BBC’s You Don’t Know Me forces us to rethink what innocence means – that’s what makes it so gripping
Written by Morgan Cormack
You Don’t Know Me, the new BBC drama premiered last night and it’s set to be one of the most compelling on-screen adaptations we’ve seen in a long time.
Warning: this article contains spoilers for the first episode of BBC One’s You Don’t Know Me.
Last night, BBC One aired yet another hard-hitting drama for us to get lost in and we couldn’t be more excited for the next episode.
Adapted from the bestselling novel of the same name by Imran Mahmood, the new BBC drama is directed by Sarmad Masud (My Pure Land, Bulletproof) and adapted by Tom Edge (known for his work on The Crown and Vigil).
Taking over last night’s 9pm Sunday night slot on BBC One, You Don’t Know Me follows Hero (played by The Last Tree’s Samuel Adewunmi), a young man who stands accused of murder. It sounds like a simple enough premise, right? Well, here’s where things start to get a little more convoluted.
Although all the evidence points at Hero as being the prime suspect, he maintains that he is innocent.
The first episode opens up with the prosecution stating plainly: “We may never know what motivated the killing but we’re not required to prove motive.”
Rather starkly, we’re thrust straight into the closing prosecution statement. We learn that traces of Jamil’s blood (played by Informer’s Roger Jean Nsengiyumva) were found beneath Hero’s fingernails. Hero knew him, the prosecution states; hairs even matching Hero’s were found in Jamil’s car.
Calling Jamil a ‘wasteman’ is also referenced as a threat, according to the prosecution. In a cutaway scene, we see the reality play out and quickly realise it was not a threat at all but an angry matter-of-fact statement that Hero had shouted after Jamil. Just a couple of minutes in and, as viewers, we’re already made aware of the differing perspectives at play here.
We learn that Hero has chosen not to give evidence but the prosecution maintains that in itself displays a clear picture of who he is.
Choosing to defend himself, Hero takes his place in the counsel’s row of the courtroom. You can’t help but notice that the judge’s tone and the reaction from the awaiting jury all highlight dismay – this is clearly not the expected order of things.
“I’ll remind everyone that even though you’re now hearing the defendant speak, this must not be mistaken for new evidence,” the judge says.
As a demographic, Black men are nine times more likely to be jailed than young white men so it’s refreshing to see Hero be given the opportunity to defend himself in a courtroom.
In those first few minutes of the episode, Hero remains nameless and voiceless, which is arguably a very intentional directorial decision. It reminds us that while this is a fictional case, a BBC drama, a book adaptation, it is very much a reality within the penal system: Black men are continually not listened to or believed.
Ideas and preconceptions are undoubtedly being placed upon Hero and we come to realise that his character is not just speaking to the hearts of the jury, he’s also speaking to a watching audience at home.
Hero explains why he had to fire his barrister; it was so “I could get to do this one last thing – this speech. Because this is the last thing you’ll hear. I could’ve given evidence earlier but my lawyer said ‘don’t do it – bad idea’. And I listened to that.
“The prosecution is telling you: ‘Just look at the evidence’; that why I did or didn’t do this or that doesn’t matter. But you could have all that evidence – you still wouldn’t understand anything about what happened. You need to know that for you to do your job.
“Yes, I knew Jamil but this thing, it’s not about blood on a fingernail – it’s about a murder. And somebody else did it.”
What transpires throughout the course of the episode is essentially one long flashback that almost provides us with necessary context.
We see Hero as the charismatic, good-natured car salesman that he asserts that he is. We witness the aforementioned interaction with Jamil – the one where things get heated after Jamil makes a dig about Kyra (newcomer Sophie Wilde). It’s all very tense, even without knowing who exactly is being spoken about.
Back in the courtroom, Hero says: “To talk about Jamil, I have to talk about Kyra because everything goes back to her. So you need to know this.”
We’re placed further back in time to the moment Hero first encounters Kyra on a bus two years previously – with her head deep in a book, he’s clearly enamoured with Kyra.
Through a series of montages, awkward interactions and building tension, we follow their budding love story. From chance happenings on the bus, Hero learning how to make carbonara for her, their first kiss, and eventually, to the point where Kyra’s staying with Hero at his flat.
You’d almost be forgiven for thinking you’re watching a romantic drama, rather than one based around crime and murder.
Things start to go awry as Kyra encounters a strange man at her door, someone who Hero doesn’t know and someone who Kyra isn’t keen on talking about. The day after, she goes missing. His sincerity is clear as he tells the jury of going around to multiple hospitals looking for her, which ultimately ends up with him reporting Kyra missing to the police.
It’s only when Hero is speaking to an officer at the police station that we start to get a sparse account of Kyra’s life: she never mentioned where she went to school, her parents, family or anything to Hero. He recognises his own naivety when talking to the jury, almost conversationally.
The flashbacks, while useful, happen so seamlessly that you almost forget the reality of Hero standing in a bleak courtroom. One moment, Hero’s devolving relationship is playing out before our eyes and the next, he’s pleading with the jury to recognise him as the ordinary car salesman he keeps reminding us that he is.
The complexity of the show lies in the way that we’re pushed to formulate an opinion of Hero with such little evidence and so many questions. As we learn about Kyra’s ongoing sex work and her relation to gangs, we too learn about Hero’s desperation in “getting her back.”
So much so that he enlists the help of Jamil to get a gun.
Hero promised to give us the truth and as he says: “I can’t pick and choose what I say.”
While questions continue to swirl in the last moments of the episode, Hero suggests there’s something bigger at play here. “These people are not like you … they take and they kill.”
While the first installment of You Don’t Know Me shows us how important context and explanation are, especially in legal cases such as this one, the drama also gives us something deeper to think about – what does innocence look like? How do we decide whether to believe someone or not?
We’ll have to watch and see.
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