Top Boy returned for its second season on Tuesday, 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 anticipant of the first episode but I did see a few that 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 are real – 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 makes 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 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 is the case for others out there. 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, or 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.