Film & Telly

It’s A Sin : A review on the portrayal of characters of colour

It's A Sin left us all feeling a lot of things when it premiered on Channel 4 in January of this year and whilst the show definitely gave an insight into a time that was shrouded in myths and fear, did it do enough when exploring the Black experience?

From the mind of Russell T Davies, who gave us “Queer As Folk” and “Years & Years”, comes a new mini-series: “It’s A Sin”. The critically acclaimed Channel 4 series follows a group of gloriously defiant friends living in a shared house dubbed the ‘Pink Palace’. The group embrace the freedoms of London’s gay scene in the 1980’s, but the inevitable shadow of AIDS darkens their bright futures.

The shared household is made up of Ritchie (Olly Alexander), a law-turned-drama student from the Isle of Wight who leaves a closed-minded home in pursuit of hedonism. Roscoe (Omari Douglas), possibly the most defiant of them all — and my personal favourite character —leaves his conservative religious family who attempted to ‘pray the gay away’. In a dramatic goodbye he declares his new address is “23 Piss Off Avenue, London W Fuck”. Colin (Callum Scott Howells), from the Welsh Valleys, is a shy,  gentle soul excited by his new internship at a tailor’s . Last but by no means least, is Jill. The unofficial mum of the group, Davies wonderfully portrays her resilience, allyship and compassion.

While this five part series is something of a masterpiece and expertly navigates London’s gay community from the casual hook-ups to the vibrant nightlife set against the backdrop of a pandemic. It feels as though “It’s a Sin” does a disservice to its Black characters and other characters of colour in the way they are portrayed .

I found myself particularly drawn to Jill’s character. However, as a cisgender woman of colour and fierce ally to the LGBTQ community I expected far greater depth to her character than she was afforded. While Lydia West did a brilliant job, I can’t help but feel her character felt one-dimensional; the great protector and confidant for young gay men in London.

 Throughout the show we see her spread awareness of the disease to her gay friends, march in solidarity, and hold the hands of men who were left to die alone. Yet we have no explanation as to how she built such emotional muscularity to become the soothing balm that she is. We see the rest of the Pink Palace clique engage in glorious, jaw-dropping and slightly awkward one night stands, we understand their backgrounds, what experiences led them to where they are. However the same can’t be said for Jill. Am I the only one who was wondering about Jill’s love life? Her dreams? Nightmares, even? It’s safe to say we needed more. While I acknowledge the mini-series’ core intention was to offer a heartrending picture of the impact the AIDS crisis had on London in the 80’s and glossing over these details may have been seen as a necessary choice. Due to the role Jill played in uncovering certain aspects of the crisis and offering aid to her friends, it feels like a misstep that we didn’t get to know her more. Unfortunately this is something we see all too often in film and television. Black one-dimensional characters whose role is centred around selflessly saving white protagonists.

Roscoe is arguably the most iconic character of this mini-series, from the dramatic exits to the snappy one-liners or adding more than just milk to Margret Thatcher’s coffee. Fans instantly loved him, but did we see him as a central character in the same way we saw Ritchie or Collin?  It feels as though Davies missed an opportunity to hone in on the Black experience during the AIDS crisis through Roscoe. Instead of uncovering what it was like to be from two marginalised communities during this epidemic, Davies presents Roscoe as more of a comic relief for the show. While I loved watching Roscoe joyfully gallivant around London engaging in scandalous sex scenes, I would’ve also loved to see what it meant to be a young, Black queer man during this pandemic.

*Spoiler alert* A noticeable factor to consider about the series is that only the white characters succumb to the fatal impact of AIDS. By doing this these characters become valiant martyrs while the characters of colour become background voices who watch from the sidelines mourning their fallen friends. In shows we always remember the people who die over the ones who survive… don’t we? There could be many reasons to explain why directors chose to go in this direction, one of these could be due to the emotionally traumatic year that was 2020 for the Black community. The screenwriters may have felt it too much to inflict on Black viewers, therefore by having the Black characters survive was a small respite for the community. If this was the reason, would it be right for the creators of the show to decide what the Black community can or cannot handle?

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