Starred Up: Is The Best Black Film of the Year a British Prison Movie?

The Hollywood Race, Part IV

Movies Features

In The Hollywood Race, Shannon Houston examines the dynamics of race and culture as they play out in film, television, music and pop culture.

In a recent episode of the new FX series You’re the Worst, the main character, Jimmy (a white, British fellow played by Chris Geere) goes to the black movie theater on the other side of town. We know that it’s the black theater because they have movie posters for upcoming attractions like Big Lil’ Cuz 2, the romantic drama Black & Tan, and Down Low 2: The Low Down. It’s an incredibly funny scene, as Jimmy explains to the two black characters who spot him, that he comes here because it’s the only theater where he’s able to comfortably “yell out character inconsistencies, structural flaws, and keep a general humorous running commentary.” They understand completely, since they have to make their way to Beverly Hills every time a new Wes Anderson flick comes out.

It could be argued that there is no such thing as a “white movie” or a “black movie.” Just because a film has a cast consisting predominantly of one particular race, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s geared towards any one, particular group of people. And, obviously, it doesn’t mean that only members of that particular race will see the movie and enjoy it. One could also argue that the very idea of labeling a film a “black film”—let alone “the most important black film of the year” only contributes to problems of division among races.

But even if you find such labels problematic, it should be acknowledged that there are movies geared towards particular audiences, and that various media outlets will then publicize those movies based on the expected demographics of their audience. In my opinion, Starred Up is the most important film for the black movie-going audience in 2014 (so far). And yet, it was likely passed over by most film outlets covering black films because it’s a UK movie by a Scottish director (David Mackenzie), starring a white British actor (Jack O’Connell). For all intents and purposes, the main characters of the film are white. However, the black characters inadvertently deliver so much of the plot and the message—a heavy, deeply moving message about the prison system, that has been rocking audiences and critics to the core (as this is also one of the most important films of the year, period)—that it also becomes their film and their story.

One of the most surprising scenes from Starred Up plays like something straight out of a black comedy. (In fact, I’d liken it to the Barbershop scene where Cedric the Entertainer breaks down the “three things black people need to tell the truth about). It was so striking in this violent drama, I had to bring it up in my interview with the director. As it turned out, the scene—which centers on the protagonist’s introduction to a group therapy session consisting entirely of three black inmates (played by Anthony Welsh, David Ajala and Gershwyn Eustache Jr.)—was a favorite of Mackenzie’s.

But he also admitted that, as a white director, he felt a bit uncomfortable watching (and perhaps also enjoying) it:

Paste:It’s interesting watching the film now, with all that’s happening in Ferguson, Missouri. Race is an issue in Starred Up, sometimes subtly, sometimes not. I’m thinking particularly of the scene where the black inmates are talking about how they don’t like black people. (laughs)
Mackenzie: (laughs)

As a white guy, I’m always slightly embarrassed by that scene because it seems to be very direct, and it’s kind of dangerous. But I think it’s successful, and it moves away from that particular issue into something more harmonious. It’s one of my favorite scenes in the film. I cringe at that moment, but in the end Eric comes out with Tyrone who is the one guy in the group who wasn’t giving him anything, and then they have some sort of mutual understanding. That relationship has a great arc throughout the film, and that scene is a turning point in that arc.

The main character of Starred Up is Eric (O’Connell), a deeply troubled young man. The film gets its title from the special circumstances of his incarceration. Young offenders who are too violent for the juvenile system are “starred up” and sent to adult prisons. This is how he ends up behind bars with his father, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn). While Eric develops a special relationship with the psychotherapist running group therapy (played by Rupert Friend), it’s the black inmates—who have been in the program, and are rehabilitating themselves—who take special effect on him.


And, no. This is not another case of the Magical Negro[es]. That uncomfortable feeling that many filmgoers had during The Help or The Legend of Bagger Vance or The Green Mile—that’s not what’s happening here. These characters are far too authentic to be tropes, and they’re not heroes with hearts of gold. They’re not even especially nice. Hassan, Tyrone and Des are like hardened criminals turned gestalt therapists. Perhaps “turned” isn’t a fair word. The narrative makes it clear that they have worked through so much in therapy (although the work is never finished), and are now able to guide another troubled young man, who has the intelligence—but lacks any kind of control.

In addition to doing away with the Magical Negro (or, paying it no attention at all), Starred Up takes one of the most dangerous myths and stereotypes about black men and turns it on its head. The angry, scary black man is in the very environment where we most expect him to be angry and scary—and is something quite other. The scenes where the men guide Eric through anger management practices bring to mind another powerful film that dealt subtly (and sometimes, not-so-subtly) with race—Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. The opening scene where Jack Nicholson’s voice strains out over images of black children being bussed out of their Boston neighborhoods with police protection comes to mind.

“I don’t wanna be a product of my environment; I want my environment to be a product of me,” Nicholson says. Even in prison, men of color in Starred Up are refusing to be reflections of their surroundings, or even of their former selves. They evolve, and they encourage the white, male protagonist to try to do the same.

This evolved, keenly self-aware character speaks volumes in 2014, a year I hope to always remember as (among other things) the year of Ferguson, Missouri. That stereotype—that cultural fear of the threatening, black man—has been a part of the fabric of our American society since slavery, and the Jim Crow South—that same mentality and fear inspired the brutality in lynch mobs, resulted in Emmet Till’s torture and disfigurement in 1955, and “explains” the murder of countless unarmed black men by American police officers today. Ferguson’s Mike Brown was a victim of that stereotype. And the history of film in America has played a crucial role in the creation and perpetuation of these stereotypes that are, almost literally, killing people. (Lest we forget, the first 12-reel film in America was The Birth of a Nation.)

And perhaps it makes sense that a film from across the pond would be the one to help paint a new picture in 2014. Even as he questioned the number of white directors making films about prominent black figures, John Singleton once noted that “the Brits tend to have a greater appreciation for African-American creative culture than most white Americans.” Although David Mackenzie is Scottish, the Starred Up writer Jonathan Asser is a British psychologist, and the film is heavily autobiographical and based on his work with gang members in the largest UK prison.

But there’s another reason I call Starred Up the most important black film of the year. Even as stereotypes of the angry, black male must be challenged, there needs also be an acknowledgement of the fact that anger issues and rage do take a unique toll on the black community (think, Ray Rice)—and, within this same community, there is a huge aversion to and discouragement of therapy. This glorification of hypermasculinity is reflected in our popular music, and in much of our entertainment—all of which would be less disturbing if we had more films like Starred Up to send a different message about anger. One message is that anger (especially for those coming from a particular socioeconomic background, or unique circumstances) is actually natural, necessary, and even useful as a controlled emotional substance.

Mackenzie and Asser’s work seeks to expand our understanding of anger and the therapy employed to manage it. The effect such ideas could have on people of color is, indeed, exciting. And it’s also disappointing, since I know many moviegoers of color will miss out on this one.

None of this is to disavow the black directors and the films that are more easily categorized as “black films.” This year I’ve attempted to highlight promising filmmakers of color (many of whom are women) who have new projects underway. Dear White People will likely be a contender for my personal favorite black film of the year. But, perhaps it’s time we also expand our understanding and definition of the black film. A work like Starred Up, which highlights police brutality and corruption in correctional facilities, and gives us these full, honest characters of color, must not be overlooked in conversations about the changing landscape of black cinema. There is something wrong with telling black moviegoers to support black cinema in 2014—again, the year of Ferguson, for many of us (including our own James Kane not include Starred Up as one of the must-see films.

And, perhaps, such an inclusion could work to effect change on the entire Hollywood landscape—where filmgoers (like those fictional characters from You’re The Worst) might actually be able to see a Wes Anderson flick anywhere, including at the black movie theater across town.

Starred Up closes with a haunting image of revolving doors, as if to remind us that repetition and sameness is a comfort to humans, almost above all else. It’s partly the reason people go back to prison, why they follow in their father’s miscalculating footsteps (like Eric does Neville), why they stay in abusive relationships, why they repeat cycles of abuse, and why whole societies continue to perpetuate ignorant stereotypes. These are great, deep-rooted issues that no one movie can resolve. But, as a film critic whose life has been changed by countless movies—“black” and otherwise—I’d argue that embracing more important films like Starred Up is one small, significant step in the right direction.

Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor at Paste, and a New York-based freelance writer with probably more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.

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