I must admit to being a long-time fan of Debbie Tucker Green. Her ensemble piece, Stoning Mary, was a revelation and a later work, Generations, was filled with such power and poetry I left the theatre stunned. So I attended the Channel Four screening of Random, in a Peckham multi-story car park, filled with excitement. Plays adapted for the screen have rarely been able to capture the immediacy of the stage and I was heartened to learn Tucker Green had actually directed her own work. I wanted to see how her abstract style would translate to a visual medium, how someone so adept at painting pictures with language and physicality would view our world via the lens. Not surprisingly, I came expecting a highly original approach to the form.
I wasn’t disappointed. As the film begins, an unfamiliar setting emerges. Huge lights, a black box space, an empty wooden chair, juxtaposed against the commonplace. Inner city walls, Satellite dishes, a traffic light. A young women, Sister, played superbly by Nadine Marshall, struggles to get out of bed and crank up the necessary energy needed to start her daily routine; breakfast, bus, work, the long journey home.
In the black box space Marshall tells a story that is essentially a monologue, even though Tucker Green’s cinematic reality opts for the ensemble approach. We move from the warmth and comfort of the family home and into the streets following two separate journeys – Sister’s to work, Brother’s to school. So far, so ordinary. Sister can’t stand her work mates’ idle gossip. Brother, late for class, plays up to his teacher while catching the attention of a female admirer. In the black box space, Marshall’s deceptively routine tale continues. Meanwhile, in the home, Mother cleans up behind them, brooding over the silence they’ve left. The intrusion of a lonely hospital corridor injects a sliver of menace, a niggling sense of foreboding.
It’s difficult to talk about the remainder of the piece without providing a spoiler. For those who hate them, look away now. Sister receives a call from her mum, saying she should ‘Come home. Now.’ A police car is parked outside, two police cramped inside her living room, ‘Outside shoes on.’ Brother has been stabbed in a random knife fight. He’s been murdered.
We move from the house, to the hospital morgue, to the spot where Brother was killed and back to the home. Nowhere do we see or hear what happened, or gain any semblance of his point of view. It was this I found most disturbing; that the lives of young black men, so misconstrued, so marginalised, can be disconnected from the audience without a second thought, almost as if it didn’t matter; instead we are left with the familial response; necessary perhaps, not unheard of. I didn’t want to know the facts behind Brother’s death as much as I wanted to feel his emotion, hear his perspective. After his obvious charm in the home, in the classroom, it seems difficult to suggest he suddenly became a thug. So what happened? What could turn a young man like him into a statistic?
I might be guilty of wishing that Brother be imbued with the same care and empathy I’ve seen Tucker Green give other characters; I’m just not sure if that’s a crime. Immersed in the grief of Mother, Father and Sister until the films end, I found myself unable to see Brother as a real life character, rather an abstraction, almost symbolic. I’m uncertain whether that was the intention. The grief of his young friends, on the spot where he died, surrounded by flowers and condolence messages is treated disparagingly by Sister, who is standing nearby – when one girl starts to sing an R&B tune, she comments, ‘Dry song, crappy song.’ Now I’m not a fan of R&B but I found that dismissive, snappy analysis of contemporary youth culture a potent reminder of what makes me uneasy about this particular work. The sentiment feels more like the author’s voice than a woman a few years older than her brother; certainly young enough to be living at home with him.
Technically, the narrative lags after Brother is gone; the exploration of emotions we’re left with are heartfelt, yet nothing as compelling as what came before. However, Tucker Green’s direction is confident and engaging, her dialogue sings as always, and Nadine Marshall is a joy to watch; her performance is an acting masterclass. The ensemble is strong and capable, with great performances from Daniel Kuluuya as Brother and Jay Byrd as Mother in particular. This is a film definitely worth seeing, whether you’re a Tucker Green fan or a newcomer to her work. I only hope she will see fit to revisit similar characters, or their worlds, and give us slightly more to chew on.
Random on tonight Channel 4 10pm
Courttia Newland’s first novel, The Scholar, was published in 1997. Further critically acclaimed work includes Society Within (1999) and Snakeskin (2002). He is co-editor of IC3: The Penguin Book of New Black Writing in Britain (2000) and has short stories featured in many anthologies. His recent books include a novella, The Dying Wish(2006), and a collection of macabre short stories, Music for the Off-Key (2006). His career has encompassed both screen and playwriting; plays include B is for Black, and an adaptation of Euripedes Women of Troy. He was shortlisted for the CWA Dagger in the Library Award 2007, the Alfred Fagon Award 2010, and longlisted for the Frank O’ Conner Award 2011. His latest anthology, which he co-edited with Monique Roffey, is Tell Tales 4: The Global Village (2009) A Book of Blues, a new collection of short stories, was published in March 2011.