Why Kano Deserves A BAFTA For His Top Boy Performance

Words: Danielle Dash

I want to hear the presenter of the 2020 BAFTA for Best Supporting Actor in a television series read out the name “Kane Robinson”, whom we all know as the British grime and rap star Kano. When the BAFTAs roll round this year, I don’t want, I need Kane Robinson’s portrayal of ‘Sully’ in the 2019 season of Top Boy on Netflix to be rewarded by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.

Let me lay out my stall so you can truly deep what I’m saying.

The expectations for Top Boy’s return last year were high, to say the least. First airing on Channel 4 in 2011 with four episodes and then another four in 2013, despite consistently securing one million views per episode, Channel 4 abruptly cancelled the wildly popular, London-based crime drama. The show’s creator, Ronan Bennett, has spoken candidly about his disappointment in the channel’s decision, telling attendees of the Hackney season premiere that it “felt like a slap in the face to the community it was representing... I didn’t understand it.” You know who else didn’t understand it? Drake. And he did something about it. Using his influence, Drizzy teamed up with Netflix to bring back the original cast and creator for the latest season. Without Aubrey Graham’s keen eye on art—be it music, fashion or television—from other countries, we might not have been able to join Dushane and Sully on their adventures once more.

And yes, I’ve heard the naysayers’ arguments that Top Boy is a negative representation of black life in Britain. Comedian London Hughes wrote an article entitled, “Sorry Drake, bringing back Top Boy is a step back in British Culture”. To stereotype Top Boy as merely “a gangs, guns and drug-ridden black drama that Channel 4 cancelled six years ago” is myopic, at best. Of course the show details the lives of young black men who are involved in gangs who sell drugs and tote guns, but the characterisation that this is all the show is does a disservice to the very human stories at its core. Moreover, this binary view of the show, that it can only be good or bad for the blacks, lacks nuance and steals focus away from what is important. Top Boy is not reflective of the lives of all black British men but, whether you like it or not, it is a reflection of some of their lives and for that reason, this story deserves to be told.

“I wait with bated breath for the announcement of the 2020 BAFTA nominees.”

And, yes, it’s true: Ronan Bennett is a white man from Northern Ireland. A decade ago, when Top Boy was first commissioned by Channel 4, conversations about who should and shouldn’t be writing a series about young black Londoners weren’t as developed as they are now. But to call Bennett’s turn penning the series appropriation is to ignore that Top Boy draws parallels with his experience growing up. When Bennett was 18, he was arrested and convicted for his suspected involvement in an IRA robbery, in which a policeman was killed. He spent a year in prison before his conviction was overturned. The ethics of using black men as proxies through which one tells stories from Northern Ireland during The Troubles is ripe for investigation, but let’s not get distracted. What I’m trying to say is it will be almost impossible for a white man to as convincingly replicate what Bennett has done with Top Boy in the future.

Now that I’ve explained all that, let’s get back to what I came here to talk about: Kano, and why his name better be among those nominees. My desire to see him take home that gold statue is because he deserves it. I recently went back to watch episode 4 of Top Boy 2019 to make sure my memory hadn’t betrayed me. And let me tell you: it’s still as beautiful, spellbinding and heart-breaking today as it was when I first saw it last year. Directed by the visionary Nia DaCosta, the episode opens with Kano’s character Sully and his adopted little brother, Jason, in Ramsgate. They’ve relocated to the seaside town after Sully’s release from prison so they can make some quick cash.

Sully’s character arc is epitomised by his relationship with Jason. He seeks redemption in being a good guardian, but when Jason is trapped in a house fire, Sully’s forced to watch him die. And the audience, we see how it affects him. Kano’s performance of a man who can’t believe what he’s seen, and all he’s lost in Jason, is nothing short of brilliant. It’s all in his eyes. Those big, doughy eyes he’s not afraid to use to show his character’s vulnerability. In one particular scene, we see Sully sitting on a train, covered in soot from the fire trembling, struggling to regulate his breathing. He’s traumatised. The camera holds on him and it’s in his humanisation of the honesty of pain where he earns his award and our respect because that is acting. And not just any acting—it’s award-winning acting. Throughout the rest of the season, Sully’s reconnection with Dushane and the performances therein are underpinned by depth of Kano’s portrayal in episode 4.

Winning the award is going to be hard. Kane Robinson has stiff competition, especially after such a successful year for British television. But now that Emmy Award Winning Producer Krishnendu Majumdar is the first person of colour to sit as Chairman of BAFTA, hopefully Kano will have a fighting chance. I wait with bated breath for the announcement of the BAFTA nominees on Thursday 26th March, 2020.


Posted on March 10, 2020