That Was Not England: Meadows In A Muddle
Tuesday, June 19, 2007.
By Kevin Le Gendre
Young man viciously beats another young man senseless. Small boy screams in horror. Large, hulking thug with Village People-style moustache restrains lad before he himself is “glassed” by psychotic assailant. All had just shared a spliff. All are white except for the assault victim. He is black.
This is the explosive denouement of Shane Meadows ’This Is England, a film that has received glowing praise since its release last month. Director of Twenty Four Seven, A Room For Romeo Brass and Dead Man’s Shoes, Meadows is one of the most acclaimed young figures in British cinema and his kudos has now significantly increased.
In a nutshell his new feature is a coming of age tale, set in a depressed and very grey Grimsby in the early ‘80s. The star is 11 year-old Sean, who’s recently lost his father in the Falklands war and is bullied at school.
However he is “adopted” by a group of skinheads and soon converts to the faith, shaving his head, wearing the braces and stomping the boots. His new comrades Woody, Gadget and Milky become older brothers if not surrogate father figures. The latter is a black Briton of Jamaican descent. Or possibly mixed-race. That’s never made clear.
Harmony reigns until racist ex-con Combo arrives, openly insults West Indians, divides the family and takes Sean to National Front meetings. Before long the youngster is hurling abuse at Asian shopkeepers even though Milky still has a place in his heart, as is confirmed by Sean’s hysterical reaction to his death at the hands of rabid Combo.
A conflict of loyalties as well as growing pains, then. That would be all well and good but the thematic and intellectual premise of the story is irrevocably weakened by the construction of Milky. He is a drastically unconvincing character. None of his words or actions are believable.
Or more to the point his lack of action stretches any suspension of disbelief beyond credible boundaries. Milky is basically passivity to the nth degree. Although dignified, he is spineless, clueless.
Combo humiliates black people. He doesn’t react. Milky’s mates show no solidarity. He doesn’t react. Combo asks him to score weed for him. He doesn’t react. Combo revs up like a Lexus to run him over. He doesn’t react. When Sean’s father is insulted, he does react.
Milky’s docility and naivety are unfathomable. He is happy to be the sacrificial lamb, blinded by Combo’s supposedly godly aura to the point where he walks into his lair with the sunny demeanor of Little Red Riding Hood en route to the Big Bad Wolf. Moreover the dialogue outlining Combo’s love yet jealousy of Jamaican culture and family values absolutely does not ring true.
Lest we forget the ‘80s was a torrid time for black youth in this country. Open hostility from the NF, skins, police, teachers and society in general resulted in hostility and suspicion from the targeted victims. Or debilitation and trauma. If blacks didn’t wield weapons, they wept, to the point of nervous breakdowns.
Neither is seen in Milky. He remains inexplicably hollow, willing to bond with a certified nigger basher like Combo yet unable to express real depths of psychic conflict. Milky may be perturbed by the verbal abuse meted out by his eventual nemesis but any sense of inner turmoil or disorientation is glossed over.
Insults against the black community were in the mainstream in the ‘80s. The BBC gave a prime time platform to Jim Davidson and he mercilessly derided West Indians through characters like the infamous Chalky. This in turn exacerbated the baiting of ethnic minorities in pubs and playgrounds all over the land.
The very nickname Milky is spookily close to that of Davidson’s whipping boy yet in This Is England there is no explanation of its provenance or any suggestion of emotional torment underscoring it. Then again we never learn whether
Milky is “half-caste” or not, a massively important detail given the primacy of identity and race relations in Meadows’ narrative.
What This Is England proves above all else is that substantial confusion still reigns with regard to the socio-cultural history of modern Britain. It’s particularly disappointing that an obviously talented filmmaker whose calling card is realism, should fall down on this very issue. Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Launderette, ironically a much more fantastical, mannered work, gives a far greater insight into the complexities of race and youth cults.
I was on a plane from the Caribbean to London when I saw Meadows’ film. After the screening there was a short promo video about the great tourist attraction that is London in 2007. It featured a black policeman. A couple of decades ago the boys in blue, mandated by the SUS laws, were beating up “unclean” skins who in turn waged fierce resistance during the riots of Brixton and Toxeth.
Although This Is England shows footage of the Falklands, Thatcher, Rubix cubes and the miners’ strike in its documentary-style passages, excerpts of police brutality against blacks are conspicuous by their absence.
It’s a telling indication of the lack of focus Meadows has on the lived experience of the African-Caribbean community. And without this a key protagonist crumples like cardboard on a rainy, very British day.
In many ways This Is England tries to do too much. Does Milky need to be there at all? Take him out of the equation and redirect Combo’s inhumanity towards another victim, possibly Woody, and the story might stand up much straighter.
We’ll only find that out if somebody is brave enough to broach the subject again, as Meadows was brave to in the first place. There are surely many possible versions of a tale of youth, race and nationalism in Thatcher’s Britain. Other cineastes should come with their remixes in time.
Kevin Le Gendre is a freelance journalist and a contributor to The New Black Magazine.
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