A few weeks ago I had a bit of a Twitter debate with Times Journalist Jonathan Dean after taking issue with his article on Top Boy and The Wire, in which he argued that these shows offer a new positive representation of life on poor housing estates in Britain and America (unfortunately I can’t link to the article thanks to their pesky paywall). In fact, the byline to the article was, ‘some new films dare suggest life’s not all bad on Britain’s streets.’ I tweeted him questioning his reasoning in arguing that these incredibly violent and negative shows could actually suggest that things are looking up for people on Britain’s housing estates. He responded by arguing that the characters, for the first time in the genre, don’t actually want to leave and are happy where they are.
I couldn’t help but feel that Dean, either out of laziness of under orders of the editor, had tried unsuccessfully to make a tenuous link between that week’s new film iLL Manors and these shows, showing that the film was part of a new genre that celebrated life on the streets. I pointed him to our writer Nadia Ramoul’s article on Slavoj Žižek’s theory on The Wire, in which Žižek suggests that The Wire represents a new form of Greek tragedy, where, rather than cruel fate, it is society and institutions that trap the characters and foil their best laid plans. To back this up, I used the monologue in Top Boy, where drug dealer Dushane says, “I grew up on Summerhouse, it’s the only life I’ve ever known.” I argued that if the these characters don’t particularly want another life, it’s because they know society will block every move they make to leave, so they don’t even try. An example of this in The Wire is the character Stringer Bell, a drug dealer who tries to make the move into legitimate business and is foiled by every side and is eventually shot by his gang rivals.
The thing that really annoyed me about Dean’s conclusions was that while watching Top Boy I was really impressed by its realistic portrayal of gangs and hoped that it might change people’s attitudes and possibly encourage action on the causes of gangs. The younger characters in Top Boy are confronted by gangs at every corner. In one episode a couple of 11-year-olds are paid by the gang to ditch school and spy on their rivals while thirteen-year-old Ra’Nell, one of the main characters, faces a difficult struggle not be be pulled in, one that ends in the death of father figure Leon, before Dushane finally agrees to leave him alone.
More recently BBC Three gave us My Murder, a dramatisation of the real life ‘Honey Trap’ murder of Shakilus Townsend, who was stabbed to death by a gang after being lured out by one of the gang member’s girlfriends. Although this was a very enjoyable watch, one thing that struck me was, why the need for the victim to have this ‘good guy trying to get out’ narrative? Why does the media have to paint the victim as ‘good’ for their murder to reach us? Is it that two ‘bad’ gang members stabbing each other doesn’t pull at our heart strings in the same way?
The show’s writer Levi David Addai explained in a blog post for the BBC that, “I needed assurance that the Beeb wasn’t using Shakilus Townsend‘s death and his mother’s anguish so that they could seem edgy, there had to be a heart to this drama.” In My Murder, the writers chose to show that Townsend had just left prison after committing a mugging but were clear to explain that this side of his life was behind him and that he was going to go to college to ‘get out’. Similarly, although he got into an earlier altercation with gang members and stole one of their bikes, the blame was very clearly on the gang and not on Townsend. Addai says, “for me the fact that Shak wasn’t an angel makes his story richer and dare I say ‘normal’.” But I would argue that although Townsend isn’t shown as an angel, he is shown as a ‘hero’. He’s the boy who wants to get out, who has turned his back on gangs: he’s popular, he’s cheeky and he’s brave. But the question is, do we need him to be these things before we can care about his death? If the story (and I’m talking about media representation here, I have no idea what the boy was like in real life) involved two rival gang members, both as bad as each other, would they have made a show about that death?
A recent real life story strikes me as relevant here. Three gang members were jailed this month after five-year-old Thushara Kamaleswaran was shot in the cross fire of a tit-for-tat shooting in South London. One of the boys being shot at ran into the shop where Thushara was playing in order to find cover and the little girl was shot instead, leaving her paralysed for life. This story utterly outraged me, as I’m sure it did others. The thought of an innocent child being left unable to walk because these disgusting, morally bereft gang members were shooting at each other just sickens me to the stomach. But if Thushara hadn’t been shot, and instead one of the gang members was left dead or injured, would I have cared at all? Would the story have received the same media attention?
I guess the point of this article is to ask why is it that someone innocent needs to die for us to care about gang violence? Admittedly it is human nature for us to need to feel empathy with at least some of the parties involved to really care emotionally, which is why shows like Top Boy or My Murder need a hero for us to root for. I’m afraid that, in reality, the parties involved are usually far from innocent. What we have is gang members shooting and stabbing other gang members and it is only when there is an innocent bystander that we see the major media outrage. There is a crisis on London’s streets and whatever the reason, the first step is to knowledge the reality of the situation, then we can work on making a change. I don’t personally feel that since the riots, the government has done anything to help these young people and stop them turning to violence and for them to step up and make it a priority, it will take the public demanding real action. If these shows can give us anything, it’s that they can show some of the reasons why people get involved with gangs and spark a public debate, and if we need a hero to get us interested in that, then so be it.