Andrew Billen - Identity crisis

Television - A ruthless examination of the truth behind a stereotype. By Andrew Billen

The Trou

In America, Ali G is having a particularly good summer on HBO. Chairing a discussion with politics professors, he suggests that the voting age should be lowered to the onset of pubic hair: "As we say, if there's fluff on the muff, they're old enough." Giving interviews out of character for the first time, Sacha Baron Cohen has said that G's racial identity is left deliberately vague in order to discombobulate his victims who, were they to look closely, would observe a white (Jewish) man with an Asian first name who insists he is black. The joke is on the white interviewees, but it is also, as Baron Cohen is less willing to admit, on black youth culture.

In a remarkable three-part series, The Trouble With Black Men: a polemic (Thursdays, 9pm), the journalist David Matthews insists that the stereotype of the feckless, low-achieving, gold-laden, promiscuous black male that G parodies is not so far off the mark. And he has the statistics to back him. In the first programme (19 August), on work and education, he tells us that African Caribbean boys are three times more likely to be excluded from school than the average. Only a quarter of them get five good GCSEs, compared with a national average of 51 per cent. Between the ages of seven and 16, in fact, academic levels among them fall. In the second programme, on crime, we hear that although black men account for 1 per cent of the population, they represent 12 per cent in prisons. The final programme, on sex, reports that 48 per cent of African Caribbean families in the UK are headed by single parents.

The subtitle of the series suggests that Matthews will take us into the territory of John Pilger or Darcus Howe, but he progresses logically by statistic, interview and case history, as any conscientious documentary-maker would. His views are challenged, but not, frankly, by anyone very credible. Dr X, "ghettologist" and shock jock on Genesis FM, for instance, clings to the ghetto definition of blackness, believing that black professionals "sell out" their race. For Dr X, Matthews summarises, "only collectivism and segregation will save blacks from a white society hell-bent on humiliating and destroying us".

The figures, however, do not bear out this convenient analysis. African Carib-bean children don't do badly at primary school, and black girls do as well as white boys at GCSE. It is at the age of eight or nine that things go wrong for black boys. The reason is that, at this stage, black rap culture kicks in. Interviewing a group of initially surly but actually rather sweet boys, Matthews establishes that they feel they have to live up to the image of the bad black boy. A black public school boy in programme two says he was taunted by white school friends for not being black "enough" because he did his homework.

Yet what incentive is there to study when MTV rap videos present every successful black man as a blinged-up gangster? After talking to one sad youth who claims that music and drugs are all that blacks can relate to, Matthews concludes: "Courtney inhabits a world of material gain. It's about front, status and external signs of wealth. He's a product of the post-Thatcher hip-hop generation."

The second programme takes us out of school and, for many, straight into jail, and more or less rehearses the anti-rap culture arguments of the first. Matthews admits that urban black culture can be "liberating and entertaining", but reasonably asks: "If you go around looking like an MTV gangster, should you be surprised if people occasionally view you with suspicion?"

The last programme, on sex, is more fun. A little unconvincingly, and with reference to an extremely well-endowed black stripper, Matthews asks us to feel sorry for black men, imprisoned in the myth of large penises. In demand from white women, distrusted by the black women they might marry, the black male grabs all the sexual opportunities he can, and they are legion. But this programme is also the most important, shifting the blame from popular culture to the much longer history of feckless black fathers. For once, whites must take much of the blame: we kidnapped Africans and shipped them by the millions as slaves to the Caribbean, where they were not allowed to marry. The legacy there has been a society where cohabitation is more common than wedlock, the concept of half-sibling has no meaning, and there is no stigma to being a single parent. It apparently works there but, says Matthews, has not exported well to Britain. To one locally notorious baby-father who, as if in some kind of musical, has seven children by seven women, Matthews reads a letter from his daughter. She says she never had a father. Beneath the old goat's bravado and his silvery beard, you see his pain.

Each programme offers some hope: a school in north London where black pupils excel; the ex-gangster who now drives a London bus; the black father trying to save his marriage through counselling. But Matthews does not underestimate the crisis or exclude himself from it. He gives little bits away about himself: he's an ex-wrestler; he wasted a decade of his life rebelling; he seems to have sired at least one child outside marriage. This, he implies, is a crisis that can be tackled only by ruthless self-examination. Disgracefully, upon hearing about the series, the Voice newspaper ran the front-page headline "This show must not go on". On the contrary, it deserves an immediate repeat on BBC1.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times