Top Boy – Summerhouse easily makes a mockery of my previous decision that this wasn’t my type of thing.
“We’re gonna need some more time, and we’re gonna need some guns”
With the renewed vigour behind the Black Lives Matter movement and people’s determination (myself included) to do better at recognising black talent, it’s interesting to look back at the challenges they have faced. You’d imagine that Top Boy, a crime drama set in the heart of a fictional estate in Hackney, East London, would have been written by a black writer but as it turns out, Ronan Bennett is white and hails from Northern Ireland.
The series dates back to 2011 and I can’t speak to the realities of Channel 4’s commissioning process but it merits a raised eyebrow. Fortunately, Bennett’s assiduous research means that Top Boy (renamed Top Boy – Summerhouse on Netflix) does better than most at evoking the brutality and bullishness of gang life in the East End, where conventional notions of good and bad are cast aside in the name of survival by whatever means.
And this refreshingly clear-eyed approach works across these four episodes, tracking the interconnected journeys of schoolkids Ra’Nell (Malcolm Kamulete) and Gem (Giacomo Mancini) and estate kingpins Dushane (Ashley Walters) and Sully (Kane Robinson aka Kano). The latter are forcing their way up the drug hierarchy in East London and it is all the younger pair can do to resist their vortex as friends and family get mixed up in events too.
Directed by French-Algerian Yann Demange, there’s a wonderfully tense and unflashy feel to the series. There’s a grimness, sure, as it tackles the likes of mental health, single-parent families and gang tribalism, but there’s little sense of glorification here. Kamulete and Mancini both deliver powerfully unaffected performances as the tuculent teens and Walters and Robinson also convince as the older pair trying to work out just how much out of their depth they are.
Throw in some excellent supporting work from the likes of Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Ra’Nell’s mum and Nicholas Pinnock as father figure Leon, and the marvellous Letitia Wright in one of her earliest roles, and Top Boy is really rather excellent.