Undercover – Black Love for British Screens

by Imogen Sian Edwards

Maybe it’s just my particular newsfeed, but last month I was awash with statuses celebrating the new BBC drama that would star – for the first time – TWO black actors in lead roles. Gasp. That’s something you never see on telly and was just about enough for me to set a reminder, grab some nosh and hunker down at 9pm on a Sunday.

To be fair, this particular drama was going to have my attention for other reasons; the main characters Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester are knockouts in their own right. Both were in the British arthouse film Scenes of a Sexual Nature, Lester has been a staple on the box and on stage, whilst Okonedo kicked ass in Aeon Flux and did likewise in Mrs Mandela. Moreover, the plot of Undercover is topical. It’s based upon the undercover policing scandal where environmental groups were infiltrated by Met officers. Female activists unknowingly entered into long term relationships in some cases leading towards marriage and one victim even had children with an officer. The shows’ exploration of illegal police tactics is relevant in these instances, especially when looking at black communities.

The number of powerful scenes were too many and too varied to examine, so I’ll try to pick my faves: When Nick (Lester) takes care of his aged father in the most intimate way, we are challenged by this spectacle of love, and indeed black masculinity. The camera does not shy away from the unpleasantness of the situation, but this doesn’t make it any less of a moving moment.  Later Nick also carefully negotiates his son’s distress. Mental health and/or disability within black communities is only now coming to light in relation to their prevalence, but still lack awareness by local authorities. A primetime BBC show highlighting the issue will go along way hopefully to cutting through stigma surrounding the issues.

Undercover showing these acts of family care, when formal assistance is absent, is a vital reminder of the underlying struggles for some families. But the best scene by far was the very first. Onokedo and the African-American death row inmate (Dennis Haysburt) she is trying to release are having a conversation. A conversation about black hair. They are bandying around words like “natural” and “relaxed”. This is a conversation that has absolutely no resonance with white audiences. It was like watching a coded conversation, away from the prying eyes of the wardens and also from the viewer –  we ourselves are voyeurs into this private moment, as whiteness is to many aspects of black culture. (Before it’s repackaged by the Miley Cyruses of this world.)

The fact that this drama set out to be unapologetically black gives hope that it is not going to hold its tongue.
I still don’t really know what’s going on in the plot, however. Why was the husband spying on his wife in the first place? Why did he stop reporting to his superiors?  Who’s that creepy white dude? But then that’s the point of dramas, that and the acting. Undercover has strong competition, not just on the Sunday 9 o’clock spot but within the genre. Before, all the good telly was in the winter months; now with the competition from cable, channels like BBC and ITV have had to ramp up their primetime slots to extend into the spring months.

The Night Manager pulled in almost double the amount of viewers on its opening night. I’m not going to be as naïve to say that the lack of interest is unsurprising (though Tom Hiddleston was bloody Loki from Thor) but once viewers get over the initial unease with having black characters fill white spaces I predict viewership will only increase.

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Imogen Sian Edwards grew up in South London and is of Mixed African/Welsh/English hodgepodge ancestry. She is a third year History student at the School of Oriental and African Studies. She  focuses on Middle Eastern history and her thesis examines African eunuchs in the Ottoman Court in the late 19th century. Imogen has produced and presented an online radio programme on travel and is Secretary General of the university newspaper The SOAS Spirit.

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2 replies

  1. Just to piggyback the mention of the character of Dan, the disabled son, I’m slightly worried about how he will be used in this show. While well-written depictions of black disability are sorely needed, I fear the character’s propensity to be totally honest at all times is going to be used as a plot point later in the series. I really hope the show isn’t going to use disability as a narrative tool to heighten the tension of the story.

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