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Top Boy

Creator, Ronan Bennett (Cowboy Films: Channel 4, 2011-13; Netflix, 2019)

So Gangsta: The Top Boy Mystery

Reviewed by Testament


The path of Top Boy hasn’t always been easy. After Series 2, the show was cancelled by its broadcaster Channel 4. Thankfully, many of the stars who came through the show went on to other projects and generally continue their interstellar trajectory (Sharon Duncan-Brewster in the Oscar winning Dune (2021), for example). But the show remained in the counter-culture’s consciousness. No reason was made public for the cancellation. A mystery.

I’m currently bingeing the new season on Netflix where it now lives, after its well-documented revival following a Canadian rapper’s intervention (look it up, he’s called Drake). Top Boy is incredible – an award-winning British gangster series. The show’s production qualities are cinematic, its scripts tightly written and researched, and the acting full of powerhouse performances. And even as each season’s double-crosses and plot twists grow more elaborate, its world grows in scope and authenticity runs right throughout the show. The fact that it revolves around black British characters and went onto to become an iconic international title, too – and god knows the entertainment world is always hungry to produce shows with a recognisable IP –is particularly inspiring for me as someone who identifies as black British (as well as a tv writer and rapper). 

I remember a well-meaning script editor asking me if Top Boy was ‘racist?’ They reasoned that since the show’s creator is a white man and the show itself is about ‘black urban crime’ that could be the reason some have levelled accusations against it of perpetuating problematic stereotypes. Part of me wonders if this question wasn’t the answer to the mystery cancellation back in the day.

Top Boy is way more nuanced than that. Yes, the two central protagonists, Dushane and Sully, are gangsters, and yes, it’s a crime drama. But there are a number of black characters that people the different strata of their world – with different motivations and beliefs that often oppose the gang lifestyle. The heart-breaking thing about the first two seasons is seeing innocent people affected. Rather than trot out two-dimensional characters, we see why these people make the decisions they do. And in fact, some of the ‘real gangsters’ of the series are the investment firms, gentrification, immigration policies and disparities in the education system. Systemic racism is a reoccurring figure often lurking in the subtext.

In tv and film more generally, we find systemic problems lurk:  the continued lack of representation. If a crime drama set in the black community is currently the ONLY representation of black Britons on telly, that is a distortion of the whole (despite responsible framing of the crime world within the show). One real mystery is why there are so few ‘black-led’ British dramas, not counting those with black leads whose cultural identity is reduced to a skin colour, with no sense of their heritage (or everyday racism) appearing in their lives. 

There is also the mystery of where are the black-led shows that last for more than a limited series? Or the shows that become a recognisable IP? (It’s been years since Chef! (1993-96) and Desmond’s (1989-94).) The success of the two single series dramas Small Axe and I May Destroy You – both aired in 2020 – shows us a way forward. There is both prestige and an audience for black-led shows. Perhaps these mysteries are only there when not all the participants are seen.

Testament is a writer for theatre and television, a rapper and world record-holding beatboxer.