonshire-final.pdf

Public Health England. (2020). Disparities in the risk and outcomes of COVID-19, (Chairperson: Public Health England). London: TSO.

To defeat fascism, Education must #decolonise

When I was a boy, growing up in Northamptonshire in the middle of England, I learned a lot of history from my own family. It was at home I learned about the cruel tenure of colonialism and the British Empire, not at school. My parents and grandparents told me of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s and times where there was insignia to No Irish, No Black, No Dogs on shopfronts. They told me of “Keep Britain white” and Neil Kenlock’s iconic photograph. How Britain made the Windrush and their children, (both children of the British Empire unwelcome). Recently I saw This is England for the first time, and couldn’t help but feel we be might going back to an imitation of Powell, the NF, and his rivers of blood. I’m afraid. However, the difference between now and then is that today it’s everyone versus racism.

Like many of my Black and brown colleagues, we are never more fearful than when we are in a room full of white men. That stench of white male privilege is foul. Now, that’s some funk! I was made to relive my public school days when I saw the scenes of fascists fighting the police. When I saw these men defending another fascist, Winston Churchill, I was made to relive the trauma of school, where I was monkeychanted and called wog. Told to “eff off, you Black bastard” and that’s putting it kindly. These Neo-Nazis reminded me of people I went to school with. And since Black Lives Matter have come out once again, I have been called all kinds of things.

“Go back to your own country”… “ape” … “nigger lips” – this is what happens when you fight racists online, most of my racial trauma as an adult comes from the worldwide web

Photo Credit: Neil Kenlock (1974)

In my heart of hearts, I hope we do not go back to that time where Stephen Graham’s Combo is a commonality. London’s scenes showed me the zeitgeist of Britain’s swaggering xenophobia. That Britain is more Bill Sykes than Liz Bennett. The fact this country has a history of racism and you can go through the education system and not be taught about race once just shows you the level of brainwashing. And more importantly, the denial of our past and present. That aspiring teachers can go through initial teacher education [ITE] and not do anything on race equality, including the differences between teaching white and Black children (equity > equality). That when I am called those horrific names, I know they come from racism embedded in the unconscious, historically popularised by men like Edward Long, slave trader-historian, but he was also a devotee to pseudoscientific racism.

The Windrush Scandal: they were colonised, enslaved and then repatriated; so will we implement this history onto curricula in the years to come? I won’t hold my breath.

For me, those images of white men fighting police cast my mind to The Battle of Cable Street in 1936, but also that whole era of anti-fascism and Black shirts that lead up to the beginning of the Second World War. That in our pursuit to impliment Black history on the curriculum, this can’t detract from the fact we have histories of working-class narratives that need to be told as well. From Stonewall (1969) to Thatcherism and the Miners’ Strikes in the 1980s to the Irish and the Jews brining an end to Oswald Mosely in 1936, to the Bristol Bus Boycott (1963) and the Notting Hill Riots in 1958.

Riots erupted between anti-Fascists and Blackshirts (British Fascists) in 1936 in what became known as the Battle of Cable Street (Getty Images)

The late Peter Fryer wrote “nowhere within the British Empire were black people passive victims. On the contrary, they were everywhere active resisters” and I would push that quote on to working class people in general. From the role of Black teachers in white schools of thought to the women of Grunwick in South Africa, passivity in times of oppression does not come natural to the human spirit. Now, when we push back against the status quo, a small minority of white men think we’re curtailing their rights. We are not taking away Englishness, simply putting back what was taken.

We have a history of radical political thought in this country, on both sides of the political spectrum. And the rise of the far-right in both parliament and the population shows a Britain in conflict. Yet, seeing how Britain’s diversity is pushing back against the Boris Johnsons and the Britain Firsts of this world does make me proud to be a born-and-bred Briton. That Tommy Robinson’s hooligans causing trouble do not speak for my white friends and this new wave of thought is in the tint of C. L. R James and George Padmore. That Black Lives Matter follows in the footsteps of Garvey, King and X.

Photo by Koshu Kunii on Unsplash

It is chilling to say the least, that our ancestors fought facism before, winning with far fewer resources than what we have now – and “we know that history records the achievements of empires and imperial civilization more than it does the humanizing and civilizing contributions of emancipation movements” (Gopal, 2019: 27). What makes history interesting to me is the diversity of characters, pertinent to the story of this country. Whether we’re talking Indians during Votes for Women, Afro-Romans on Hadrians Wall or the life and times of role models like WW2

codebreaker Alan Turing, part of our national story and his sexuality is honestly the least interesting thing about him.

To fight police without thought of consequence is reserved to privileged straight white men. When the Suffragetes did it, there were consequences. When people of colour have done it there have been consequences (esp. Black people). Breonna Taylor was killed whilst she slept. Emmett Till was considered a threat a fourteen years old. 184 Black and minority ethnic people have died in police custody since 1990 (Inquest). The only people in society who have the gall to take on police without thought of consequence is able-bodied, white, cisgendered, straight men. Why? You only have to look at the British history books and how they are written, in their image.

When the worst war criminals in human history are white men glorified as heroes (i.e Churchill), is it any surprise white male privilege ran riot when those fascists violently retaliated against the Black Lives Matter movement?

Works of Note

Fryer, P. (1988). Black People in the British Empire. London: Pluto.

Gopal, P. (2019) Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent. London: Verso.

Love Cinema: Tré’s Lockdown Favourites so far…

12 Angry Men (1957) – Dir. Sidney Lumet

When a Puerto Rican boy is put on trial for murder, eleven out of twelve jurors are hasty to vote guilty, and thus commit him to deathrow. Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) is sceptical about the available evidence and wants a thorough analysis of the facts from every juror before sending a boy to death, to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. What starts as an open-and-shut case becomes a detective story that pokes holes in the evidence at hand, creating a mini-drama of each juror’s prejudices biases, and preconceptions about the case and each other.

For Colored Girls Who May Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuff (1982) – Dir. Oz Scott

We follow the stories of seven very different Black women in America, including themes of abuse, addiction, and violence, both overt and institutional. In this 1982 performance of the award-winning play, we are witnesses to combinations of music, poetry and dance, painting a raw portrait of intersectionality, misogynoir and mental health in Black women. In this time of uncertainty around Coronavirus, it would do us well to remember the impact mental health has in Black communities. We are one of the most at-risk groups (much ado with societal pressures / prejudice) but also a people who are less likely to ask for help. Mental health services have been under immense pressure in this crisis, and we must not forget their contributions as keyworkers as well.

Jaws (1975) – Dir. Steven Spielberg

Jaws (1975)

When a hungry Great White shark starts terrorising the people of Amity Island, the police chief (Roy Schnieder), an oceanographer (Richard Dreyfuss) and a rugged shark-hunter set their sights on killing it. Earth’s seas and oceans will never be truly safe but sometimes it’s worth the risk (not that I’m much of an outdoorsy type myself). This is the tragic story of man must be number one. All of these characters are encouraged by a corrupt mayor (Murray Hamilton) trying to gather what’s left of Amity’s tourist industry. And the only crime this shark committed was being hungry, taking on one of the few species on the planet that does not kill to survive. In a time when some are willing to put capitalism ahead of people’s lives, I did struggle not to draw comparisons between the sub-themes of the Spielberg classic and Coronavirus, as meglomaniacs lead Britain and the United States into uncertain doom!

Rebecca (1940) – Dir. Alfred Hitchcock

Rebecca, 1940 (United Artists)

On holiday in Monte Carlo, the rich, handsome widower Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) meets a young woman (Joan Fontaine), becoming the next Mrs de Winter. Taken aback by the massive Manderley estaste, she must learn to be waited on, and to exist in the company of Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson). Though and behold, things get strange when a mysterious secret is found under the sea close by to Manderley.

Criminally, the only Hitchcock film to ever win a Best Picture Oscar, this is one of his lesser-knowns but my favourite Hitch project nonetheless, with Judith Anderson giving one of the best performances in any film I have had the pleasure to lay my eyes on. Turning eighty this year, Rebecca still surprises me, from its use of light and shadow to how Hitch captures you in the anticipation of the act rather than the act itself. Truly, The Master of Suspense. And isn’t that entire introductory sequence simply enchanting?

Life, Animated (2016) – Dir. Roger Ross Williams

As a toddler, the animated Owen Suskind went mute, lost to autism with seemingly no way back. Nearly four years later, the only stimuli that engaged him were the films of Disney. Animation. One day, his father donned a puppet of Iago, from the film Aladdin. “What’s it like to be you?” Iago (Owen’s dad) said. Owen replies with the next line. This documentary tells the heartbreaking and inspirational story of how a young boy learned language and how to make sense of the world through Disney animation.

For someone who studied Creative Writing at university; for someone that loves stories; for someone that lived for Disney as a youth and raves by Disney+ as an adult, Life, Animated was it. Whilst it’s about someone with autism, feeling the world doesn’t understand you is not exclusive to people with autism and I think there is a high possibility introverted, and highly sensitve personalities (HSPs), will take a lot from this film as well.

These are five of my favourite films I have watched whilst locked down (in no particular order), that give alternate views of seeing the world, people and society; and I hope after COVID, society changes – seeing the world different

Wokeness is a Plague: In Defense of Amazon

Whilst cancel culture has been badged on celebrities that have said something offensive or inflammatory in the past, often when they were young and stupid, seldom have I seen cancel culture done on works of literature. Essentially, cancel culture is a medium of boycotting someone (now something) we disagree with for a past misdemanour or an opinion we don’t like. Yet, this month was the first time I had seen “cancelling” enacted on a work of literature. This reiterates a time when Britain actually banned books. One such example being when Penguin were taken to court over D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, accused for being too sexual.

Moreover, books like To Kill a Mockingbird being taken off US school curricula, ironically the go-to text of the 20th century about racism is by a White person (but that’s another conversation). The fact of the matter is I thought book boycotts were something that didn’t happen in this country, well not in my lifetime anyway, nor my parents’ life time. That when we disagreed with something we dismantled it point by point. Another example would be the David Irving who has also published books and in 1996 took historian Deborah Lipstadt to court for calling some of his statements and writings, “holocaust denial”, in her book Denying the Holocaust (1993).

There was even a film made about the case, which was rather excellent!

But it was on a sunny May day when I happened to get a text from Criminology’s @paulaabowles with a link to a Huffington Post article calling for Amazon to pull a text from circulation. The text on display, was a collectable edition of And Then There Were None. The title on display is the original, then Ten Little Niggers. Over time it’s had many titles and is now called And Then There Were None. Obviously, the original title is overtly racist and its imagery plays up stereotypes of Black people, very much in the style of blackface minstrelsy, something that was on BBC TV until 1978!

However, studying Creative Writing as a Black student (of which many of my modules were English Literature), I think the reaction to this article is emotional; impulsive; and rather quite unnecessary. On my degree, there were books that I would call racist texts, including Dracula (Stoker), The Island of Doctor Moreau (Wells) and Heart of Darkness (Conrad). The use of the slur on this book has sparked outrage amongst Black writers and activists. But what they are doing is putting modern values onto a text that was published in a time when the British Empire still held weight.

Before Indian partition; before independence movements took hold; before the Suez Crisis, and my family’s countries’ calls for independence – not until 1966 (Jamaica) and 1974 (Grenada), both within living memory for many people.

I suppose it is rather ironic that some of my favourite books ever written could in fact be labelled racist. As a boy, I read Enid Blyton. Now, I critique stories such as Noddy for its racist leanings. We all read Dr. Seuss as children, an antisemite. Do we have to cancel him as well? I love Cat in the Hat. Tolkien’s depictions of the orcish peoples in Middle Earth can be interpreted as a disdain for racial mixing. The Carlomens in C. S Lewis’ The Horse and His Boy (my favourite Narnia book) are most definitely based on colonial stereotypes of Arabs, and their interactions with King Lune and his Archenlanders are very much reminiscent of “Anglo-Europe and The Rest.”

Honestly, you can’t make this stuff up (Noddy, Enid Blyton)

Whilst I get the idea to take this book off Amazon, does that mean there is going to be a movement to go after authors who could by today’s standards be deemed racist? Not even alive to defend themselves. I question, that if we cancel these kinds of books, does this allow people to forget? The N-Word is not nice but people are not reading this academically, in the context that it comes from a bygone era. As early as the start of the Second World War when colonial sentiment was still valued around the world.

If we “cancel” it, is this simply picking and choosing what is / isn’t offensive enough? Despite their sentiments, I still read Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. In cancelling this collectors item Ten Little Niggers, we are picking and choosing what is offensive. This is everything that’s wrong with woke culture. It works until it doesn’t. I find it short-sighted that supposedly “woke” activists want to get rid of a text that could well be studied under decolonisation movements, not cancelled in hindsight of modern values.

This is one of the moments I find cancel culture and workness so toxic; I’m certainly one of those people that would read these sorts of books so I can learn about how different parts of that society thought about other races

This campaign against Amazon is impulsive, in an age where many are quick to anger without forethought, particularly in countries like Britain and the US which have selective memories about their history. We criticise the Nazis for book burnings and their propaganda machine, but have we looked outside recently? The moment we censor literature, is the moment we censor learning, particularly as books like this are historical fingerprints to an era where racial thinking ran brigand. A racial thinking born in colonial times, lending its ear to many issues we see today, including White Supremacy, ethnicity award gaps, stop and search and White Privilege.

The [Jim] crows were clearly created off African-American stereotypes, and very overt racism in Disney animation does not end with Dumbo (Disney, 1941)

Are we going to stop people reading The Jungle Book, or stop kids watching pretty much every Disney animated film made between 1939 and 2000? I could make a chunky list of problematic books and films but they allow us a doorway into history. History is facts (sort of) and facts don’t care about your feelings. Dickens wrote about what he saw (more social history than fiction). Books allow us to see how different peoples may have thought and felt about other peoples of the time. That there is a reason why Black soldiers were excluded from the victory parades in 1918 (for example).

The cancelling is a metaphor for a country that is denial of its past and present. As someone who grew up going to school being called nigger, as someone who was monkeychanted, I do not agree with cancelling this book. It allows people to forget how the British Empire won the war on race, sorely evident in the texts on university degrees. I feel these antiracism activists have acted brashly (this time) with no forethought about context, study, or history, since I believe if the British Empire was taught (especially racial thinking), we would not even be having this conversatioin.

But to be frank, when I see antiracism activists accepting MBEs and condeming stuff like this (trying to be “woke”), I think to myself are they this ignorant or simply, do they not care? And more importantly, how dare they speak for me

This is America: Riot is the History of US

CLR James speaking in Trafalgar Square, London, in 1935.
Photograph: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

Riot does not roll off the tongue so nicely these days but it is not possible to talk about the history of the United States without telling a story written in violence. A story written with the blood of slavery, and nearly one hundred million Indigineous bodies when Columbus and his soldiers came. Stories of Bostonian patriots who threw imperial tea into Boston Harbour. Tales of slaves inciting rebellion in a slave-stricken South – Nat Turner and the Southampton Insurrection; Harriet Tubman on the railroad; Frederick Douglass as a pioneer of abolition. On Edmund Pettus Bridge, (named for the KKK big shot), in 1965 state police go to work on peaceful protesters. What US history shows us is that there is a pattern of rebellion and dissent.

Once, the United States was a beacon of anti-colonial rebellion and radical opposition to British rule, perhaps this is a chance now for the US to show us who they are

Now, in light of the murders of Breonna TaylorAhmaud Arbery and George Floyd, the tear-gassing of protesters and the attempted murder of Chris Cooper, Black America shows its teeth. America is a tinderbox. London marches in solidarity. Social media, well… there is some hope that they are not just more hashtags that amount to nothing. The riots in Minnesota show me America hasn’t lost its touch under Trump. Not beaten blue by America’s first-born son, the scurge of public executions and White supremacy.

Before Rose Parkes, there was Claudette Colvin

Here, I will not condemn the violence. I applaud it. Violence against the American establishment is not only necessary but completely justifiable. White Power did not like the peaceful protesting. Not when Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parkes set the ball rolling; not when Colin Kaepernick took a knee or when activists marched with Black Lives Matter. You murdered Malcolm, Martin, and Medgar before they reached 40. You killed Fred Hampton at 21; you nearly put Angela Davis on death row and forced Assatta Shakur to flee the country. Anti-establishment dissent is as American as apple pie.

We must stand in solidarity with antifacists; we have defeated facism before and I know we will do it again.

I have no time for naysayers; I have no ears for their brand of “wokeness” and liberal piety, that riot is unacceptable at a time when Black lives are on the clock, from both COVID and a police officer’s footprint, like a confederate flag. Disease or the noose, public executions are not a thing of a bygone era of cotton pickers and segregated schools, and water fountains in a southern state come hell or highwater. “There is no chip on my shoulder, that’s your foot on my neck” and Malcolm’s words have not aged a day.

“I incite this meeting to rebellion” said Emmeline Pankhurst and when I see White allies in Kentucky weaponising their whiteness against the forces that feed it, this is how you use your White privilege for good; that is antiracism in action

I once believed there were good police and bad police. Now, I’m not sure. It’s like saying there were good slave masters. NWA wrote that song ‘Fuck Tha Police‘. Today, I think of bad police and police that are silent. However, silence is violence “cause they’ll slam ya down to the street top / Black police showin’ out for the white cop.” Whiteness is a psychosis and Black police and other police officers of colour are also complicit in holding up racist structures, like police departments that do not care about them and theirs.

Freedom is never gifted, it is fought for. Suez. Haiti. Independence is never gifted it is fought for. Ghana. Jamaica. India. Human rights are never given, they are fought for. Votes for Women. Stonewall. Apartheid. What about when the Jews and the Irish kicked Oswald Mosely out of Cable Street? What about when Lancashire’s white working class stood in solidarity with American slaves during Cotton Panic of the 1860s? Nelson Mandela wasn’t “one of the good ones” in his time, he was branded a terrorist. Martin Luther King was on the FBI’s radar. They tapped his phone for God’s sake.

Protesters in Manhattan after the Stonewall Riots,
marking a turning point in the gay rights movement (Summer, 1969)

When we study anti-colonial movements (incl. independence struggles), I struggle to follow how people condemn Black America for this uprising, knowing the story of America’s conception (Hamilton, Burr and Washington in toe). That even when Black America is having its rights and dignity as human beings curtalied, people still say but. That in what Harvard’s Michelle Alexander calls a “new Jim Crow”, there are many out there who would gladly see over forty million citizens back on slave plantations.

“If men use explosives and bombs for their own purpose they call it war, and the throwing of a bomb that destroys other people is then described as a glorious and heroic deed. Why should a woman not make use of the same weapons as men?”

Christabel Pankhurst (1913)

I still have not brought myself to watch the video of George Floyd’s murder. The stills of his body were enough. I’ve heard versions of “violence is not the answer” and “rioting is counter-productive.” At this point, when the bodies keep mounting, some want the angry to write sternly-worded letters (how very British, might I add). I don’t think one can blame folks for taking to the streets. If violence is not the answer to attack White supremacy and systemic racism in a country born out of violence, what is? March? Vote in a different president? (White supreamcy far predates the days of Trump).

But change has never come by waiting around, change has always come from civil disobedience and rocking the boat; at what point in history has change come from being nice?

Obama showed us that the ballot will not stop the bullet. I have not seen a worldwide reaction to US police violence in this way since Fergurson in 2014. We are seeing sometimes violence is all that’s left. We like to pretend that the best of us are not capable of such things but we are all capable of anything given half a chance. And this part of the Civil Rights movement is glossed over, how “non-violent” political movements like women’s suffrage are sanatised, because they are not as clean-cut as we’re taught they are.

Ferguson (2014)

Once, to harbour runaway slaves was a crime. Once, caught runaways would lose a half a foot to stop them running. Once, slave women were raped by Master. Once, slaves would kill their babies to stop them becoming slaves. Once, black bodies swayed in the breeze of a Louisianan sunset. Violence is not always the answer but when you’ve been oppressed so long, it looks like the only answer. When is enough, enough? When do you stop watching people being kicked when they’re down, saying “I can’t breathe.”

Post-traumatic slave syndrome tells me that police violence is not just police violence, but a single part of a racist system that’s been allowed to fester for over 400 years; and more importantly, begs the question: when will Black men and Black women be able to move freely in a society where they can love themselves without fear of (social) persecution?

COVID and Me: I’m Not British But…

Photo by Francisco Venâncio on Unsplash

In the worst public health crisis since The Spanish Flu (1918), it’s safe to say that a new social contract should be drawn up after COVID, like what happened after the Second World War with Labour’s Welfare State. Yet, unlike the narratives within both world wars, this time, the actions of Black and brown people, migrants, and refugees cannot be written out of the history books. Can they?

Being in lockdown for the past eight weeks, it’s allowed me to contemplate my British identity. Before this crisis, I was at odds with my identity, and at comfort. Now, I feel that there really “ain’t no Black in the union jack”, as per Paul Gilroy’s book. When I saw headlines about whitewashing the NHS, disproportionate deaths within communities of colour and Black men being stopped by police buying food for their kids, I thought am I really British?

Liverpool, 2019 [Photographer: Tré Ventour]

The last time the world went through this much disruption, fear and uncertainty was during the Second World War, and before that, during the Depression. What both these times have in common is that they wrote the actions of Black and brown people out of the narrative. Racial theories, originating from pseudoscience played significant roles in how people that looked exactly like me were treated. Black and brown soldiers, sailors and servicemen were expendable and then erased out of history. On the African continent, these people were deemed not human enough to have dignified burials like their White counterparts, they were buried in mass graves.

What if I told you that afterwards, in 1919 there were race riots across Britain ? And at Albert Docks, a Bermudan Black veteran was lynched in a racially-motivated attack? Charles Wootten, who fought for this country, a nation that wasn’t his own only to be treated like a second-class citizen and then murdered. And in the wake of the The Depression, Britain’s own civil rights struggle took root. Now, the utter arrogance that the UK will defy all the odds against existential threat all on its own without any help at all.

Photo Credit: Neil Kenlock (1974)

Which makes decolonisation such an interesting space, because frankly none of this is on school curricula. That in teaching slavery, we only really teach Wilberforce, not about slave rebellions in the colonies nor resistance from the White working-class in Britain. Emancipation came from the bottom up, not top down. The history is complex and class solidarity kicked the elites in the teeth. And even in that, why do we not teach class solidarity in schools? Not how the Jews and the Irish kicked Oswald Mosely out of Cable Street, or the striking women of Gunwick in [British] South Africa? Today, as I see the death rate in the UK compared to somewhere like New Zealand or Germany or Taiwan, it’s hard not to believe there’s been a mismanagement somewhere, to put it lightly. Or, bias is at play. Similar to how Churchill left three million Indians to die in the Bengal Famine (1943). His hate for Indians was notorious and the Government’s contempt for the working-class can be seen through austerity, Universal Credit and its reactions to events such as Grenfell and the Windrush Scandal, where Black British citezens have been deported.

Now, this textbook British Blitz spirit will not do in 2020. Not that Britain won the wars on their own. But today, jingoism, White ethno-nationalism and #PickforBritain sing strong and loud. This blitz spirit may have formed Britain as a nation for White people, but as a Black person my experience of Britishness is one of unbelonging being written out of the identity of this country. That in narratives of COVID-19, will the actions of Black bus drivers, healthcare staff, and teachers be erased from the history books?

In Coronavirus, I see echoes of Brexit. That we can go it alone. Yet, there are no whispers of resistance to this. Forty thousand bodies say hi. I don’t see public anger. That in Britain’s pride to do it alone, I think of the calls for British independence from the EU. Lest we forget the stories of Empire; independence wasn’t gifted, it was fought for. Haiti’s Revolution for example, after which Britain sent armies to invade the French Caribbean. An unsuccessful campaign to reinstall slavery. This moral abolitionist narrative, that we are freeing ourselves is so commonplace to the UK.

Photo by Michelle Bonkosky on Unsplash

So, when I see people who look like me dying in numbers, it is a reflection to how this country started calling itself great. Stepping over the bodies it feels are inferior. People of colour. Poor people. Immigrants. Refugees. United by class. That in #PickforBritain, the industry is losing not because of Coronavirus. It is losing because of Brexit, where the majority that voted for it told foreigners they were no longer welcome here. A prejudice born from pride. Meanwhile, you are asking the public, many of whom whose ancestors toiled on those plantation death camps in the Caribbean, if they want to pick potatoes. No, Boris. I won’t. And the website doesn’t even work.

In light of VE Day and under Britain’s whole campaign in response to COVID-19, there is a story of the underdog that survives all odds, backed with popularised films such has 1917, Darkest Hour and Dunkirk. The truth of the matter is that people from the British Empire [of which I am descended], including Africans and Asians, were instrumental in Britain and the allied forces winning those wars. That here on this small island, we weren’t just some minor nation but a vast empire able to win because it had collected so many countries previous, pillaged for wealth and benefits.

After Coronavirus, Black and brown people should be at the centre of this story. That the diversity we boast about is why the NHS hasn’t been overwhelmed and the diversity we boast about is also dying at a disproportionate rate. Good manners and freedom; these are things we label with British values, which also came from Victorian values, which are colonial values. That clapping for our carers rings of a time which would not have afforded me my Britishness. Now, we are taught distorted histories which make people question the narratives of race in situations like COVID.

Knowing all this, is it surprising that today British people of colour like me are treated like “good immigrants” having to prove their worth, when the history we learn at school is a juxtaposition to how Britain is, how it has always been?

From Poplar to Grenfell, and the lands between

DS Morse (Endeavour, PBS)

In a previous blog post, I commented how the Period Drama is my favourite genre to watch. This year, it was interesting to see two of my favourite series talk about tower blocks. As we reach the third anniversary of Grenfell , I saw both Call the Midwife and Endeavour comment on how these tower blocks were optimistic schemes. As the tower blocks multiply in the London East End, a new society rises. Meanwhile, in Endeavour a tower block collapses in Oxfordshire (quite like Ronan Point in Canning Town: London, 1968). Watching both these shows, we know how this story ends, in ashes; poor people, immigrants, refugees, Black and brown people, people with disabilities as victims of the Grenfell Tower fire.

It is also tragic to see that in the stories of tower blocks in both series, there is also a Black history that goes beyond the show. In Call the Midwife’s ninth season, we encounter a patient with Sickle Cell, common in those of African descent. “The population around here is changing, I have to be prepared to deal with new things” says Dr. Turner. The arrival of the Windrush Generation, tied with the baby boom brought challenges for the state. Where would they house people? People in a society where Enoch Powell feared “the Black man would hold the whip hand over the White man.”

Lucille Anderson (Call the Midwife, BBC)

In Endeavour, the Cranmer House collapses, which may be inspired by the true-to-life incident of Ronan Point, a tower block in the Canning Town district in the East End of London. Ronan Point partially collapses a year and half before the events of ‘Degüello’ in the sixth season of Endeavour. In London, there were four fatalities and an additional seventeen were injured. Initially said to be a gas explosion, like at Cranmer, it was later deduced that Ronan Point’s collapse was due to structural deficiencies. Laws were eventually changed in hope of preventing incidents like this.

Though, that did not help those that died at Grenfell, where seventy-two (that were accounted for) lost their lives on June 14, 2017, including still-born Logan Gomes after his parents escaped the tragedy in the south-west of London.

However, this episode of Endeavour must be one of my favourites of any show I have seen. Not only for its sociohistorical significance, but for its ability to tell a story with excellent pacing in a way that I only really see in journalism films, such as The Post (starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks) Not at any moment is this boring to watch (nor is the entirety of the series). Each episode of Endeavour plays out almost like a film noir. Especially ‘Degüello’, which makes me think of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974).

(Source: BBC via Department of Health and Social Care)

When a librarian is murdered at Oxford’s world famous Bodleian, DS Endeavour Morse and DI Thursday have no leads but a pair of muddy boot prints. With both suspects having motives, Morse explores into their pasts, showing bribery and corruption at the highest level, including links to Cranmer and the murder of their colleague DC George Fancy. In its ninety minutes, ‘Degüello’ is pure edge-of-your-seat drama. It must be one of my favourite season finales of all-time. And that is high praise, indeed.

Early on we already begin to see the cracks in Cranmer. Quite literally. When tragedy strikes, it is up to Morse and company to find the survivors in the rubble of what was supposed to be an optimistic look at Britain of the future. Watching shows set in the 1960s, it’s eerie to know how this story ends (if it has ended at all). In this time of Coronavirus we are in a country with a 30,000+ death toll, many of which could have been prevented. The same can be said with Grenfell, where stakeholders seemingly cut corners to save money and at least seventy-two people unnecessarily lost their lives.

When I see characters in canonical novels described as dark or black, I always think skin colour, especially Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights who I always read so, particularly him coming from a former slave city, Liverpool (Wuthering Heights, Film4)

With these two shows set in the same time period, both with commentaries on tower blocks (CTM’s being a looser narrative), we in the present have the gift of hindsight. Yet, with Grenfell we continue to make the same mistakes. If they are mistakes at all. Did the state’s contempt for the working class begin with Grenfell? No, just look at Charles Dickens novels, or how the characters of Wuthering Heights treat Heathcliff who Mr Earnshaw brought back from Liverpool. These are works of fiction, but how fictional are they? Art imitates life, but when life starts imitating art is what scares me.

For centuries, those that have, have always treated those that don’t with disdain. Whether that’s the actions of the British Empire; or the use of child labour (see the Factory Act, didn’t do much). Or the Mines Act (1842) prohibiting girls and women working the mines. Nonetheless, today’s progress on equalities, including the Human Rights Act (1998) would also dictate that the Factory Act (1833) as not fit for purpose, with age ten as the minimum age for boys to work the mines. English common sense indeed!

This adaptation Bleak House may be one of my favourite shows ever made (BBC)

How fictional are the stories of Dickens, the Bronte Sisters, or Thackeray’s Vanity Fair that comment on class? With the ongoing investigation into the Grenfell Tower tragedy, how will the history books look back on it, in say a century? What about the Windrush Scandal? In the ‘Case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce’, in Bleak House, it ends with nobody getting anything. Years of legal fees and legal jargon that nobody understands. Both Call the Midwife and Endeavour show characters at the mercy of systems. A London tower block black as coal doesn’t discriminate but institutions do, systems do.

When you run Grenfell, Ronan, Cranmer, or even the Coronavirus pandemic parallel to British history, is it really surprising that the state is cutting corners, readily throwing society’s most vulnerable, including the poor, under the bus?

Is film dying, or am I overthinking this, again?

Star Wars Episode V: Empire Strikes Back (LucasFilm)

I think we’re at a point now that television is at its creative peak, while film is in a slump. Television in 2020 is where film was at in the 1970s. Though, I also question if my recent critique of the industry is, if I’m simply a victim of golden age thinking. That in believing that industry is lawless because the gatekeepers care more about money than creativity, where once there was a healthy mix of both. Are today’s mainstream films made for me? Am I the audience for it? In the tint of toxic fan bases (big up Star Wars) Or if simply, most films made today are just bad? When I go to the cinema, am I thinking too hard or do I have unrealistic expectations? Is wanting a good story making bank too much?

I wouldn’t say they’re necessarily bad, just samey. I think the recent Star Wars trilogy is great. It’s flashy. It’s fun. But ultimately, it’s samey. I do understand where my parents’ generation are coming from when they say that they didn’t like the last Star Wars trilogy. I think there are lots of good even excellent films made today, I simply think we the public are too forgiving of mediocrity, whilst praising bad films that are good for business. In lockdown, I’m finding even more so why I prefer films made before 2000, and finding it hard not to say that films made today, generally are in a tough spot compared to when my parents and grandparents were growing up.

I think Moonlight is one of the most beautiful films ever made (A24)

As I mentioned above, television is where film was in the 1970s. Now, before I cause any upset, I’m not generalising, because my favourite film of all time came out in 2011, Midnight in Paris. There are plenty of excellent pictures that have come out in the twenty-first century. From Lord of the Rings to Moonlight. 2017 was a great year, also giving us Dunkirk, Get Out, Logan, The Post, Wind River and Mudbound. Moreover, Detroit and Death of Stalin. I am always impressed with Christopher Nolan and Aaron Sorkin.

And regardless of how much I hear people complain at the lack of originality in the businness today, due to remakes, reboots and so forth, none of that compares to Ghostbuster 2. Nonetheless, that doesn’t detract from how in our complacency as a society we have grown to accept mediocrity over the importance of The Story that dominated film before the turn of the century. I think it was Hitchcock who said “to make a great film, you only need three things – the script, the script, the script.”

In a conversation with another film enthusiast, we were talking about how many filmmakers we like who are also problematic characters. Woody Allen, being one I have a love-hate relationship with. I think he’s one of the funniest writers alive but his controversy makes me uncomfortable to say the least. Clarke Gable, a fabulous actor of Old Hollywood, but he would not have survived #metoo in today’s world. In light of Weinstein, it got me to think about my own biases when watching film and assessing goodness.

The more interesting characters are on TV, from Stannis Baratheon to Frank Underwood (Netflix)

Some people find it difficult to seperate art from the artist, and that inability to split the two can inform bias on a piece of art’s badness. That somebody will dislike any Kevin Spacey film because of what came to light in #metoo. Yet, I still believe he is one of the greatest actors of his generation. How he brings Frank Underwood to life in House of Cards brings tears to my eyes. But from the 1930s through to the back end of the 1980s, it’s racism and sexism galore. i.e like every James Bond film ever!

“I was lucky to get into film at a time that was very interesting for drama. But if you look now, the focus is not on the same kind of films that were made in the 90s. When I look now, the most interesting plots, the most interesting characters, they are on TV.”

Kevin Spacey

Are the things that make bank today made for me? Is there a cultural shift now similar to how the mob genre practically died at the turn of the century? Hollywood does have “Marvel Fever” and I do enjoy them. Yet, there was a point when the industry would green light any western, where John Wayne would be chasing indigenous peoples on horseback. Studios would green-light gangsters and film noir. Hollywood likes what’s good for business. I believe the only difference between now and then, is that people are more complacent, and there’s more of a spoon-feeding culture today.

Avengers Assemble (Marvel Studios)

Before the internet, my parents talk of a time when you had to use your critical faculties where information wasn’t given to you instantaneously. Now, we just expect everything immediately, including stories. The problem is not with what’s being made, it’s with how it’s being made. Quality, not genre. There is a reason why the original Star Wars Trilogy has universal appeal across multiple generations. There is a reason why Steven Spielberg has had an iconic film for every decade of his career with universal appeal.

The problem with many films today is the shift from good storytelling into genre storytelling, replacing good writing with special effects and fan service. I’m a fan of this “superhero fever” but that doesn’t mean I will shy away from critique, and they are very problematic, along with many action blockbusters. The reason why I prefer what Fox did with X-Men, as flawed as it was, is that it focussed on story(ish) and not mythology. With Marvel, it’s always “the next film” but Fox kept me on the present pane of existence.

I loved 2017 because there were many films that kept me grounded. Moonlight, Get Out, La La Land, The Big Sick, Molly’s Game; it was how I get from point A to point B. What about this character? Why should I care about them? 2017 had many films where there were lots of characters that made me feel things, similar to the number of films that came out before 2000. That when I watch Goodfellas, my heart breaks when Tommy (Joe Pesci) gets whacked. Today, I couldn’t care less if this and this person dies.

I am not sure whether that is because I am not the audience, I’m an anomaly or if I am a heartless bastard, or a mixture

Lots of drama films just seem flat. Or am I just not the audience? What ever happend to films like Doubt, where [Queen] Viola Davis gives one of the best performances ever? When I watch works like Netflix series Stranger Things, I remember I have seen it before. I remember my father showing it to me as a kid. It came out in 1985. Sean Astin, Josh Brolin. It’s called Goonies. Though, I loved Get Out, the golden egg in the sea of turds that was the 2018 Best Picture race. Interesting story. Explored its characters. Emotional resonance. Jordan Peele, then followed that with Us. Fab.

Doubt (Walt Disney Studios)

Yet, I’ve seen some great ones recently, including: The Post, Spotlight and The Big Short. They are great in the moment but forgettable, as much as I hate to admit it. Where have all the writers gone? Honestly, they’re killing it on television. God bless Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Television is film in the 1970s: Killing Eve, Clone Wars, Girls, House of Cards, Westworld. When something as excellent as Scorsese’s Silence tanked in the box office, this is when you know there’s a culture shift, and it broke my heart to see that.

Take Last Kingdom (on the Netflix platform), a medieval historical drama series that has the storytelling Outlaw King / The King wish they did. Excellent characters, brooding, and emotional resonance (as any drama should be)

Whilst stories like Last Kingdom would once be made as films (Braveheart), they’re now being made as television series. Whilst lack of original ideas, focus on remakes, sequels etc etc could be used as a reason to justify the decline of film, a more plausible reason could be that television was never really a credible competition for film until recently (last 10 – 15 years). In addition to marketing, particularly trailers (and samey posters). Pre-2000, you’d have once had some interesting posters. Now, most look done to template. Ultimately, boring. Yet, this seems to be good for business.

Trailers do not represent the film, and often miss the feel of the film. One of my favourite films ever made is Goodbye Christopher Robin on the relationship between children’s author A. A. Milne and his son Christopher Robin (or Billy). A drama film whose trailers sells it as a light-hearted early to mid 20th century period drama about families. But when you watch the film, it’s about post traumatic disorder and one man’s quest in overcoming the angst of war. Thus we have the children’s classic Winnie the Pooh.

It presents Alan Milne as a product of a generation of men who were socialised into thinking that “affection” is a bad thing. Toxic masculinnity tied with the trauma of war made for a troubled relationship between him and his son. Its trailers make it seem like a harmless period costume drama but it explores the trauma of war and the emotional distance, of people who were products of that Victorian “common sense” nonsense at the turn of the 20th century. I implore all to watch it but its trailers certain missell it.

Last Kingdom (Netflix)

Going back to how I started this blog entry, I really do enjoy many films that are released today. However, I know many of them to be nothing but autopilot drivel that are specacle more than anything else. I know I would sooner watch a good television show but I still enjoy the novelty of going to the cinema and seeing something on a massive screen. Even if I know I won’t necessarily like what’s on show. I do wish some of these TV writers would come back to cinema because the quality is fading and it shows.

And I do often wonder if in the near future we will get to a point where companies like the BBC, HBO, Netflix or Amazon Prime will start to show episodes of television at cinemas in the same way we pay go to watch films

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