Why The ‘Top Boy’ Haters Need To Take A Seat

Words: Aaron Bishop

With the help of the Canadian rap superstar Drake, Top Boy, the UK television drama, has made its triumphant return to our screens (via Netflix) after a six-year hiatus. The two original seasons—shown on Channel 4 at the time—were lauded for their authenticity and complex characterisation, garnering critical acclaim and winning a BAFTA Award in the process. However, it seems not everyone is as happy for the show’s revival as maybe they should be.

In the lead up to the much-anticipated release, comedian London Hughes publicly expressed her opinion on the show, tweeting: “Ugh why did Drake decide to bring back #TopBoy… If there’s one show Black Britain doesn’t need back, it’s that! Oooh gangs, drugs, guns, baby-mums! I’m sick of repeatedly seeing negative black stereotypes blown up on the big screen… Why couldn’t he bring back Desmond’s?!” This then led to a full opinion piece for iNews.co.uk, where she further tried to make her point. Before she even begins to unpack the thought process that led to the tweets, she precurses the article by trying to validate her opinion and verify her blackness by pointing out that she’s from “the birthplace of Stormzy” and that she’s “used to taking up space in white places”. This therein may go some way to understanding the source of her misguided opinion.

Top Boy was indeed created by “a white man”, but it was not primarily made for a white audience. Similarly to what David Simon did with The Wire almost a decade before, depicting life on the streets of Baltimore, series creator and writer Ronan Bennett did the same but in Hackney, having lived there for 35 years. The show wasn’t just about guns and gangs—it represented the unrepresented in a real and gritty way. Hughes went on to give examples of non-stereotypical roles taken by black British actors in mainstream television, but while she isn’t completely wrong in saying that the portrayal of black British men on the show fits the stereotype that’s often attached to men of colour, that would simply be looking at Top Boy on a surface level.

The true, unspoken brilliance of this TV drama, and the reason it is so necessary perhaps now more than ever, is due to the underlying themes—the character motivations and decisions—that resonate with people in similar communities to Summerhouse in Hackney. The show isn’t about blind, senseless violence just for the sake of it. The stories told are not dissimilar to reality, and show genuine circumstances and situations that lead people in various positions to go down the paths they do. “Top Boy is the most genuine, raw depiction of life in South, East, West, North London,” says David Omoregie, better known as Dave, one of the best wordsmiths of his generation who holds a key role in the show’s latest season, “so to be a part of it feels like being able to tell a story as to where you come from and what people go through and how life is.”

This sentiment is echoed by Little Simz, who also stars in the new season, saying that “every story that’s being told in this series, I’ve witnessed a version of it first-hand.” For example, in season one, the character of 13-year-old Ra’Nell deals with his mum Lisa getting sectioned into a mental hospital, surviving on his own (with help from Leon) to avoid going into care, and having to have little-to-no contact with his mum for a long period of time. At the beginning of the first episode, we see him looking after her before going to school, and that’s before we find out that he had previously stabbed his dad in the leg to protect her. It’s not unusual for children in our society to have been put in situations far beyond their years—it’s an uncomfortable truth. And it’s all the more hard-hitting when, as the series goes on, it shows Ra’Nell increasingly burdened with more responsibility—including the problems of others—adding complexity to his plight when the innocence of his age is so modestly shown through his shyness around the girl he likes in Precious.

Another example could be the way Ra’Nell’s best friend, Gem, is so easily swayed into joining the Summerhouse Gang, or how Michael was embroiled into the street life from a young age in season one and tragically in season two, embarking in his first altercation with the police before undergoing a redemption arc of sorts before the series’ end. In his case, the underlying trait is that the street life is all he knows, clearly embroiled from a young age, not really having a choice in the matter or the guidance to choose a better path from his parents. The way he is manipulated by the police is also troubling. These were and still are realities for a lot of inner-city youths, but Top Boy doesn’t shy away from it, instead choosing to tackle it head on, trying to plant these seeds into the wider public consciousness and create some form of debate while giving understanding about subject matter and topics of conversation that people may be ignorant to.

But it’s not just the boys. Lisa’s mental health arc was dealt with delicately in a time where mental health wasn’t a buzz word or a trending topic, and the pregnant Heather set up a weed farm in a bid to buy a new flat and give her unborn child a better life. Every action has a reason and a motivation, and that’s before you even get into the violence. This layer of meaning behind the actions of its characters is seeped into the DNA of the show, and it’s this attention to detail that not only separates it from the stereotypical, but grounds it in reality. People rarely do things that society perceives as ‘bad’ because they want to, but rather they feel like they have to.

Even down to the young talent which make up much of the supporting cast behind the two leads Ashley Walters and Kane Robinson, the show has always had its finger on the pulse. Previous cast members include BAFTA Award-winning actor Letitia Wright—who’s gone on to appear in one of the highest-grossing films of all time in Black Panther—and critically acclaimed Bubblegum star and creator Michaela Coel, while Giggs made a cameo in season one, and we all know what the UK rap legend has gone on to do since. This new season seemingly picks up that baton tackling societal issues, such as gentrification and the effects of Brexit, while also giving a host of untested, unproven talent the chance to shine with Micheal Ward making his television debut as the character Jamie (he’ll also be in Blue Story, Rapman’s upcoming debut flick).

Top Boy features gangs, drugs and gun violence, but the problem with London Hughes’ article is her failure to realise that it’s much more than that. It tells important stories and raises a mirror to our society about the problems and realities facing many ethnic minority and underprivileged families across inner-city London. It gives a voice to the voiceless and allows viewers that are not familiar with that way of life an insight into what could drive a person to such extremes. It’s a look at a London that many CHOOSE not to see. So really, she should be thanking Drake like the rest of us, because Top Boy is well and truly back, and this time, it’s going global.

Posted on September 13, 2019