Shoot The Messenger is real in British black community –David Oyelowo

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Shoot The Messenger is one of the latest films generating heated debates among people in multicultural and multiracial Britain due largely to some of the themes treated in the flick, which are germane to the Black community in Britain.

It is a provocative story that follows one man's painful journey towards self-discovery. The film had earlier been screened to widespread acclaim at New York's prestigious Tribeca Film Festival and American Film Institute Festival 2006. It is also being screened at the 2006 Edinburgh International Film Festival.

After the Los Angeles (AFI FEST 2006) premiere of the movie, the Minister of Information and National Orientation, Mr. Frank Nweke Jnr., directed that the movie should be screened in Nigeria to showcase the technical quality of work done by Nigerian film producers and directors in Diaspora, as well as create a forum where Nigerian producers and directors could interact with their Hollywood counterparts and Nigerian filmmakers in Diaspora.

With Shoot The Messenger earmarked as a benchmark for Nollywood, the minister has commenced a new era where quality and creativity rather than quantity would be emphasised in Nollywood.

The African Voices Cinema Series is designed to amplify the diverse voices of the African continent through the creative work of directors, producers and writers from Africans in Diaspora, who were also born in Africa, and who play the ultimate role in communicating the culture, politics, and vision of a people through films.

The screenplay, by Sharon Foster, latest winner of the prestigious Dennis Potter Screenwriting Award, was set up in 1995 to nurture and encourage the work of new writers of talent and personal vision.

Writer Sharon Foster comments: "Shoot The Messenger is a reflection of debates, which are ongoing within the black community, and questions some of the stuff black communities tell themselves and their children. It's like a fable. Some of it may be uncomfortable for people to hear, but ultimately it's about learning to accept and love people as they are."

Shoot The Messenger

is a BBC Films production for BBC 2. It's produced by Anne Pivcevic and co-produced by Yvonne Isimeme Ibazebo. The director is Ngozi Onwurah (Body Beautiful; Coffee Coloured Children), and the executive producers are David Thompson and Hilary Salmon.

To support the minister's efforts and the positive developments currently being observed in Nollywood, Nu Metro Cinemas in conjunction with Motorola, commenced screening of the film in Lagos last Tuesday at Nu Metro Cinema, The Palms, Victoria Island, Lagos.

In honour of the premiere of Shoot The Messenger, the Director, Ngozi Onwurah, attended the Lagos premiere and was billed to hold interactive session with Nollywood stakeholders with a view to up the bar in the quality and not quantity of movies being churned out by the industry practitioners.

However, star of the immensely commended flick, David Oyelowo, spoke with BBC 2 on the film and his role. Our Correspondent, Olaseeni Durojaiye, monitored the highly revealing interview.

Can you tell us about Joe?

The film opens on this successful IT programmer, Joe, deciding that he wants to try to make a difference by becoming a teacher in a city school. He's inspired after seeing stories in the press about black boys failing.

He starts teaching in this school and initiates a few unorthodox teaching methods, wrongly or rightly. For example, he hands out a lot of detentions to the black boys in his class so that he can have extra teaching time with them.

He ends up getting convicted for assault after he taps a schoolboy on the shoulder. The incident is blown out of proportion and he loses his home and his job, and continues on a downward spiral.

Through his recovery, the film basically looks at the blame culture within the black community, and we see that through the eyes of Joe. His paranoid schizophrenia manifests as a hatred for black people – in his depression he sees them as the cause of all the problems in his life.

It's a journey of self-discovery, but also what it means to Joe – a middle class, professional guy – to be black in 21st century Britain.

What kind of man would you say he is? Throughout the film viewer's allegiance changes – sometimes we're very much on Joe's side and other times not.

I don't think he's always a particularly sympathetic character and that's what I love about him. He's a human being, a three dimensional human being who at times we like, at times we hate, at times we misunderstand and at times we understand.

I think there are far more people like Joe than most would care to admit, people who are slightly perplexed about their identity. 'Am I British? Am I black British? Am I West Indian? Am I African?' All these are questions black British people ask about themselves. Also, how does that identity fit into being working class or middle class? Or how do I feel about black women trying to look more western or trying not to look western? It raises all sorts of very pertinent questions.

What did you think when you first read the script? It's quite hard-hitting.

My first thought when I read it was how brave of the BBC to be making this, secondly that this is a real hot potato, thirdly that there are going to be people that would dismiss it without seeing it because of the issues it raises, but also that I desperately wanted to be involved.

I don't agree by any means with everything that Joe says, but I think some of what he raised were things we have got to really look at in society. It does what good drama should – it provokes, it prods, it pokes – it ultimately raises a debate.

I agree with Joe's notion that we cannot continue to blame the legacy of slavery for not moving forward as a community. There are many, many communities, many ethnic minorities, many civilizations that have been brutalised by others and you have to move on. You cannot perpetually stay in that place of blame; otherwise it's just a downward spiral. I one hundred per cent agree with that notion.

The writer, Sharon Foster, said she based a lot of the events in the film on her own experiences or those of friends and family. Are there things in your life you can relate to the film?

Definitely. I was sometimes called 'coconut' [as Joe is] when I was at school.

I was at an inner-city black school, not dissimilar to the one featured in the film. I did my work; I tried to be respectful and respectable. That was to do with my upbringing in Nigeria, where the culture is very much one of respecting your elders and really valuing education as a gift, especially if your government has decided it's something you should get for free.

So, I can really relate to Joe feeling slightly betrayed by his own community, because I sometimes felt that was happening to me when I didn't conform at school.

Sharon really wants to put these controversial issues out for debate among the general public. Is this something you agree with?

Very much so. In a way it had to come from a black writer, it had to come from a black lead actor and to some degree I think it had to come from a black director. I don't think some of the things said in the film would be said if it was by a white person.

I think it would go the wrong way. The black community would have the excuse of saying, "Oh, this is how you see us." I'm very happy to stand by the film in terms of the issues it raises. These are valid issues the black community has to address. It's a great piece of entertainment, but there's no getting away from the fact that there are political statements in it. The way to start the conversations is to have the film aired.

You said earlier that when you read the script you thought it was very brave. Can you explain more?

There would be people who are up in arms about it. But when that's all settled down, there will hopefully be people who'll look at it and say, 'Okay, fine, that was near the knuckle, but how much of this is/isn't real, how much is/isn't valid? I really don't know how it would be received.

Do you think it would offer viewers outside the black community an insight into the black community?

What the film achieves beautifully is that it doesn't make you feel like this is an unrecognisable world, no matter who you are.

There are people who will identify with Germal [the pupil who accused Joe of assaulting him], there are people who will identify with Joe, and there are people who will identify with Heather. It's a black British world that I think is recognisable to anyone who lives in Britain today.

Do you have a final word for viewers?

I have never seen a drama like it; I've certainly never been in one like it. I hope people would take time to watch it and think about it before making judgements.