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Moses Jones (Review)

The wonderful folks at the BBC have given me access to their BBC Global iPlayer for a month to give the service a go and trawl through the archives. I’ll have some thoughts on the service at the end of the month, but I thought I’d also take the opportunity to enjoy some of the fantastic content.

The thing about Moses Jones is that it, quite simply, blaxploitation. I don’t mean that’s a comedy or a wry deconstruction, the BBC equivalent of Black Dynamite or Undercover Brother. It’s a modern example of blaxploitation rather than a post-modern examination. It offers serious issue-based drama, playing its subject matter with complete seriousness and utter respect. For most of its runtime, it actually works quite well as an attempt to pull the conventions of blaxploitation narratives into the twenty-first century and transport them from the mean American streets to inner-city London. While the ending falls apart under its own weight, and a desire to wrap up absolutely everything in a neat little bow, there’s quite a bit to like about this BBC detective show.

Holy Moses...

I respect the decision to play all the classic blaxploitation tropes seriously, rather than trying to pick them apart or to wink at the audience. After all, the first episode opens with a soulful African soundtrack courtesy of Solomon’s band, and we’re introduced to our lead character standing in front of a mirror throwing his shades on. Hell, even the name Moses Jones (and, to a lesser extent, his detective sidekick, Dan Twentyman) sounds like something lifted directly from a seventies script. “What an excellent name!” a priest declares on being introduced. “I like you already!”

Hell, Moses feels like something of a spiritual successor to Shaft, with our lead detective yanked off a personal case to investigate something he initially has no interest in, only to wind up emotionally invested. Infiltrating a brothel with a female witness, she points out that there are cameras everywhere. “We have to make it look real,” she explains as the two have a personal conversation in the hallway and she takes him upstairs. It looks like Moses is, as we expects from leads in the genre, a smooth operator.

I question the wisdom of Solomon...

The conventions of these types of stories are all played straight, although perhaps there’s an acknowledgement of how times have changed. There’s still a villainous white guy who is part of the establishment seeking to exploit those disenfranchised members of the community. Moses is partnered with a young white cop who has absolutely no understanding of how to deal with the immigrant communities. “It’s all a big adventure to him,” Moses laments, while Dan offers some narrow-minded justifications for why white people seem so unsurprised when members of the local Ugandan community disappear.

Hell, the third episode even features a revelation about the main character’s past, anchoring Moses’ family history to the former government official he is investigating. As his mother handily reveals this information just before the final confrontation, he insists, “You spent twenty-five years hovering this bloody city, all because of Matthias?” He might as well have muttered, “This time it’s personal.”These plot devices do feel relatively trite. They haven’t necessarily aged well. There is a reason why blaxploitation has faded into history, save for parody or pastiche.

Copping on to themselves...

In fairness, writer Joe Penhall’s plotting lacks focus. The series is sparked by the discovery of an African body in a suitcase, and all the threads sort of diverge from there. Penhall’s script uses the event as a vehicle to explore the immigrant community, offering a microcosm of the experience. While the film does offer an interesting and broad examination, it does feel like Penhall loses focus a bit. We find out who killed the victim early on, and there’s really little mystery and investigation.

Instead, in the final episode, Penahll seems to remember the plot device driving the story, and frantically tries to resolve that thread, which has since split off on multiple tangents. Indeed, to wrap everything up in the requisite runtime, Penhall is forced to resort to a clumsily framed closing exposition sequence, as two characters discuss all the other members of the cast over a montage sequence. It feels more than a little bit clumsy.

Immigrant songs...

That said, there’s also something endearing about the way that writer Penhall uses these blaxploitation story-telling devices as they were originally intended. There’s a heavy layer of social commentary playing through the three-episode serial, especially considering the isolated immigrant communities and immigrant identity. Moses is originally reluctant to take the case. “They’re your people, Moses,” he supervisor warns him. Moses, too young to have any real ethnic identity as a Ugandan immigrant, replies, “I’m from Shepherd’s Bush!” Consulting with his mother, she chuckles, “I’m a Londoner now. I’m practically a cockney!”

Harsh rules of silence are enforced by those within the community, and nobody talks to the police. Hell, nobody really talks to each other – as an uncle searching for his lost niece discovers. Moses’ investigation leads him to the outcasts and the disenfranchised, those who fell through the cracks or those who are just ignored. Even Matthias, a former government official, can’t get the time of day from any of his former friends.

Dan the (Twenty)man...

In any other circumstance, this commentary might seem heavy-handed, but Penhall frames it through a consciously blaxploitation lens. Nothing the serial suggests will seem especially new or insightful, but it has an earnest pulpy charm to it that prevents the message from becoming too overwhelming.

The cast helps. Even as the show falls to pieces in the last third, it features a wonderful cast. Shaun Parkes is solid as the eponymous detective, and he manages to give the character just the right amount of edge. Eamonn Walker is always a pleasure to watch, here playing the wise musician Solomon, even if I’m not convinced he provided his own singing voice. Indira Varma and Matt Smith provide handy support as well.

At what Cost(ello)?

Moses Jones might not be the strongest three-part drama that the BBC has produced, but it is a solid piece of blaxploitation that evokes those classic seventies productions in a modern context. Perhaps it plays some of those conventions a bit too earnestly, and perhaps the plotting isn’t the most graceful, but it’s still an interesting piece of television.

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