Racism, self-image focus in Shoot the Messenger

In recent years commentary around race in the United States has increased somewhat. When films like “Crash” and “Spike Lee Presents C.S.A: Confederate States of America” attempt to spark national dialogue around race issues, they speak to the mainstream. However, for some of my peers and me, something critical has been missing. But in a BBC Films production recently submitted to New York City’s Tribeca Film Festival titled “Shoot the Messenger,” having that “something missing” is just not the case.

The film tells the story of a young Black British man named Joe Pascale, played by David Oyelowo, who leaves his job as a computer programmer to help combat the current crisis within the public school system, especially concerning the education of young Black males. With his newly adopted tough-love, “forced education” model, Joe ends up being stricter towards the Black youth in his class.

The Black students turn his humiliating tactics back on him, despite his being the only Black teacher in a majority Black school. Joe finds himself falsely charged with assaulting a Black student. The community backs the student and banishes Joe into seclusion, calling him everything from a traitor to a house [expletive].

While in isolation and dealing with the reality that he has just lost his job, Joe develops an intense hatred focused on Black people. He begins blaming Black people for everything negative that has happened to him in his life. “Everything bad that has happened to me in my life, has involved a Black person” becomes Joe’s new model.

Joe gets admitted to a mental hospital, is released and becomes homeless. After witnessing a murder on the streets, Joe is taken in by a “God-fearing” Black woman, who is heavily dedicated to her church. While in her household Joe gets back on his feet and gets a job at a local unemployment office. At the unemployment office his self-hate-generated stereotypes are reinforced as his interacts with young Black men and women.

The thing that made this film so powerful was not the simple fact that it engaged racial issues. It was how it discussed one of racism’s most powerful forms: internalized racism. Internalized racism is seen and portrayed constantly in Black art but rarely analyzed and/or deconstructed. This film puts self-hate on the front line and attempts to define its essence. It focuses on racism and race as it manifests within the Black community, free of outside antagonism. In essence, this makes the film more about the effects of racism than acts of racism, which is less often portrayed but more commonly experienced.

Throughout the movie Joe and Germal (the student who accused him of assault) bump into each other at different points in their lives. At the end, in their final encounter, Germal’s reality exposes the negative effect of Joe’s “tough love” model. Joe looks back to his recent life of self-hate and frustration and begins to come to terms with the cycle of self hate. (He feels humiliated and betrayed by Germal and Germal feels humiliated and betrayed by him).

Every film screening at the Tribeca Film Festival ends with a question and answer period. Everyone in the packed movie theater loved the film and begged to be able to see it in U.S. theaters. People felt America needed to see this film. The writer Sharon Foster said her mission with the film was to “dig deep enough to reach the human heart,” and she is doing exactly that.

A BBC Films production.
Produced by Anne Pivcevic. Executive producers, Hilary Salmon, David M. Thomson. Co-producer, Yvonne Isimene Ibazebo.
Directed by Ngozi Onwurah.
Screenplay, Sharon Foster.
With: David Oyelowo, Nikki Amuka Bird, Charles Mnene, Jay Byrd, Brian Bovell, Sharon Duncan Brewster.
UK, 93 min.