As the fifth and final season of Top Boy launches on Netflix, we delve into the immense impact this show has had as a media phenomenon and how it successfully portrayed Black inner-city London on a global stage.
The first episode of Top Boy, which premiered on October 31, 2011, started with a scene that felt all too familiar. A young Black boy gazed out of a high-rise flat window, witnessing a violent conflict between two local Black gangs over drugs. As we embark on the fifth season, it’s worth reflecting on the expectations audiences might have had when Channel 4 initially announced this “incredible four nights of drama.”
In my new book, Black Boys: The Social Aesthetics of British Urban Film, I explore the concept of a “Black media event,” exemplified by Top Boy, I May Destroy You, Small Axe anthology, and Dreaming Whilst Black. These productions derive significance not only from their “Blackness” but also from their interaction with other Black cultural forms.
It’s unclear whether Ronan Bennett, the Irish writer behind Top Boy, had intentionally created a Black media event. He conceived the idea after observing a young Black youth conducting a drugs transaction in a Hackney supermarket car park. At that time, the genre of “Black urban” films, like Bullet Boy, Kidulthood, Adulthood, and Anuvahood, seemed to be losing steam due to repetitive narratives, lack of industry interest, and criticism as a source of moral panic surrounding Black youth.
However, Top Boy’s first season revitalized the genre with its departure from the formulaic approaches that had come to define it. Notably, it featured Ashley Walters, a well-known figure in the genre, alongside grime artist Kano in his acting debut, bringing authenticity and maturity to the portrayal of Hackney’s drug trade.
The comparison between Top Boy and HBO’s The Wire gained significant attention upon the series’ launch and continued throughout its run. Top Boy’s complex social analysis of Black life on the fictional Summerhouse Estate resonated with The Wire’s exploration of Baltimore’s drugs trade and its impact on the Black community.
Furthermore, Top Boy bridged two distinct eras of Channel 4 as a broadcaster. It harkened back to the channel’s radical broadcasting in the 1980s and early 90s, emphasizing minority ethnic identities that had been misrepresented by the BBC and ITV. Simultaneously, it reflected the growing commercialism of Channel 4 in the 2000s, with an emphasis on reality television and star-led documentaries.
Top Boy appealed to post-digital youth subcultures through on-demand viewership, garnering over one million on-demand views and 123,000 tweets during its broadcast week. The show’s soundtrack, featuring popular Black artists, received over 23,000 plays, leveraging the popularity and authenticity of Black music subcultures.
Released just weeks after the 2011 English riots, Top Boy gained socio-political significance by exploring the underlying factors that contributed to the civil unrest, including socio-economic inequality, austerity politics, and the policing of Britain’s Black communities. The show captures a pre-2012 Olympics east London, as well as the failed promises of the Games legacy project.
While Top Boy didn’t always fully express its political context in its narrative, it touched on various subplots related to youth knife crime, the government’s hostile environment policy, and gentrification’s impact on communities. These elements provided a glimpse into the issues affecting Black residents in economically deprived areas.
Many were disappointed when Channel 4 unexpectedly canceled Top Boy after its second season in 2013. However, the emergence of streaming platforms allowed for its revival. The intervention of Canadian hip-hop artist Drake, a fan of the show, led to its return on Netflix in 2019, featuring a new cast and higher production values.
Top Boy’s Netflix era brought increased visibility to Black actors, who increasingly appeared on mainstream media covers and pages. The show also transcended the realm of scripted drama, attracting rappers, models, and athletes, further amplifying its representation of east London housing estates as a global Black cultural experience.
The use of drill and grime music, alongside Brian Eno’s incredible scoring, bolstered Top Boy’s impact as a reference point for Black urban multiculture. By capturing the specificities of its setting, the show celebrated the Afro-Caribbean market stalls and housing estates that are often erased in favor of a gentrified and racially sanitized Hackney.
Top Boy has proven to be a groundbreaking series, not only for its portrayal of Black inner-city London but also for its ability to captivate audiences worldwide and resonate with the cultural zeitgeist of our time.
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