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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 August 2006, 11:13 GMT 12:13 UK
Edgy new black film tests opinion
David Oyelowo in Shoot The Messenger
Oyelowo says his character is not 'particularly sympathetic'
A controversial new BBC film about the black community in Britain has been described both as "a landmark piece" and "the most racist programme in the BBC's history."

Black writer Sharon Foster's screenplay is a drama portraying one man's efforts to help change lives - only to find himself bitterly railing against the attitudes of the black community.

The film, winner of the Dennis Potter award for screenwriting, opens with the line: "Whenever I think about it, everything bad that has ever happened to me has involved a black person."

Director Ngozi Onwurah told the BBC News website that the film deals with issues prevelant in the black community, "but quite often don't talk about in public".

"Part of the role of a writer is having to look at some of the more uncomfortable things in the world that you know," she said.


Shoot The Messenger centres on Joe Pascale, a black middle-class computer programmer who quits his job to become a teacher and help underachieving black pupils.

David Oyelowo and Nikki Amuka-Bird
Written by Babyfather's Sharon Foster
Stars Spooks' David Oyelowo and The Line Of Beauty's Nikki Amuka-Bird (above)
Directed by Ngozi Onwurah
Shown at Tribeca and Edinburgh Film Festivals
Previewed to BBC ethnic minority staff in special screening

But one of the children accuses him of assault, sending him into a downward spiral which he believes is caused by black people.

BBC Two controller Roly Keating has hailed it as "Look Back In Anger for a generation of black Britons", but campaign group Ligali called it a "flagship programme for racism".

"This is one of the most racist, demeaning and misrepresentative films ever broadcast and commissioned by the BBC," said Toyin Agbetu, the founder of Ligali, which seeks to challenge "the misrepresentation of African people in the British media".

"African people in Britain are portrayed as a monolithic, belligerent, aggressive, politically naive and intellectually-diminished," he added.

Positive images

Mr Agbetu argues the film has potential to cause offence.

"Showing Shoot The Messenger would herald a return to the 'care-free' days of the Black And White Minstrel Show - an era before programme producers realised it was immoral to consistently caricature one group for the sole exploitative entertainment of another," he added.

Richard Blackwood
Richard Blackwood appears as a trouble-making radio host

But the film's director, Ngozi Onwurah, said that Ligali wanted to only see positive black characters on screen, which would also be misrepresentative.

"The starting point for some of their arguments is very valid - there are a lot of negative portrayals in the media and there needs to be somebody watching what's going on," she said.

"But that doesn't mean that you counteract it by having almost pure propaganda".

Hard filming

Ms Onwurah said it was only because both herself and the writer are from the black community that they understood the frustrations and had been able to make the film.

But she stressed that shooting some of the scenes was "incredibly hard."

At one point, the central character, Joe, vents his rage by declaring to a stunned party: "They should bring back slavery - that's what we're good at."

"You have to get the note right, and you have to be with the character," Onwurah said. "You have to understand why the character's in this place after this series of events."

"If you wanted to, you could look at this and say, 'in this piece of work, they say bring back slavery.' But that would not be looking at the work properly."

Shoot The Messenger will be screened on BBC Two on 30 August.


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