In 2018, Irish television produced a variety of popular multicultural fare led by women, with sit-com Women on the Verge presenting a racially integrated cast of alienated middle-class Dubliners, the second season of ‘90s-set comedy Derry Girls diversifying its cast to include a non-white character, and the Dublin-set crime drama Taken Down looking at the complex issues deriving from the Direct Provision system for those seeking asylum in Ireland.
Taken Down is one of few Irish productions to explore the lived experience of racism, and generated a lot of debate as well as opening to large viewing figures. Centred on the police investigation of an asylum seeker found murdered near a Direct Provision centre, Taken Down’s narrative pivots on the relationship between female detectives and asylum seekers. It narrows down its intercultural discourse by presenting a familiar racial binary between oppressor and oppressed, positioning blackness as tragic and whiteness as empowered, with the children raised in Direct Provision left in the liminal spaces, as they navigate being Irish and black and stateless.
Taken Down uses the concept of intersectionality to explore how white and black women experience gender bias differently. More specifically, it explores how gender bias affects middle-class and working/sub-class women differently, and how this intersects with racism to affect trafficked women and asylum seekers.
Aïssa Maïga, a French star who usually plays the sex symbol in smash box office comedies, here plays the humble Nigerian widow Abeni, a melodramatic heroine growing in virtue as she suffers and cares for others, the polar opposite of Lynn Rafferty’s emotionally detached detective inspector Jen, who loses a child and goes back to work the same day: https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/tv-radio-web/taken-down-official-trailer-1.3686705
Taken Down questions the state’s role in the deaths of the asylum seekers it follows, blurring the lines between police and pimp, abused and abuser. Institutional discrimination leads North African asylum seeker Samir to hang himself. White policemen are seen shuttering their office windows to enjoy CCTV footage of the murdered girl and Abeni’s teenage son engaging in a sexual act. These same policemen then go undercover to the brothel where the murder victim worked, with one deciding to have sex while there, with a black prostitute most likely trafficked into Ireland.
Anne Mulhall (2018: 4) describes the Direct Provision system as: ‘a space of paralysis between hope and fear. Arbitrariness is not an accidental by-product of systemic incompetence but a crucial mechanism of control at the core of the asylum and deportation regime. It orchestrates that suspended space that people describe as a living death, that relentlessly, remorselessly breaks people down and robs them of dignity, agency, hope, that destroys meaning and identity’.
Located along the coast, the crumbling, damp, isolated Direct Provision centre, run by a man as corrupt as he is inept, captures the asylum seeker’s desperate position, adrift between states, the prolonged experience of which leads to self-harm and drug abuse.
Fanon and Du Bois wrote extensively about the pathology of racism and the double consciousness that misrecognition produces, whereby one is always, as Fanon put it, ‘overdetermined from without.’ While this misrecognition is evident in the state treatment of Samir, it is also explored through the storyline of a trafficked girl who is groomed for prostitution, as seen in the trailer. In referencing the intersectionality of race and gender, Taken Down notes the doubly negated experience of black womanhood, here reduced to a sexual commodity. While Abeni is not a passive, abject stereotype but a relateable, familiar figure with agency, this familiarity relies on her adhering to the politics of respectability. And the show’s focus on the refugee as sex worker, criminal and deviant, with Abeni as the exception to the rule – a ‘model minoritarian’ veering dangerously close to the ‘noble negro’ stereotype in her heroic exceptionalism – is problematic.
According to Ronit Lentin (2005: 7): ‘non-national women were made central to the racial configuration of twenty-first century Ireland, illustrating not only orchestrated moral panics about “floods of refugees”, but also the positioning of sexually active women as a “danger to the state and the nation”’.
As it shifts from police procedural to a more sensationalist narrative centred on an African brothel in Dublin’s city centre, Taken Down reverts to a familiar binary, the white Irish nation-state versus oversexualised foreigners. It was this fear of unregulated foreign female sexuality which led to the Citizenship Act of 2005, restricting automatic citizenship to those with Irish parents. It could be argued that while Ireland has become much more multicultural, as evidenced by the well publicised citizenship ceremonies, it has not yet embraced hybrid, hyphenated identities because of this very Act, which denies people born or raised in Ireland, like Abeni’s sons, necessarily being considered Irish.