In our first of two reviews of Undercover, Rashida Islam sees a great premise let down by a sidelining of the most important issues at the show’s core
Spoiler alert if you haven’t yet watched all of the programme.
“I think as hard as I can. I put all my being into articulating exactly what I think. Which is always and without exception my best shot at the truth. Which is all anyone can ever give or be. Take it or leave it.”
These words lie at the heart of recent BBC drama Undercover. They are spoken by Maya Cobbina, a criminal justice lawyer who is about to become the first Black Director of Public Prosecutions in British history. Importantly, writer Peter Moffat’s bold drama brings some of the most brutal questions of racism to a mainstream television audience – questions rarely presented with such honesty and dramatic force.
When we first meet Maya (Sophie Okonedo), she is fighting for a stay of execution to spare Rudy Jones (Dennis Haysbert), a falsely convicted Black man, from the death penalty in Louisiana, USA. At the same time, she is investigating the murder of Michael Antwi (Sope Dirisru), a Black anti-racist leader who died in police custody. Just as, in the first episode, Maya is nearly obliterated by an oncoming lorry, so will her life shortly confront its biggest challenge. Her apparently devoted husband Nick (Adrian Lester), a novelist, has helped her raise three children but has been concealing a life-shattering secret from his family. We quickly learn that as an undercover police officer, he targeted Maya as a means to infiltrate an anti-racist campaign. On falling in love with Maya, Nick abandons the police force but without confessing his secret past to her. Now, 20 years later, he is approached by his former colleagues to once again spy on his wife, under threat of exposure. While Maya tries to resolve the joint tragedies of Rudy and Michael, she is unaware that her struggle is being undermined by her husband. The drama shifts between past and present as it unravels this complex story.
Undercover could not have been screened at a better time. In a climate of growing unrest in the UK and USA against the murder and mistreatment of Black people at the hands of the police, the conversation about race has been reignited again and again, at times with such a level of ferocity that contributions from superstars such as Beyonce have been prompted, using explicit messages to the police by quoting the Black Lives Matter movement’s mantra: “Stop Shooting Us”. Scrutiny of the treatment of Black people has bled into the dramatic arts, with #OscarsSoWhite critiquing the absence of accolades for Black people. This makes the prominence Undercover has given to gifted Black actors all the more praiseworthy. More importantly, the drama addresses institutional racism within the police and the tactics they deploy to maintain a system of privilege; enacting brutal violence and in some cases murdering Black people.
The murder of Black people by forces of the state, without consequence, is racism’s most extreme expression. This stark reality is played out at the end of episode two with the murder of charismatic anti-racist leader Michael Antwi, whose death inspires Maya to lead a 20-year campaign for justice.
The real-life backdrop to the fictional murder at the heart of Undercover is one of the most infamous cases of hate crime in British history – the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence. The campaign championed by Stephen’s parents to uncover the events that transpired that night eventually culminated in the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, which implicated the police in mishandling the case because of institutional racism. They had hidden evidence, ignored key witnesses and even falsified reports. However, one of the most disturbing aspects, and the one lying at the heart of Undercover, is the revelation that emerged in 2011 of the police infiltrating a number of activist groups, including the Stephen Lawrence campaign. Here, a police officer who had infiltrated the Stephen Lawrence campaign came out of the operation disliking the police and was won over to the anti-racist campaign. He had been instructed to smear the Lawrence family and disrupt their struggle for justice.
This begs the question: why did the police, who are supposed to be protecting the public, resort to such injustices? The answer here is that the police are a central plank in a state structure with a history of racism. In the show, the security forces’ actions that lead to the death of Michael Antwi are motivated by a gross misjudgement of the security threat he apparently poses as one Black activist; in the Stephen Lawrence case, the police’s aim was to halt any challenge to the status quo and, ultimately, stop the truth coming out.
How successfully does Undercover expose this role of the state in colluding with and promoting racism?
The experiences of Black people at the hands of the police have been difficult and harrowing. Many Black families in the UK and in the USA have been devastated by the deaths of family members at the hands of the police. There are strong parallels to Michael’s death in the show with real life cases such as those of Christopher Alder and Sean Rigg, who died whilst being aggressively handled by the police. Maya knows the police had a hand in Michael’s death but needs evidence as to what happened on that fateful day. Unlike the TV audience, Maya does not know exactly what happened to Michael. Only after an investigation of new leads does she finally piece together the full story.
On the advice of sinister officer, Paul Brightman (Derek Riddell), the police put a racist thug, Peter Mackie (Ian Peck), in the same cell as Michael, unaware that the thug is under CIA instructions to kill him. When Mackie fails, the police intervene and, in attempting to ‘restrain’ Michael, they kill him through asphyxiation. The one witness to what happened, another undercover officer, later arranges to meet Maya to share this information, but is intercepted and killed after Nick tips off the police . This is the central tension in Undercover: the conflict between Nick’s responsibilities as Maya’s partner and his forced allegiance to the police who are obstructing her.
It is disappointing that, in a typical ‘soap opera’ moment, Nick is won over only by his love for Maya. Being wholeheartedly won over to the campaign and its arguments might have allowed for an exploration of his inner life and self-identification as a Black man. The agent would have to choose between his loyalty to the police and his class/race consciousness as a Black man. Though the real life officers in the Stephen Lawrence case were white, Undercover has chosen a Black actor for the role. It is a shame that Moffatt has not taken this opportunity to explore how a Black person feels about aiding a racist state.
Nick’s commitment to the campaign is ambiguous and remains undeveloped throughout. He leaves the police because he wants to start a family with Maya. While his love for her and his family is genuine, this is contradicted by his renewed betrayal of her to the state. He does nothing to expose the truth behind Michael’s murder. On the contrary, he actively obstructs Maya’s investigation. He may have walked away from the force but his loyalties are being tested again and it’s not justice or truth that drives him. It is the risk of exposurem which leads him to effectively aid the police in its cover up. He may not have killed Michael Antwi but he could have brought the system to justice. He may not have injected the lethal dose of heroin in his ex-colleague but he exposes her – not the police.
When Maya meets Michael’s assailant, he pushes her to expose her breasts in return for information. This is paralleled by Undercover’s main theme, drawing on the experiences of real life women who were tricked by the police into unsuspecting long-term relationships. The show confronts the issue head-on in episode five, when Maya tells Nick “You raped me” because she now knows he became intimate with her on false pretences. This is a controversial interpretation, but one that reflects the words of a real life victim who said, “I feel like I have been raped by the state.” However, the show skirts around this sensitive aspect of state infiltration, instead of building up on Maya’s assertion. It is possible that the writer may not have wished to add yet another dramatic thread to an already heavily loaded drama, but it’s clear Nick has erected an entire fiction in which Maya, just like real life victims, plays an unwitting pawn in the state’s campaign to undermine justice. It’s a shame that the opportunity to explore this issue further was missed.
For all of Nick’s reprehensible actions, he is also a victim, held captive by a state prepared to set Black people against each other in its efforts to conceal its corruption. It’s a classic example of divide and rule. Nick missing the final moments of his dying father and being absent for the funeral poignantly highlights the sacrifices he is forced to make in order to maintain his cover. It may not absolve him of his betrayal, but Adrian Lester convincingly elicits sympathy for this divided character nonetheless.
Huge credit must be given to Sophie Okonedo for her powerful portrayal of Maya. It is a pleasure to see a powerful Black woman realised on screen and in such a nuanced fashion. Her journey from that of a self-assured confident woman taking on the state, who struggles to retain her sense of self despite the devastation wreaked by Nick’s betrayal, is fascinating to watch.
In the first five episodes, Undercover is occasionally let down by plot contrivances worthy of a mediocre soap opera. When the drama focuses on the twists and turns of Nick’s attempts to hide his secret identity and his fracturing relationship with Maya, the injustice of Black people’s experiences at the hands of the police is pushed to the background.
Nonetheless, the show is profound because of its exploration of racism, in both the UK and the US, with reference to police accountability and the criminal justice system. Its treatment of this topic for the first five episodes is remarkably uncompromising, and greatly outweighs its dramatic shortcomings. Undercover’s bluntness is even more surprising given that it was produced by the consistently pro-establishment BBC. The most disturbing thing about this extreme world of violent racism, state infiltration and murder is that it is true. And, unlike on TV, the real life cases of police complicity in Black deaths, with the partial exception of the Stephen Lawrence case, have yet to win justice. The story of Michael’s mother, who campaigns year in and year out for justice for her son, even when it seems all hope is gone, is realised many, many times in the real world.
Unfortunately, for all its merits, Undercover is seriously let down by its sixth and final episode. If it was any old thriller, the numerous plot holes could have been overlooked. But Undercover isn’t just any thriller. It is the first fictionalised TV drama to draw inspiration from the experiences of real families, and, possibly, above all, the Lawrence family, to portray on-screen the mistreatment of Black people at the hands of the police. The extreme rarity of such dramas places a particular responsibility upon the production team. However, in the final episode we are let into the secret that the murderer of the mayor, and the man for whom the innocent Rudy is now sitting on Death Row, was none other than Michael Antwi. There is no explanation as to why Michael committed the murder, or why Rudy has never revealed the identity of the perpetrator, or why the police did not simply arrest Michael if they knew he was guilty? (Answers can be found courtesy of Adrian Lester.) However, these gaping plot holes are the least of the show’s problems; with this revelation, Undercover criminalises a dead Black man and inverts the reality behind police racism.
Suddenly Michael Antwi the passionate anti-racist campaigner, unlawfully killed through police brutality, becomes Michael Antwi the murderer. It turns out that the police’s suspicions of him being ‘dangerous’ were not the paranoia of a racist institution, but were perfectly reasonable. The stereotype of the criminal Black man, long used by the police to turn the public against their victims and distract them from injustices, is apparently justified. Ironically, this very tactic of smearing the victim in order to absolve the police of guilt is addressed in Maya’s flashback in episode two. Unfortunately, however, the finale only serves to reinforce the ‘criminal black man’ trope instead of subverting it. This is incredibly disappointing because it does not honour the struggles waged by Black families trying to win justice. On the contrary, it betrays them. The death of Michael and of every real-life Black victim of police violence is invalidated by this ‘twist’.
Maybe the writer became aware of this problem, as Nick asserts that “he deserved to die”. The audience has no idea why, and it is not entirely clear whether Nick is referring to the mayor or Michael. Judging from Maya’s shocked reaction, the natural assumption would be that Nick is referring to Michael. Either way, this feeble line justifying murder undermines the spirit of the whole show. Even if Nick is referring to Michael, the line still makes no sense, as Maya has spent much of her professional life trying to prove that Rudy, even when believed guilty by the court, does not deserve to lose his life.
Undercover has proven to be a thought-provoking and tense drama that has generated significant debate. It has a great premise – police racism and Black people’s struggle for justice – complemented by excellent acting from its two leads. Frustratingly, the writer has thrown away this potential with an overstuffed and incoherent plot. The show’s long list of implausibilities and weaknesses might have been forgivable if it delivered on its main message, exposing and condemning racism within the police force. Instead, it chooses to criminalise its Black victim. Unfortunately, that ill-considered finale will define how #Undercover will be remembered.
[Image descriptions and credits:
1. Maya Cobbina (Sophie Okonedo) hugging Rudy Jones (Dennis Haysbert). Maya looks down with a troubled expression, while only Rudy’s back can be seen. He is strapped to a chair and wears an orange prison uniform.
2. Maya Cobbina (Sophie Okonedo) stands in front of a door, with a look of concern and scrutiny. She has a folder under her left arm and a bag over her right shoulder. She wears a blue blazer and white shirt.