By Damilola Odelola
Top Boy returned for its second season in September, after a year-long hiatus, it resumed a comfortable spot. The story follows a group of young (and sometimes older) people on a fictional Hackney estate, Summerhouse, involved with drug dealing and gang violence. During it’s first season, it was often likened to America’s The Wire and understandably so. The characters are multi-dimensional and complex; they aren’t just drug dealers or gang bangers, they are orphans, parents, abuse victims, business owners, etc. The writers of the show seem careful to paint these characters as human as possible, making it hard for us, the viewers, to completely demonise them because they are relatable. We see aspects of us in them.
When this second season premièred, many were excited and looked with anticipation for the first episode, but I did see a few who weren’t so happy with the return of the series. The complaints generally followed along the lines of “more negative images of black people, more black gangsters and drug dealers, more black murderers, more bad black people…”.To an extent, I understand this frustration, my piece Whitewashed TV partly looks into this very problem of not having enough positive black characters on British television. But that’s the problem, not enough positive black images or stories on television. The issue isn’t that Top Boy portrays negative images of black people – after all these characters and stories exist – the issue is that there isn’t a balance on our television screens.
Majority of the Top Boy cast is black and ethnic minority, and initially my argument was going to be ‘well at least it’s not just the black people selling drugs’ and as much as this is true – there’s only one white drug dealer. The police are white with one black lawyer. Already there is a precedence set up about who’s who and the racial roles, but still, these roles are complex. For example, the white secretly-drug-addicted husband could be seen as a deceitful person who is compromising the financial and physical security of his family or could be seen as being led astray by the black dealers who will stop at nothing to get what they’re owed. Then there’s the young black dealer, the apprentice if you will, who runs an errand to the drug-addicted husband’s house and is consumed by his library of books. He wants to know more, he wants to discuss history and know how many books the library holds but is pushed away by the husband. On one hand this can be seen as a husband trying to keep his secret a secret, and on the other it could be seen as the husband preventing the young apprentice from learning/education. On the surface, the racial boarders of the show don’t seem as obvious as white = good, and black = bad but there are hints of it.
So in a sense, Top Boy does contribute and feed into negative racial stereotypes. However, as I said before, these are real stories and do depict real life situations. The majority of inhabitants on many a London estate are black or ethnic minority, but these are not the only stories. I’ve grown up on a London estate, and still live there and I have never been involved in drug or gang related activities and I know this is the case for others out there too. My estate is not notoriously ‘bad’ but is not ‘good’ either, if I wanted to get involved in those things I very easily could have.
The solution to countering the negative stories of black people on television isn’t to silence those stories. Those stories need to be told, black narratives have been historically silenced for a long time. I mean, in school black history begins at slavery as if black people magically appeared in Africa when white people got there, for the sole purpose of being slaves. Just because these narratives don’t reflect black people in the best manner, does not mean they shouldn’t be told. It is possible for white people to have good and bad narratives on television at one time, so why can’t the same be for black and ethnic minorities?
What made The Wire so successful wasn’t just its ability to tell realistic black narratives, but it was its ability to give a holistic view. The Wire wasn’t just about the drug dealers and gang bangers, it was about the police force, the school system, the media. It successfully critiqued these institutions and showed their corruption and failings in detail. The police force did not equal the good guys; they were corrupt and dealt with their own internal issues. Although Top Boy is not The Wire and the stories being told are different, it would be a nice change if the stories weren’t just about the drug dealers and gang bangers, but also about institutional racism within the police force and the way the school system fails people of colour.
On a larger scale, it’s the responsibility of writers to write black stories that don’t conform to the negative stereotype and for networks to accept them. If it’s possible for white stories to be interesting whether they are good or bad, then the same goes for black and ethnic minority stories too.
Damilola Odelola is a 21 year old English Literature and Creative Writing graduate, and poet. She is a Nigerian-born London girl, with a passion for African Literature which she intends to study at The School of Oriental and African Studies. She loves to teach and work with youth, she tutors English Literature and has just begun running poetry writing and performance workshops. Raised in a Christian home, Damilola enjoys writing about religion and faith, as well as race, feminism, and other random stuff that can’t be easily categorised. She stores her work at damii scribbles and she can be found talking far too much at @damiiscribbles
- Doing the Right Thing: Black Film and TV in a Biased World (mediadiverityuk.com)
- Melanin without tokenism: black people are slowly being allowed to be normal on TV ( Newstatesman )
- WGA West Report Shows Diversity Still Lacking in TV Writing ( variety.com )
- British TV drama makes black viewers wonder why they pay their TV licence ( telegraph.co.uk )
- Why were the Baftas so white? Because there aren’t enough black people on TV ( theguardian.com )
5 thoughts on “Top Boy and Black Stories”
I agree with all of this! Though it was particularly interesting how gentrification was touched upon in this series
Reblogged this on Shell Pebble and commented:
Thanks so much for writing this.
I saw an episode of Top Boy as part of Media Diversity’s #AllWhiteTV survey and struggled to explain what bothered me about it. It wasn’t simplistic, wildly unrealistic or gratuitously negative, and the race-consciousness of the writing was evident. I even wondered if they had deliberately made some of the most unsympathetic characters – a sadistic drug lord, a junkie mother – white. Maybe an excess of optimism on my part!
The problem is that the only show with more than a critic-appeasing sprinkle of black actors is this gritty show about drugs crime & violence, which reinforces a stereotype to people who so much as glance at the TV schedule.
I mentioned that this show was race-conscious. If only that applied to the other shows I had to watch. ITV’s Great Night Out, for example, was a completely mindless show full of white people doing unrealistic pointless things. (I’d say the same about Eastenders, but I don’t want a fight.) It would be impossible to put black actors in these roles without waking up the audience. Right now most of British TV is letting white people sleep.
Big School was an exception. I’m not saying it was exemplary, but it at least drew attention to white ignorance and didn’t absolve it. That’s a start.
That’s the thing, particularly with British TV, there doesn’t seem to be an application of racial consciousness. Our media hide from it but it’s very much needed. Although ‘Top Boy’ has received a lot of negative reviews, I’m glad it is what it is. It shows the characters in 3D and has prompted a discussion on black representation on TV, it’s too easy to silence these representations because they’re negative.
Thank you for reading my post 🙂
Yep yep yep! It’s complex. Totally agree its not so much the topic but the lack of balance. Feeding weak lazy minds who accept the puerile media stereotypes. I just find the continuation of these tedious stereotypes so boring. It angered me as a small child….
Thank you for reading my post 🙂 I too find these sterotypes boring, in fact I wrote another post about it, ‘Whitewashed TV’ (http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/damilola-odelola/whitewashed-tv_b_3391935.html). The crucial thing is to tell alternative black stories as well as the ones we are ever so familiar with.