Written by Merisha Everiste (@THEPSYCHOMEV)
‘A Masterpiece of our Time’
‘Why would I need to watch a Series which glorifies every negative Black stereotype in the book – Top Boy isn’t for me, man.’ Self-admittedly, this was my initial—and incredibly ignorant—viewpoint of TOP BOY, when asked if I was intending to watch the first Series back in 2011. Although my younger Brother and I were always fans of Ashley Walters’ productions, as far as I was concerned? I didn’t need yet another negative reminder about the harrowing reality for so many young, Black people (in particular), living within urban London boroughs – word of mouth was enough. The reality for some of my friends and family was enough. Mass media was enough. It was enough. Eight years later, having never watched the First, nor Second, Season, the hype surrounding the Third was all-consuming – and I certainly caught on. Staying true to my binge-watching nature, on Wednesday 11th and Thursday 12th September? I blew through both the First and Second Seasons – I was pleasantly surprised. Were the classic, ‘stereotypical’ themes featured? Absolutely. However, I was taken aback by how beautifully, multi-layered the initial Series’ were and how many of the issues resonated with me deeply.
As a young, Black, female Educator and Psychology specialist, in East London, Hackney (but residing within the borough Newham), watching Top Boy, Season 3, reinforced that this can—and is—the reality for some of my students (past, present and future). I was reminded of my Pastoral ability, duty and care. However, this wasn’t all that struck me. I noticed that many—if not all—of the negative stereotypes, that even I initially held about the Series became obsolete. Globally, the Black male and female are stereotypically known to be: (1) Mandingos (sexual predators); (2) Savages (primitive, ignorant and stupid); (3) The ‘Angry, Black Woman’; (4) The Ultimate Criminal; (5) Reared from ‘Broken, Black Homes’ to name a few; and yet, Top Boy, Season 3, aimed to challenge each of these stereotypes – aggressively.
THE MANDINGO (Sex and Belonging)
If it’s one thing that I am thankful for? It’s the fact that TOP BOY refused to go down the obsessive porn-like path as its American peer, POWER. Although there were some sexual references and acts, such as that between ‘Jamie’ and ‘Lizzie’, there was another overarching level to such interaction—and platonically across the entire Series: belonging. TOP BOY depicted Black males, in particular, as being in need of love (even if confined to the ‘wrong’ places, but certainly doesn’t suggest that that they are completely absent of receiving such emotion). This ranged from ‘Jamie’ simply wishing to share discourse—outside of the remit of drugs—with his drug supplier (post-sex), having lost both parents to Cancer, to ‘Sully’ and ‘Jason’ being the family they both never had for—and with—one another; we watched grown men, in their thirties, performing ‘gang-bound stake outs’ in ‘Trap Houses’ (properties where drugs, illegal firearms–or otherwise–are kept, sold, distributed, etc.), whilst simultaneously craving the normality of family life; to the various friendships, relationships forged out of need, absence, accessibility and tragedy.
THE ‘ANGRY BLACK WOMAN’ + THE BROKEN BLACK HOME (Black Love)
Like an Ava Duvanay’s QUEEN SUGAR, we, as viewers, were undeserving of the explicit Black Love shots, in all of its glorious forms. TOP BOY ensured that each main love interest was a beautiful, natural Black woman? Pardon me? Ca va? Where Black love, a societal taboo, existed in its purest—and most vulnerable—states? The stages of courting, dating, establishment, marriage, loss, the Black nuclear family at the forefront etc. From ‘Dushane’ treating ‘Shelley’ like the Queen that she is, to watching ‘Aaron’ courting his gorgeous love interest from University. As a dark-skinned Black woman, I am used to seeing myself as being represented as ‘last pickings’ in many media releases; where fairer-skinned, non-Black ‘exotic’ women are the supposed preference of the Black male; where the dark-skinned woman is often portrayed as angry, bitter and abusive. TOP BOY did not maintain this false narrative, nor conditioned ‘status quo’; instead, we were blessed with a range of Queen-like, natural—and nurturing—Sisters, who supported—and were supported by—their Black Kings. This isn’t something that I see very often on screen and I was thankful for such artistic portrayal.
We didn’t deserve the number of shots where loving, tactile behaviours, between young, Black, heterosexual, males existed. From the copious scenes of ‘Jamie’ with his younger brothers, ‘Aaron’ and ‘Stefan’, to ‘Kit’ consoling ‘Jamie’ during a time of crisis. We weren’t ready and was undeserving of such beauty, quite frankly. When was the last time that you saw this? ‘No Homo’ is the overused phrase expressed by many young males; a phrase coined out of fear of having their masculinity challenged or even disregarded. TOP BOY were unapologetic win showcasing acts of love between young, Black men in the most unadulterated forms; this occurred in time investment, emotional wellbeing, intellectual investment, releases of some characters’ inner child and bouts of innocence. This was healthy and needed.
However, a key feature of the entire Series was the promotion of Black Love, within the Black Family, where regardless of social class (Underclass; Lower; Middle; Upper) and family type (Nuclear; Extended; Reconstituted; Lone-Parent etc.). Black Love was always the focus. Prioritising the child was always the focus. Providing stability. Unity. We see this in predominance between ‘Jamie’ and his younger siblings, in the tragic absence of their belated parents, where ‘Jamie’ takes on the role of legal guardian for both siblings—this, was executed perfectly—but also between ‘Dushane’ and his mother; ‘Dushane’ and his extended Jamaican family; ‘Ats’ and his mother; the mother of ‘Sully’s’ daughter, her new husband, the daughter and ‘Sully’ himself; ‘Aaron’s’ love interest and her respective parents. Care, nurture and connectedness was at the forefront of each family dynamic; whether performing typical household tasks; to ensuring academic excellence and commitment; to encouraging a biological father to be a part of a reconstituted family; to gang members checking on the safety of other members; to ‘Stefan’ pleading with ‘Jamie’ to ‘wake him up when he comes home’; to ‘Dushane’ simply needing a hug from ‘Shelley’ amidst complex dynamics with friends, his mother and opposition. Again, having Black men represented in this manner was empowering to say the least.
THE SAVAGE + THE ULTIMATE CRIMINAL (Criminality)
Across all three Seasons, the stereotype of Black, inner-London, males being ‘drug dealers’ and/or ‘killers’ were certainly fulfilled – this will not be the basis of my post, however; the intention of so was not to glorify the lifestyle, but to educate and provide justification for the decision making of some of the young people portrayed within the Series. In Season Three, ‘Ats’ is confronted with the new reality that his mother is no longer entitled to work, due to her immigration status and threats of deportation; we see ‘Attika/Ats’ transform from being a budding Fast Food Entrepreneur to becoming a cross-state ‘Drug Runner’ and ultimately being groomed—or forced—into childhood debt. ‘Dushane’, having migrated to Jamaica and living a seemingly reformed life amongst family, finds himself in an unfortunate conflicting battle between his former—and ‘ideal’—self, versus his reality (a car rental business assistant). This state of incongruence ensures ‘Dushane’s’ one-trip road to a lifestyle recently forgotten. A promise of the pain, hurt and death of loved ones if not remedied with Jamaica’s own Pablo Escobar. This contrasts to ‘Sully’, who having satisfied his self-fulfilling prophecy, knows no other alternative in life other than leading subcultural crime. As viewers, although confronted with the grooming, initiation, maintenance and repercussions of subcultural, gang drug land warfare, Top Boy effortlessly reminds us of the hopeless situation many young people from ‘impoverished’ Black communities face; this by no means serves as justification for many of the relentless acts of violence that we see in national Mass Media, but certainly depicts the ease in which many of our young people find themselves ‘adulting’ (often illegally), when presented with extreme poverty, material deprivation, systemic oppression and the realisation that we do not live within a meritocratic society.
There are so many explicit themes that I could write about, which TOP BOY did an excellent job in portraying, highlighting and educating us all on: a series where subcultural warfare justification; Black Mental Health; LGBT; Grief and Loss; Gang Resolution (attempted between ‘Sully’ and ‘Jermaine’); Sacrifice; Black Marriage (sustained); Foster Care System; Childhood Debt etc. were highlighted? Let’s not forget the genuinely outstanding performances from the cast – especially Kane Robinson (Kano). Man, if this isn’t a masterpiece of our time, then I genuinely don’t know what is.