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My Name is Leon—institutional racism through the eyes of a child

As nine year old Leon finds his life torn apart, he’s confronted with the realities of state racism. It makes My Name is Leon a powerful film, says Jay Williams
Issue 2808
Malachi Kirby as Tufty and Cole Martin as Leon in BBC drama My Name is Leon

Tufty (left) introduces Leon to the politics of political blackness in My Name is Leon

The BBC’s one-off drama My Name is Leon, based on the debut novel from Kit de Waal, has much value.

Seen through the eyes of mixed heritage child, Leon (Cole Martin) we follow his growing awareness of his own blackness and place in society. It is engaging and it portrays the institutional racism of the state, from social workers to the police in subtle and direct ways.

The opening is truly charming as Leon beams adoringly at his new born, white brother. Care and affection is human nature, not hate and racism, we are gently told.

But Leon has to care too much. As his mum, Carol (Poppy Lee Friar) becomes incapable of looking after the children alone, Leon has to parent his brother. It’s at this point that the strengths—and I’m sorry to say weaknesses—of My Name is Leon start to show.

It’s poignant that Leon is feeding and cleaning the baby. But the effect is diminished by some of the rather clunky signalling of where the narrative is going. Carol’s character is not well developed, and the reason for her troubles is only hinted at.

This could be due to the time restriction of film. This is certainly true of the interaction between two characters, Mr Devlin (Christopher Eccleston) and Leon’s father figure Tufty (Malachi Kirby).

Tufty accuses Devlin of being a police informant. Again My Name is Leon hints that Tufty has got it wrong. In the novel, author Kit de Waal takes time to discuss the Irish hunger strikes of the 1980s.

The time Leon spends with Tufty on his allotment are crucial to his development, but again there are strengths and weaknesses. Dialogue between Leon and Tufty swiftly but adamantly expresses “political blackness.”

Leon displays characteristics of a neglected and abused child.  But we are left wondering why all these lovely people don’t want to know where this child, who turns up randomly and stays into the night, comes from. This does serve to show that this is where Leon feels he belongs and how the constructs of the family have completely failed him.

Institutional racism as is a crucial theme of the My Name is Leon. And the fact that racism manifests itself differently through various state institutions is very well done. From the naive social workers, who nevertheless enact vicious policy, to the outright murderous police.

The most powerful part of My Name is Leon brings this cleverly together, as Leon rages against the cops. Unfortunately, for me at least, this is almost immediately washed away by the sentimentality of the ending.

Oh, and don’t expect to see too much of Ecclestone or executive producer Lenny Henry.

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