WWhen he first read the script for You Don’t Know Me, Samuel Adewunmi assumed the TV series was set in the United States. “It didn’t strike me as something that would be broadcast in prime time on the BBC,” he says. “There were so many black characters in the foreground.” Once he clarified that the series was set in London (although filmed in Birmingham), it was “a staple role. The whole story just seemed true. I thought he was a really interesting guy – his dignity, his identity, his morality – and the story was told from his perspective.
The four-part series opens with the character of Adewunmi, identified only as Hero, in the dock. During a murder trial, the until then law-abiding car salesman watches the jury and – in a desperate appeal for their sympathy and mercy – begins to tell his story. By forwarding his side to the court, he hopes to overcome what the facts and evidence, both circumstantial and forensic, have suggested – and avoid a life sentence.
The series is based on a novel by criminal lawyer Imran Mahmood and has been adapted by writer Vigil Tom Edge. “There is that vein of anger in Imran as he writes it,” says Edge. “It’s a world full of smart, hardworking characters whose lives are wasted.”
The show takes place in flashback, as Hero recounts the events leading up to his arrest, his courtroom address acting as a useful framing device, and a commentary on how the UK justice system works – and on the interests it serves. “[The novel] carried true moral authority, ”says Edge. “Lives are more than a collection of unfortunate circumstances, and we shouldn’t infer too much from this [about people]. “The fact that the speech is potentially Hero’s final act as a free man not only increases the tension, but serves as a reminder that the courts are where we tend to see black youth penalized, rather than theirs. given a chance to communicate. Since as a group, men like Hero are nine times more likely to be locked up in England and Wales than their white peers, the lack of sympathy that follows from the part of the judge, the jury and the gallery is not surprising.
The complexity of the show lies in the subjectivity of Hero’s story. The audience, like the jury, must decide whether his motives – and indeed the characters he describes – are genuine or the inventions of a desperate man. The question of why the key elements of his defense were left to the final declaration persists during the proceedings. That the protagonist is unnamed only adds to the ambiguity. It seems fitting, though: Hero (a feat of Adewunmi) is just one of the thousands of young men who find themselves at the forefront of the justice system every year.
Beyond its accomplished exploration of racial prejudice in this system (reminiscent of the first episodes of HBO’s The Night of, starring Riz Ahmed), the series also highlights many young black British talent. Now 27, Adewunmi’s breakthrough came in the 2019 film The Last Tree (directed by Shola Amoo), a tender coming-of-age story of a young Anglo-Nigerian boy growing up. in Lincolnshire, London and Lagos. He also starred in the “punk rock thriller” The Watch, an ambitious television version of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. “It was a bigger budget than anything I’d ever done,” he says. “Much bigger sets and a fantasy, all very different from The Last Tree.” He says the relatively smaller scope of You Don’t Know Me was a welcome return to the kind of character work that really turns him on, although he did feel the pressure of directing prime-time drama. “You are constantly reminded that everyone is going to watch,” he says. “But that’s not what’s important in the job.”
Adewunmi is in virtually every scene of the show, accused of overcoming both the jury and – perhaps – viewers’ preconceptions about the accused. “I’m just a youngster from Camden Town, but it’s incumbent on all of us to recognize that the minds of people are shaped by what they watch,” he said of the responsibility of program makers. “We have to control the things we put on.”
As in The Last Tree, her character is Yoruba, a West African ethnic group numbering 42 million people worldwide, including over 100,000 in the UK, including Adewunmi’s family. “It was very important to me that the people who come from where I come from – my friends and family – to watch real characters and their real lives.” Plus, he says, “it helps to have that element of personal attachment there.” In You Don’t Know Me, Adewunmi’s mother and sister are also played by actors of Yoruba origin, Yetunde Oduwole and Bukky Bakray respectively. Much of the action takes place around Hero’s kitchen table, where the family vacillates between two languages. “This specificity was very important for him to feel authentic,” explains Adewunmi. “These things were written in English but Sam [Sarmad Masud, the series director] Mostly wanted to imbue the story with elements of Hero’s family life using the Yoruba language. It allows the public to have a more in-depth view of the extent of Britishness. [The fact that we keep] the beauty of London is part of our original cultures.
Bakray plays Hero’s sister, Bless, an observant “old soul” who serves as his moral compass. This is only her second job as a professional actress, following her lead role in the coming-of-age movie Rocks in 2019, a performance that saw her nominated for Best Actress at the Baftas and win the prestigious Rising Star Award (Past winners include Tom Holland, Letitia Wright and Daniel Kaluuya). “I still can’t believe this moment has come,” says the 19-year-old, who was discovered during a drama class at school and says she didn’t. ” no ambition to be an actress “despite a long-standing love of cinema, especially before black cinema classics such as Boyz n the Hood, Malcolm X and Training Day. “I am very lucky with the way the first few years went. I have met amazing people – directors, cinematographers and editors as well as actors – that I try to learn from every day. [Making this show] It was more like going to masterclasses than going to work.
She was particularly impressed by her co-star Michael Balogun, as Face, the terrifying gang leader who plays the puppeteer in the second installment of the series. Balogun discovered his passion for the theater while in prison and working under license in the kitchens of Rada. He then won a place in drama school and graduated in 2017. “It was so great to experience the level of discipline that someone like Michael brings to it. It’s his job and [from him] I’ve learned that all you have to do is focus on one thing. I have kept this with me in all the other work I have done.
The key to becoming Bless was creating a character playlist (“If I didn’t have music, I wouldn’t be able to play!”), An eclectic mix of Lauryn Hill, Frank Ocean, Al Green , Loyle Carner, Sade and Bon Iver. “I always have music that I draw on,” she says. “These are the lyrics. There is a song called Ottolenghi by Loyle Carner; he says: “To try to exist and to hide his face”. I think Bless is a character who feels marginal to everything and she always tries to hide.
By conveying the series’ message – that the justice system, as it stands, is not suited to its goals and this is evident in its results – the actors have performed confidently and convincingly. As for his lead role, Edge describes him as “an incredible talent with a huge future ahead of him.” As a writer, when you see how deep an actor is, you don’t want to waste the moment you have with him.
The caption for the main image for this article was changed on December 3, 2021. Samuel Adewunmi is on the right and not on the left as shown in an earlier version.
You Don’t Know Me starts Sunday at 9 p.m., BBC One