When IT consultant Joseph Pascale (David Oyelowo) reads various reports that black pupils, especially from schools in South London, are consistently shunned by the education system, he decides to change careers and become a teacher instead. After landing a job at a school in south London, it soon becomes clear that he’s the odd one out… not just, as he notices when breaking the fourth wall (which he does throughout the film ) as he is the only black teacher in the school but despite his best intentions to prove that young black people from “difficult” backgrounds can be made into successful human beings, he fails to connect with his class. Given that 70% of the students at the school are black (these days it would probably be 90%…) and the majority of them engage in gang culture and criminal activity, this does not not help. In short, most of the students aren’t at all interested in getting a useful education, which leads Joe to use more drastic measures to ensure that the boys will learn their lesson in more ways than one. Unfortunately, Joe’s drastic measures, which he hopes will give his students extra school time, consist of harsh detention, etc., which only further alienates him from his class. One troublesome student in particular, Germal (Charles Mnene), doesn’t appreciate Joe’s efforts and falsely accuses the well-meaning teacher of physical assault. At first Joe gets away with it, but when Germal’s friends confirm the allegations, the teacher soon finds himself in the crosshairs and, thanks to local newspaper articles and radio talk (this was a time before social media), he is called a racist. In fact, black rights activist Councilor Watts (Brian Bovell) calls Joe a “black-faced Ku Klux Klanman” and, even worse, a “House Nigger.” The controversy surrounding Joe has now spiraled out of control and innocent Joe loses his job.
His apparent failure causes a deep depression and over the next few months Joe isolates himself from his friends and family – the difference between the well-spoken Joe and his former students becomes especially evident when Joe listens to his treasured Miles Davis records. as opposed to the aggressive raps that the ghettos of ‘Sarf London’ have to offer. Looking straight into the camera (i.e. looking at us), he angrily remarks that “Everything bad that happened to me involved a black person” before recounting unfortunate incidents from his childhood that also implicated other black people. His hatred towards his people grows so violently that he begins to hallucinate and is no longer able to separate fiction from reality. When his worried landlord (an unemployed Joe is way behind with his rent and doesn’t return his mother’s calls) sends for a doctor, Joe ends up in a psychiatric ward and God knows how many pills a day – his unrelenting anger and rants to the concerned white hospital assistant that he wants to be moved to another ward because the one he’s currently on is full of black patients. “You can’t say such things, it’s racist,” the shocked goalkeeper replies in a twisted statement. After Joe’s release, although he continues to rant against black people, his new life as homeless on the streets of London brings him a kind of comfort because “if you owe nothing, you can’t lose anything”. Living on pennies that passersby throw into his little bucket, a gang of black thugs walk by and kick the bucket – one of the gang is Germal, the student who caused all the trouble in the first place . Recognizing their former teacher, the gang members laughingly take pictures of homeless Joe with their cell phones before moving on. One rainy night as Joe sits on a bench, an old black lady with difficulty walking struggles with all her heavy shopping bags – initially ignoring her, Joe eventually offers to help and carries her bags. When she wants to invite him for a cup of tea as a thank you, he runs away but, overwhelmed with hunger, returns and his host serves him dinner before Christmas. Her name is Mabel (Jay Bird), a dedicated member of the local Gospel church who never misses a moment to recite the Bible. His Christian duty prompts him to take in homeless Joe and feed him. Christmas is approaching and Mabel’s extended family arrives but even then he immediately finds ammunition and plenty of reason to continue his witch hunt against his own: “Why do black people always have such stupid names (Sherlene / Elroy / Kaylon…)” before Mabel’s daughter, displaying all the chic of low-rent housing trash cans, becomes her next target: “Look at her… five children with five different fathers!
When Mabel takes Joe to the Baptist church (he even gets baptized), he briefly finds a new sense of belonging before finding that church attendance has changed since he was a child. “Why are there so many women among the faithful? he asks looking at the camera, before the camera pans to an entirely different setting, namely that of a prison. “Ah yes, sure – that’s where the men are… muggers, thieves, drug dealers, rapists, murderers…” Joe muses in his usual toxic manner. However, it is through Mabel’s circle that Joe meets Heather (Nikki Amuka-Bird) who works at the local Job Center and manages to get Joe a job as a caretaker. Soon though he and Heather fall in love and he too is now working as an employment counselor when who should walk through the door one day but Germal, who left school without any qualifications and is now looking for a job. “So you don’t have a diploma you say but you’re looking for work?” Joe happily asks his former student, finally sensing an opportunity to get revenge on the boy who ruined his life. “I have a job for you, no problem” and before he can say anything, Germal finds himself at the Hoxton sewage plant at night! Joe is doing well at work and in his private life until an office party (mostly of black co-workers) leads to the next disaster when, in a slightly drunken state, he fumes at his co-workers “Why are black people so stupid? Look at the Chinese and the Asians how smart they are and how stupid we are in comparison! Maybe we just need to overcome our blockages caused by slavery… at least we knew our place when we were slaves, now look at us, what have we actually achieved? Needless to say, those same remarks would not only have caused an uproar during the transmission of the film, but of course they caused an uproar among his colleagues and within days Joe found himself out of a job again while an embarrassed Heather out of his life. His next job is – oh irony of ironies – as director of the same psychiatric clinic in which he himself was a patient and his new patient is none other than Germal who has suffered from depression since his job at the wastewater treatment plant. You have to know one and after a brief reconciliation, Joe leaves happier, realizing that cultural identity is nothing more than a state of mind.
In this post-BLM climate, it seems unthinkable that the BBC in particular, always keen to tick the diversity boxes, if only for fun, would air such provocative work, but it was possible in 2006 and the Writer Sharon Foster should be commended for penning a piece that leaves an uncomfortable aftertaste while suggesting that not everything wrong with black people is due to ‘Whitey’.
Director Ngozi Onwurah expertly directs the cast, passionately guiding David Oyelowo, through 90 minutes of urban hell and self-discovery. This long-awaited Blu-ray release also contains three of Onwuraha’s early shorts: “The Body Beautiful” (1990); ‘Flight of the Swan’ (1992) and ‘White Men are Cracking Up’ (1994) with the late Jon Finch.