Black Sheep is a British documentary of about a half hour. The format is a young man named Cornelius—the child of immigrants from Africa—telling the story of some incidents from his childhood, I think when he was about junior high school age, intermixed with docudrama-type re-enactments. There’s no other narration, commentary, etc. beyond what we hear from him.
What it most put me in mind of is the radio show “The Moth” (I think it’s mostly on NPR stations, but maybe others too), if you’re familiar with that, just with the addition of people acting out what the storyteller is talking about.
After a black immigrant child is murdered in Cornelius’s London neighborhood, his parents decide the city is too violent a place to raise a family and move to a house in Essex. (I looked it up later, and it looks like there’s a county but no city named Essex. It’s in the London metropolitan area—that makes sense, since Cornelius mentions that his father still worked in London after they moved—to the northeast.)
But Essex in its way is even worse, at least for Cornelius. Other than the one shocking crime, we’re not told much about his life in London, though the impression I get is that he experienced it as more positive than not, in part because it was a multicultural environment. His new neighborhood, however, is most notable for its vicious racism. Cornelius’s color brings him stares and glares, then verbal abuse (even a little kid screams “nigger” at him and taunts him with monkey noises), and finally physical abuse, as he is savagely beaten by the gang of young toughs that basically runs the neighborhood.
Through it all, at least as he tells it, he is passive, more surprised than anything that all of a sudden everyone in his environment hates him and wants to hurt him.
He can’t really share what’s happening to him with his parents. His father—though he insists he knows his father loved him—is kind of the strong silent type whose notions of masculinity and maturity necessitate that you don’t cry, you don’t complain, insofar as you express love it’s through your actions like taking care of your family and not by verbalizing your emotions, and you fight your own battles. He knew his father would never respect him if he manifested anything that his father interpreted as weakness.
He also admits at one point that his father had a temper and was himself physically abusive toward Cornelius, but he’s reluctant to go into it and doesn’t give any details about whether this was a frequent or one-time thing, how severe it was, etc.
The young Cornelius decides that the least bad of the available options is an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” strategy. He starts dressing like the locals, gets his hair straightened and styles it like them, adopts their accent and slang, and even gets blue contact lenses and attempts to bleach his skin to make it a lighter shade.
The strategy actually works, and soon he is one of the “cool kids,” one of the gang members committing crimes and dishing out violence rather than being a victim. He seems to experience this not just as the absence of a negative (he’s no longer getting beat up), but as a positive (it feels good to be accepted into a group and to have friends).
Though one wonders how fully he really was accepted. They acknowledge that, even though they remain as hard core racist as ever, Cornelius is “one of the good ones” and so doesn’t really count, but I doubt that truly gives him a status equal to them in their eyes. I would think he’s more like a mascot, or someone they tolerate for now, rather than a true friend.
But, to him, it’s more acceptance and love than he has ever gotten from his father at least. (Openly, that is. Again, he claims he knows his father loves him; he just doesn’t speak it, or relate to his son in a warm and loving manner.)
By the way, I always find the girls in such a violent group to be especially sad or infuriating. (There tend to be one or more girls hanging out with this group of racist youths whenever they’re shown.) They typically don’t directly participate in the violence, but are there more as auxiliaries, as emotional support. As usual in life, if there are guys doing particularly shitty things, you can be sure there will be girls eager to affirm them and to send them the message that their behavior is admirably masculine and entitles them to female companionship and sex.
It’s not like all was fine with Cornelius once he was running with this gang. He speaks chillingly of the rage there still was inside him—of having to play a certain role to survive with his peers, of dealing with a hard-ass father—and how on at least one occasion it exploded out of him in a beating he administered to one of the gang’s victims.
Black Sheep has some intensity to it for sure. It’s also notable for the nature and extremity of the racism it depicts. I think of the United States as more insane and backward in its levels of racial and religious bigotry and strife and such than other First World countries, but you couldn’t be much more blatantly racist than some of the white folks in this film. Even little kids are already screaming racial epithets at their black peers. The beatings administered by the gang seem motivated primarily if not solely by racial animus.
I think of contemporary racism—U.S. racism at least—as far more subtle. You know, the “whites as victims” thing, where allegedly affirmative action, governmental social programs, media conventions, etc. have bent over too far backwards to avoid anti-black racism to the point that they’re actually exercising anti-white racism. I think of this attitude as being, “Of course we’re not really racist, precisely because we don’t do things like yell ‘nigger’ at some random person walking down the street, or beat people up for no reason except the color of their skin. Our opponents try to stereotype us as that to make us easier to attack and so they won’t have to address our arguments, but we’re as much against that kind of thing as anyone is. Our opponents are the real racists because they practice reverse racism.” Whereas these English kids seem open and proud about hating black people.
I found myself also reflecting on whether the kind of racism depicted in the film is reciprocal. Even if this type of white racism has become far less common in the U.S. over the last several decades and been supplanted by more subtle or indirect types, as I speculated, I’m sure it’s not non-existent today. So certainly there is at least some significant amount of this type of open, white racist hatred and violence in Europe and the U.S. But to what extent does the same type of black racism exist?
I mean, if I, as a white person, take a stroll down the streets of some godforsaken all-black ghetto neighborhood in a major U.S. city tonight, I have every expectation I’ll come to grief in one way or another. But I don’t think of it as being particularly racially motivated. I think it’s an environment of damaged people, many never having the opportunity to develop even a mediocre moral character, many still basically kids with little emotional maturity. I think they’re looking for anyone vulnerable to victimize. I think the primary motivation of such victimization would be financial. They’d want to steal my money or anything of value from me, or at the very least sell me drugs.
Certainly financially pointless violence would be a possibility too, since such damaged people are more likely to harbor an inner anger that can manifest in sadism. (Recall Cornelius’s memories of dishing out violence after he became accepted by the white racists.)
I’d also think I’m more likely there than in most places to encounter people too far gone on drugs to have much of a motive at all for their actions. People who could harm me because they’re totally out of control and basically insane.
So no doubt such an excursion into a black ghetto would be highly imprudent and I’d likely be victimized in one way or another, and maybe not even survive. So I’m not saying that the young toughs in such a neighborhood are somehow nicer, more ethical, less apt to commit crimes, etc. than the white hoodlums in Essex.
What I’m wondering about, though, is whether there would be the same racial motivation. Would I be beaten or worse specifically because I’m white, and the people who live in neighborhoods like that hate white people and seek to harm them whenever they get an opportunity to do so?
I may be completely wrong about this, but it doesn’t feel that way. Not that I would be shocked if some portion of the motivation for any ill-treatment they dished out to me were racial animus against white people, but I really think it would be far more a matter of victimizing any vulnerable person that came their way. The Essex white kids are like, “We hate you and we’re going to hurt you because of your race,” whereas I think of violent black gang bangers or whatever as being more like, “We’re going to hurt you because we want your money and because we’re really fucked up people.”
The deeper the film got into Cornelius’s story, the more I had a sense that it was leading to some kind of extreme or shock ending. Like, maybe Cornelius was telling his story from the visiting room of a prison, because all this material was by way of an explanation for a murder he ultimately committed. Or perhaps things finally came to a head between Cornelius and his father, and something dramatic happened there. Or maybe Cornelius and the white kid leader of the gang became homosexual lovers or something.
For spoiler reasons, I won’t say if there was in fact some kind of big reveal like that at the end—or if there was what it was—but it just felt like it was building to something like that.
Anyway, Black Sheep is a solid film that’ll get you thinking, and feeling.