Book review: The Black Irish Onscreen: Representing Black and Mixed-Race Identities on Irish Film and Television



Sarah Griffin welcomes Zélie Asava‘s book that applys divergent theoretical concepts of Irishness, whiteness, gender and the particular place of the ‘other’ to the ‘conceptual whiteness of Irishness itself’.

While the intricacies of white and non-white filmic representation has been a subject of much study, most particularly in relation to Hollywood’s output, there has been less focused investigation into the particular relationship Ireland has to its own ‘whiteness’ and how that translates on our big and little screens.  Zélie Asava does so here, bringing together theorists and researchers from disparate decades and tying their ideas to a particularly Irish situation – a country that has only begun to integrate the multicultural nature of a relatively recently expanded populace.  From Sigmund Freud’s ‘return of the repressed’, Julie Kristeva’s abjection, Richard Dyer’s seminal contributions to the study of whiteness, and Judith Butler’s performativity, to the more recent work of Diane Negra on ‘off-white Hollywood’ and a compendium of Irish contributors, Asava blends theorists and personal experience (as an Irish/Kenyan actor) to position herself at the front line.  This book provides a welcome opportunity to apply divergent theoretical concepts of Irishness, whiteness, gender and the particular place of the ‘other’ to, as she calls it, “the conceptual whiteness of Irishness itself”.


Asava comes not only from a firm footing of understanding non-white actors’ situation in Irish film and television, but from a gender specific approach that applies feminist performance analysis to the similarly structured area of studies in whiteness and ethnicity.  Beginning with an introduction that lays bare all of Asava’s foundations – rightly giving no apologies for making the ‘personal political’ – we are given a map of how the book will approach each case study as it applies to the chapters’ goals.  Asava also broaches a broad historical framework of a nation still denying its multiculturalism, shown in her observations of the refusal of hyphenated identities, like Italian-Irish or Chinese-Irish.  Ireland is therefore in the strange position – particularly in this ‘year of The Gathering’ – of accepting somebody who’s grandmother went over to America in a famine ship as being more Irish than a second-generation Nigerian-Irish child born here.  “[L]egitimate Irish identity” is no longer (if it ever was) a solid thing, something that can be defined in a simple way – as Asava goes on to show again and again through our media output.


The chapters follow a logical flow of ideas, beginning with a treatise on “being black and Irish”.  Asava focuses here on two emblematic Neil Jordan movies, The Crying Game (1992) and Breakfast on Pluto (2005), touching on (amongst others) The Commitments (1991) and the now infamous battle cry of ‘I’m black and I’m proud!’  From there Asava moves to the concept of the ‘other’ and how non-whiteness and the gendering of ‘the other’ are so firmly intertwined.  This second chapter approaches the subject via Irish television, most particularly Love is the Drug (2004) and Fair City (1989-present), though again her discussion takes in a myriad of supportive works.  In a move that will endear the book to genre students, two of Asava’s chapters (three and five) deal with specific modes – the Irish Horror and the Multicultural Irish Thriller.  Kristeva’s theories apply most assiduously to the horror genre and are used to great effect here but, showing a continual command of the subject, Asava draws a parallel in the question of “Black and Mixed Masculinities in Irish Cinema” for her fourth chapter, moving smoothly on from horror in a flow of theoretical concepts.  Her final chapter deals with the “raced stranger”, using various examples of this symbolic character through recent cinema, but perhaps focusing most specifically on The Guard and Between the Canals (both 2011).  Throughout the chapters, examples in film and television are underscored by reference to the vaster media world – music, Youtube posts, newspaper reports and government programmes are all represented in an effort to show the broad reaches of the subject.


Asava’s conclusion neatly ties up the various threads of thought explored throughout the book and “[frames] the future of the Black Irish Onscreen”, looking beyond the current cultural loading of casting decisions.  She approaches the subject from her own very informed perspective, as an Irish/Kenyan trained actor who has dealt with the casting constraints and impositions of being a non-white woman with an Irish voice.  This book provides a wealth of collaborative knowledge for film, sociology, gender and media students, but also offers a lot to the casual reader who seeks an introduction to the subject.  Asava’s style of writing and liberal use of examples throughout this work makes it a page-turner in a way some academic approaches don’t manage, meaning her ideas are presented clearly and her theories supported at every turn.


Sarah Griffin

  • Paperback: 213 pages
  • Publisher: Peter Lang AG, Internationaler Verlag der Wissenschaften; 1 edition (29 Aug 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 3034308396
  • ISBN-13: 978-3034308397
  • Product Dimensions: 22.4 x 15 x 1.3 cm

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