Leaving the courthouse where he’s just been falsely charged with the assault of a student, Joe Pascale (David Oyelowo) has serious insult added to his already injured reputation: an angry mob of black people awaits. As he makes his exit he’s verbally abused and then pelted with a slimy red tomato-like object. Joe, the only black teacher in a school of predominantly black teenagers, is not having the best of days. Germal (Charles Mnene), the (black) student Joe’s been accused of beating, is a truly bad seed, a walking nightmare of sheer attitude and, of course, fierce street smarts. Germal has manipulated the press, created a media circus, and mobilized public opinion against his former teacher. Ironically, one of the banners the protesters have on display states “Fight Racists Whatever Their Color.” The irony bleeds into reality: Ngozi Onwurah’s movie has been branded the “most sophisticated racist film ever” by Ligali, a British group promoting “equality for African people.” The director is well aware of the powder keg she has created (the original title was the patently offensive Fuck Black People).
Regardless of the various controversies surrounding the film’s reception, it’s hardly a black-and-white case—so to speak. Joe’s downward spiral (portrayed with tremendous verve by Oyelowo) is mesmerizing. He’s a man who starts with a mission to help the children he sees trapped by the stigmas of racial prejudice, falls prey to the legal system he morally supports, and then comes literally to his wits’ end in an asylum. (But, no, that’s not the end.) By the way, did we mention this is a comedy?