With summer having drawn to an end and autumn looming in, I’ve found that I’ve had more and more time on my hands: much of which I’ve spent talking to my little brother. Considering I’ll be going back to university soon and he recently started attending the same sixth form I did, I’ve been giving him tips on how to get ahead in his studies and who not to cross to ensure his experience is pleasant.
It was through speaking to him that I learnt of the show Gangland: a documentary Channel 5 has been airing every Thursday at 10pm chronicling what they describe to be “A rare insight into the lives of London’s most notorious street gangs.” After initial apprehension due to the subject matter, I finally relented and joined my brother in watching the first episode. Admittedly I didn’t pay great attention. The scenes of men “plugging” themselves with drugs was off-putting to say the least. But what I did notice was the style in which this show was documented.
Documentation was intimate. Youths were filming themselves in stairwells and hallways, granted with their faces concealed. Excerpts of one boy’s glamorous Instagram feed slid across the screen in a slideshow format. It really was a testament to Channel 5’s advertisement: “We gave them cameras, this is what they filmed” -every insider’s dream.
By the time the second episode was released, I grew critical. The boys appeared comfortable when interviewed, yet I couldn’t help but feel cynical to Channel 5 and their intentions in airing this documentary in the first place. Unlike BBC 3, their target audience is not the “young, black, urban demographic” so what was the motivation?
At first, I thought, like many, that this show was the work of some white, suburban, detached producer intent on airing the “dirty laundry” of the “black youth.” But upon more research, I came to the realisation that I couldn’t be more wrong. The producer of the show is a black man called Paul Blake, he works for Maroon Productions – a company that claims to be “The leading factual producer and champion of diverse content in the UK.” Yes indeed… this narrative is coming from one of our very own.
“SELLOUT!” is probably the phrase that comes to mind upon reading that fact but I advise you not to be so fast with your words. Black people are not a monolith. We neither think nor react to situations in the same way despite the world insisting that we do. Paul Blake is entitled to make a show on gang culture in black communities just as I am entitled to critique it.
That being said, let the critiquing commence!
My first issue with the show was its lack of a redemptive quality. I am a documentary fanatic, meaning I am familiar with the style template many documentaries follow. Behind the wide shots and disguised voices is usually a message. Male suicide is on the rise. Mental health issues aren’t being diagnosed correctly in young people. Black lives matter *cough cough*.
Yet all I’ve learnt from this show is that gang culture exists in London, something I’ve known probably since the age of 8? There is very little analysis as to why this is the case and what the possible solutions are. Or at the very least a helpline to call or support services to contact for those who are affected by the issues raised in the program.
For instance, one of the boys filmed named Jordy spoke highly of how his mentor – Duro Oye, helped him turn his life around. Yet there was no mention of the organisation Duro worked for, where he was based and how to get in contact with him/similar services for those that need it like in other documentaries. To put it simply, the message of hope and/or redemption in Gangland is abysmal, which tells me though the show documents black communities in London, we are not the target audience.
This leads me to my second issue with the show: it was not made for our viewing pleasure. Admittedly, I am not the most clued up person when it comes to understanding slang, but even I could gather what was being said by those being interviewed most of the time. Thus, the patronisingly frequent (often inaccurate) translation of slang phrases into proper English seemed overbearing and unnecessary at times, to the point it was almost comical. It is clear that the show was not made for the consumption of those who understand the lingo.. thus any suggestion that the purpose of this documentary is to rehabilitate gang members is void to me. This show is not about deterrence or redemption, but rather the pot calling the kettle black. Or in this case, the producer calling gang culture bad. A pity considering the production company responsible prides itself on championing diverse content. Fly-on-the-wall filming at its finest.
My third issue was the lack of analysis into what causes these young boys to enter gangs. I know this topic in itself is a very difficult as there are many contributing factors, but the fact that there is barely a mention of even one root cause makes this documentary superficial at best. I had a debate with my sister last night about the reasons behind why gang culture is so prominent in the black community and we came up with this list:
- Gender and masculinity
- Crime in local area
- Personal/family issues
- Abuse (physical, verbal, mental, drug, sexual)
- Glorification/glamorisation of gang life in entertainment (Music/Film/Social media)
- Representation in mainstream media
- Unstable households
- Low self-esteem
- Mental health
- Personal responsibility
- Government cuts to youth services
- Lack of positive role models
- Inhibited value for human life
- Drug trade
- Weapons trade
- Questionable sanctions/punishment by school/criminal justice system
- Psychological effects (normalisation and desensitisation)
Believe it or not this list is NON-EXHAUSTIVE
Yet we came up with these within less than an hour of brainstorming (or arguing/debating – whatever you want to call it). We both agreed that none of these factors were be-all and/or end-all and there is not one definitive answer, but even we could assess that the prominence of gang culture is multi-faceted and needs to be tackled from a variety of standpoints. How on Earth could a responsible production company omit all of this?
The fact that this documentary barely touched on one of these issues is concerning as it perpetuates the age-old trope that gang culture occurs in isolation. It is a “black issue” and nothing more. Even though many Londoners will tell you that there are far more dangerous gangs existing in plain sight within our city and they are not black *sips tea*.
You don’t need a degree to know that this show, by design, does nothing for the community it documents.
It was surreal to learn that Shaquan’s mother may not get another trial for her son and his killers could walk free. I wanted to know how I could help. Was there a petition? A campaign I could get involved in? Where was the media coverage of the case?
It was stirring knowing that at least two boys featured in the documentary were murdered not too long after filming. How were their families coping? Were there support groups out there to help them grieve? Were the killers held to account?
WHERE WAS THE OUTREACH?
I think the biggest insult to injury was the fact that the company responsible for the documentary claims to champion diversification of content in the UK, yet I feel like I’ve seen this documentary a dozen times before. YES, you’re filming black people but the diversification in narrative is limited.
Why is it only about black boys? Black boys do not live in isolation. Thus, their affiliation with gang culture affects black girls/women also – including mothers, sisters, aunts, daughters, girlfriends, female cousins/friends etc. Their relationship with gang culture often manifests in harmful ways towards black woman through (but not limited to) domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, abandonment and many other types of abuse. Where’s that coverage? (Cc: @xlplondon @SistersUncut @girlsagainst @imkaan)
Why is the narrative strictly about gangs? It’s common knowledge that not every black person is a gang member or even an ex gang member. Some are graduates, businesspeople, motivational speakers, mentors, presenters, journalists, sportspeople… see where I’m going with this? There are so many narratives and achievement going on in the black community yet this is the only one I see. How about look elsewhere for a change? (Cc: @FutureLeadersMag @Rare_London @TheBBBAwards)
Where are the turn-around/success stories? It would have been great if Jordy’s attempt to get back on the right path was documented more. There are many reformed/ex-gang members the show could have taken heed from. I’ve included links to 3 videos below.
The point of this blog is to reiterate the importance of responsibility and visibility when it comes to media representation. Time and time again I see the same narrative of black people in London being reproduced and perpetuated without nuance or context. I have gathered that there are many issues in the black community as there are in every other community in the world. I presume that a mixture of my own sensitivity to media representation, general over-reporting and personal proximity to blackness makes these issues look more pronounced in my eyes than it does to the average bystander. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that the agenda being pushed in this documentary does not appear to be one of deterrence or rehabilitation but rather sheer, blissful ignorance.
It seems that the conversation starts and ends with the phrase:
“We have an issue in the black community in London”
My response to that is: what are we going to do to solve it?
I have a few suggestions:
- More positive representation of black Brits in the media
- Mentorship programmes
- Support services
- Academic assistance in mainstream education
- Engagement with religion (if they have one – church/Mosque/other faith groups)
- Mental health check-ups
- Personal issues/social work
- Monetary (bursaries/scholarships/free school meals)
- Immigration (free legal advice)
- Unstable households (support groups)
- Non-mainstream education (Law, identity, politics, accountability, masculinity, sex)
- More extra-curricular activities (Sport, music, entrepreneurship, academia, charity)
- Open youth centres/safe zones for children
- More appropriate sanctions (e.g. alternatives to exclusion/prison sentences)
- Parenting classes
- Increased government accountability (crime – drug/weapon trade)
- Campaigning for changes in law/justice for victims
These are just a couple of suggestions that I think if implemented could further improve the landscape of the black youth in London. I don’t expect everyone to agree but I do think an open dialogue is needed on how we can improve our community from the inside. I’m not asking for erasure on the issues, I’m asking for perspective on possible solutions and documentation of new narratives. A broad overview of what is wrong with our community cannot suffice, deeper analysis is need and it’s clear we cannot trust others (sometimes even our “own”) to do this work for us.
Granted, a lot of these problems are systemic and will take time to mitigate but I am confident that a growth in black economic power and mentorship is the first step in the right direction, especially considering that the root a lot of the problems blacks face are socio-economic.
If I recall correctly, there was a scene in Gangland where one boy stated that being from where he is from is a struggle – “No one here got nothing. Born around here, you ain’t really got no hope,” he said. Another boy stated he joined a gang “to become a somebody.”
If this show has achieved anything in its airing, I’d say it has re-opened a dialogue on an issue that has laid dormant for a while in our community. So although the message of hope seen in most documentaries doesn’t exist in Gangland, I can only hope that as a result of its televising, we can instate change for gangs in the black community and give these young people the hope and tools to become somebodies.
For more information on services helping those at-risk or who are in gangs, please see below:
Gangsline – A non-profit organisation dedicated to helping men and women involved in gang culture – 0800 032 9538 – https://www.gangsline.com/
XLP – A charity working to create positive futures for young people – http://www.xlp.org.uk/
Catch 22 – Uses research, policy and practice to reduce harm caused by gang-related activity in the community – https://www.catch-22.org.uk/offers/gangs/
The Comedy School – Advice and where to get help – http://www.thecomedyschool.com/gangs-help.shtml