To say that screenwriter Sharon Foster’s highly controversial and highly provocative SHOOT THE MESSENGER caused a stir and a half when it was broadcast as a TV-play by the almighty Beeb back in 2006 is possibly an understatement, for rarely has a film delved so deep into the nitty gritty to override political correctness and explore ‘black on black’ racism within South London’s community. David Oyelowo gives an intense performance as a former IT consultant turned teacher whose failings to connect with his underprivileged students leads to a painful and delusional downward spiral culminating into a new self-discovery.

When IT consultant Joseph Pascale (David Oyelowo) reads various reports that black pupils particularly from South London schools are constantly failed by the education system he decides on a career change and becomes a teacher instead. After having landed a position in a South London school it quickly becomes clear that he is the odd one out… not just, as he remarks by breaking the fourth wall (something which he does throughout the film) because he is the only black teacher in the school but despite his best intentions to prove that black youngsters from ‘difficult’ backgrounds can be turned into successful human beings he fails to connect with his class. Given the fact that 70% of the school’s pupils are black (these days it would probably be 90%...) and the majority of them engaging in gang culture and criminal activities doesn’t help. In short, most of the pupils aren’t in the least bit interested in obtaining a useful education – leading Joe to use more drastic measures to ensure the lads will learn their lesson in more ways than just one. Unfortunately, Joe’s drastic measures, which he hopes will give his pupils extra tuition time, consist of harsh detention and so forth, which only results in further alienating him from his class. One troublesome pupil 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 off the hook but when Germal’s friends back up these allegations the teacher soon finds himself in the line of fire and thanks to local newspaper articles and radio discussions (this was a time before social media) is branded a racist by his own people, in fact, black rights activist Councillor Watts (Brian Bovell) calls Joe a “Ku Klux Klanman with a black face” and, worse still, a “House Nigger”. The controversy surrounding Joe has by now spiralled out of control and the innocent Joe loses his job.

His apparent failure causes a deep depression and over the next few months Joe shuts himself away from friends and family – the difference between the well-spoken Joe and his former pupils becomes especially apparent when Joe listens to his treasured Miles Davis records as opposed to the aggressive rap which the ghettos of ‘Sarf London’ has to offer. Looking straight into the camera (that is to say looking at us) he angrily remarks that “Everything bad that has ever happened to me has involved a black person” before recounting unlucky incidents from his childhood which also involved fellow black people. So fiercely grows his hatred towards his own people that he begins to hallucinate and is no longer able to separate fiction from reality. When his worried landlord (jobless Joe is way behind with his rent and won’t answer his mother’s calls) brings in a doctor, Joe finds himself in a psychiatric ward and on god knows how many pills a day – his anger unabated and lashing out at the concerned white hospital assistant that he wants to be moved to a different ward because the one he’s currently in is full of black patients. “You can’t say such things, that’s racist”, replies the shocked warden in a twist statement. After Joe has been released though he still rants on and on against black people, his new life as a homeless person on the streets of London provides some sort of comfort because “If you don’t owe anything you can’t lose anything”. Living off the pennies which passers-by chuck into his little bucket a gang of black hoodlums pass by and kick the bucket with their feet – one of the gang members is Germal, the pupil who caused all the trouble in the first place. Recognizing their former teacher the gang members laughingly take photos of the homeless Joe with their mobile phones before moving on. During one rainy night while Joe is sitting on a bench an elderly black lady with walking difficulties struggles with all her heavy shopping bags – initially ignoring her Joe finally offers to help and carries her bags. When she wants to invite him in for a cuppa as a thank you he runs away but - overcome by hunger pains – returns and his host serves up a pre-Christmas dinner. Her name is Mabel (Jay Bird), a devoted member of the local Gospel church who never misses a moment to recite from the Bible. Her Christian duty prompts her to take the homeless Joe in and feed him. Christmas approaches and Mabel’s extended family arrive but even then he immediately finds ammo and plenty of reason to pursue his witch hunt against his own people: “Why is it that Black people always have such stupid names (Sherlene / Elroy / Kaylon…)” before Mabel’s daughter, displaying all the chic of council estate trash, becomes his next target: “Look at her… five children with five different fathers!”

When Mabel takes Joe along to the Baptist church (he even gets baptized) he briefly regains a new sense of belonging before observing that going to church has changed since he was a kid. “Why are there so many women among the worshippers?” he asks looking into the camera, before the camera pans to a totally different setting, namely that of a prison. “Ah yes, of course – this is where the men are… muggers, robbers, drug peddlers, rapists, murderers…” muses Joe 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 Centre and manages to get Joe a job as a caretaker. Soon though he and Heather become romantically involved and he too is now working as a job advisor when who should stroll in through the door one day but Germal, who has left school without any qualifications and now seeks employment. “So you have no qualifications you say but you are looking for work?” Joe gleefully asks his former pupil, finally sensing an opportunity to take his revenge on the boy who ruined his life. “I have a job for you no problem” and before he can say s**t Germal finds himself on a nightshift at the Hoxton Sewage Plant! Joe does well in his job and in his private life until an office party (mainly consisting of black colleagues) leads to the next disaster when, in a slightly intoxicated state, he rants at his fellow colleagues “Why are black people so stupid? Look at the Chinese and the Asians how clever they are and how dumb in comparison we are! Maybe we just need to get over our hang-ups caused by slavery… at least we knew our place when we were slaves, now look at us, what have we actually achieved?” It goes without saying that those very remarks not only would have caused an uproar upon the film’s transmission but of course they cause an uproar among his colleagues and within days Joe finds himself jobless yet again while an embarrassed Heather walks out of his life. His next job is – oh irony of ironies – as a warden at the same psychiatric clinic in which he once was a patient himself and his new patient is none other than Germal who suffered a breakdown since his job at the sewage plant. It takes one to know one and after a brief reconciliation Joe walks away a happier person, realising that cultural identity is nothing more than a state of mind.

In this our post-BLM climate it seems unthinkable that the BBC in particular, always keen to tick the diversity boxes if only for the sake of it, would broadcast such a provocative piece of work but it was possible in 2006 and writer Sharon Foster ought to be congratulated on penning a piece that leaves an uncomfortable aftertaste while suggesting that not everything that goes wrong with black people is down to ‘Whitey’.
Director Ngozi Onwurah skilfully steers the cast, passionately lead David Oyelowo, through 90 minutes of urban hell and self-discovery. This long overdue Blu-ray release furthermore contains three of Onwuraha’s earlier short films: ‘The Body Beautiful’ (1990); ‘Flight of the Swan’ (1992) and ‘White Men are Cracking Up’ (1994) featuring the late Jon Finch.