With the visual audacity of a Sam Fuller or Spike Lee, British-Nigerian helmer Ngozi Onwurah, in her outrageous, funny, challenging shout-out on the subject of black self-image, “Shoot the Messenger,” sweeps away the norms of narrative filmmaking along with the careful tiptoeing postures of political correctness. Her hero Joe Pascale (David Oyelowo) successively occupies every conceivable position on fortune’s wheel, with an arrogant, despairing, and sometimes paranoid world view to match. At the other end of the spectrum from “Crash”-type mainstream fare about racial tolerance, “Shoot” could stir up controversy in arthouse auds.
Antihero Joe angrily decides that all his problems stem from his own black people. He proceeds to relate the events leading him to that conclusion, addressing the camera directly with ironic complicity.
Inspired to quit his high-paying corporate job to help his people by becoming a high school teacher, Joe institutes a system of “enforced education” via detention hall and public humiliation. His most rebellious student (Charles Mnene) retaliates by falsely accusing him of assault, and the charge soon escalates into a media feeding frenzy, with Joe reviled as a racist by those he was trying to save.
Driven to madness by the injustice, Joe winds up, in rapid succession, as a patient in a mental hospital, as a beggar on a bridge over the Thames, as a believer in a community of fervent Christians, as a worker at an employment agency and as the loved one of a new girlfriend.
Along the way, his racial hatred and belief that being black is a curse manage to alienate everyone he meets.
Sharon Foster’s script occasionally tends toward the tendentious, but her “antihero” premise is always subversive, and helmer Onwurah’s bold visual strokes leaven the point-making with sly postmodern wit. Onwurah also takes full advantage of the character’s on-and-off madness and paranoia to stylistically shift modes of representation, a Christmas feast effortlessly turning into fairy tale only to morph into horror film.
Thesping is first rate. Shakespearean actor Oyelowo’s Joe is a seething mass of passionate contradictions served up cold, while Nikki Amuka Bird as his together girlfriend exudes warmth and intelligence and just enough vulnerability to make her attraction to him credible.
Tech credits are generally fine, David Katznelson’s lensing welded tightly to the pic’s many tonal shifts. James Merifield’s production design, however, occasionally flails distractingly between abstract ideas and fleshed-out locations.