I remember watching the news 16 years ago, when the item describing a young Nigerian boy’s death hit the airwaves. Knife crime was on the rise in London and there had been several high-profile murders in the capital, but the fact a 10-year-old boy got caught up in this terrifying trend made the story stand out even more and made it more horrifying. Another senseless act that beggared belief; another statistic. Except, of course, young Damilola Taylor – indeed any of the victims of knife crime – wasn’t just a statistic: he was a human being who had hopes, dreams and had come to Britain to realise them. He was a young man who had energy. He was a young man who had a loving family. This was his and their story.
Written by Levi David Addai, this 90-minute film was an extremely emotional watch, but what was interesting about it was that there was no violence even though the life of Damilola Taylor came to a bloody end, and no focus on the investigation itself – this was not a procedural, this was a drama about a family coming to terms with loss, coping with grief and finding ways to. But it was a drama about other things, too.
To begin with, we were transported to the vibrant Nigerian capital, Lagos, where we met the Taylor family. They were a close-knit group; patriarch Robert a strict but loving father, his wife Gloria softer, and children Tunde, Gbemi and young Dami exhibiting all the energy and life kids do. Dami, especially, loved football and wanted to play for Manchester United. He dreamed big.
As we watched them travel to England – Gbemi needed specialist treatment for her epilepsy – that energy still remained, even though Robert stayed behind to work. They were a family that earned good money, so Robert was convinced that once they got to the UK (he had visited before) the country who spread the notions of fair play and the rule of law throughout its colonies would easily make room for his family, who upheld them with such fervent diligence. He was wrong. When Gloria went to visit the authorities and asked for a council house, she was more or less laughed out of the office.
Instead, they had to make do with staying at a cousin’s place in Peckham, Gloria sleeping in the living room, the three children sharing a bedroom.
But no bother: Tunde got a job, Gbemi stayed at home to help her mother, while Dami was becoming a star at school, that cheeky smile and infectious energy making quick friends. So far so good. Hard work, but they stuck together and made it work, their bond tight. But… as their life in England began to take shape a sense of dread started to gnaw away – you liked these people and you rooted for them, but because you knew the story you knew something awful was about to happen.
And it did. Dami was attacked by a gang and fell on a broken bottle, causing a fatal wound.
We then saw what happened when Robert flew to Britain, in shock at what had happened. It was then that Damilola, Our Loved Boy started to examine how one family, torn apart by grief and guilt, began to blame each other. Robert was a proud, godfearing man. He was buttoned up, holding in his rage and emotion below the surface. He wanted to remain dignified at all times, showing the Brits how he could be British in response to a crisis. Instead he reserved his ire for his family. He barely spoke to them, and was not a happy man at home, scowling and sitting silently staring blankly into space. In these sequences, the drama explored traditional gender roles in African families, of male identity in particular, Robert’s old-fashioned patriarchy and need to be strong and stoic – to keep up appearances – coming through.
He blamed his wife, his son Tunde, the courts and anyone else he could think of (perfectly understandably), and instead of keeping the unit together he threw himself into assuaging his own guilt by dedicating himself to helping the estate kids in Peckham. He wanted to teach them respect and discipline and encourage the parents to take a greater role in their lives. This put him at odds with Tunde, who had learned that self-responsibility is an equally important element in complex, multi-layered issue.
So while we didn’t quite get the full story when it came to the three trials the family had to endure, we did get an attempt to answer that enduring question – who is to blame for street violence in our urban centres? Damilola, Our Loved Boy did a good job in surmising that there are no hard or fast answers, sadly, and that a combination of things all contribute. A lack of parental presence, yes. A lack of parental discipline, yes. But what are parents to do when they have to work every hour of the day to make ends meet and put food on the table? Communities have to come together to protect their own, for sure. And, on top of all this, young men (let’s face it, it’s mostly young men, here) also have to take responsibility. They can make choices, but they can make the right ones. They need help and guidance to make them, but they can make them.
Damilola, Our Loved Boy was extremely moving and heartbreaking on one level – we saw a family shattered and slowly rebuild itself – but the drama also touched on other things, other important matters of society and our roles within it, that elevated it to another level. The acting from Babou Ceesay as Richard, Wunmi Mosaku as Gloria and Juwon Adedokun as Tunde was superb, all giving the Taylor family not only a voice but also nuanced human dimensions. Levi David Addai, meanwhile, gave us believable characters who reacted to the tragedy in believable ways, and showed us what a horrific crime does to a family and the values that underpin them.
And Dami, that beautiful child who dreamed of a long and vibrant life, got the tribute he deserved.