Warning: contains major spoilers for You Don’t Know Me, all episodes of which are available to stream now on BBC iPlayer.
You Don’t Know Me is a story told from a perspective rarely heard from at any length: that of a young Black man being tried for murder in the UK. In the final days of his trial, the defendant (nameless and known only in Imran Mahmood’s novel and Tom Edge’s script as ‘HERO’) dismisses his barrister and chooses to deliver the defence’s closing speech to the jury himself. A four-episode monologue told in flashback follows. It’s an engaging and emotional torrent of narrative that acts as a dramatic redress of the lawyer-advised ‘no comment’ silence that TV drama teaches us to expect from such characters in such a situation. Led by a powerhouse performance from lead Samuel Adewunmi, You Don’t Know Me is a murder mystery and a social drama that explores both the unreliability of narrative and the shortcomings of the UK legal system. It’s also, in its most essential form, a love story.
As the drama begins, the prosecution’s evidence against HERO is overwhelming: CCTV and mobile phone mast records place him at the scene and time of the crime, the murder weapon was in his possession at the time of arrest, his hair was found in the victim Jamil’s car and Jamil’s blood was found underneath his fingernails… A conviction and a lengthy prison sentence is by far the likeliest outcome. But, says You Don’t Know Me, evidence doesn’t tell the whole story. It won’t lead the jurors to understand the defendant or the situation in which he found himself. That would require context and empathy, two things this series argues are lacking in the current system.
From its defiant title to its enigmatic finale, You Don’t Know Me argues the case for empathy. That’s exemplified by the character of HERO’s girlfriend Kyra (Sophie Wilde), whose experiences have made her keenly aware of the way that life shapes people’s behaviour. Kyra understands that HERO acts out of love because he’s always been shown love, by his indomitable mother (Yetunde Oduwole) and by his younger sister Bless (Rocks’ Bukky Bakray). Growing up in the care system, Kyra and her brother’s lives were shaped differently. Try to understand someone before you judge them, this drama insists, posing the question: will HERO’s story engender the jury’s empathy and save him from conviction?
Choose Your Own Ending
With almost nothing to lose, HERO tells his tale, maintaining throughout that he didn’t commit the murder, and explaining how the evidence came to be along the way. He’s a skilled storyteller and he and director Sarmad Masud give both audiences (the jury and the viewers at home) romance, cliff-hangers, tense action, and tantalising teasers of what’s to come. By the time he’s finished, were the jury swayed by his version of events, or did they follow procedure and find him guilty based on the evidence alone?
Officially, we don’t know. Both scenarios play out before the ‘real’ verdict is about to be given, and the screen turns to black. Did he go to prison to serve a life sentence, or to a sun-drenched Mediterranean idyll where he was reunited with Kyra and his childhood best friend Kurt. One ending feels cynically realistic, the other feels too good to be true. Ultimately, it’s for the viewer to decide.
Something else the viewers were asked to decide from the start is whether HERO’s story on the stand, or at least some of it, was an invention, or whether he was telling the truth. In the emotional and eventful finale, Bless – who’s been watching him tell his tale from the public gallery – gives us confirmation when she visits her brother in custody and tells him that he has to stop lying. HERO has fabricated parts of his story to conceal the identity of the killer. The surprise twist is that HERO wasn’t lying to save himself, but to save somebody else.
Is HERO Innocent?
Of Jamil’s murder, yes. He was telling the truth about that from the start. During his speech, he confessed to several crimes including sourcing a gun and shooting a member of the Camden gang that was forcing Kyra into sex work to pay her brother’s debt. With Kurt, HERO also planned to rob Jamil (played by Roger Jean Nsengiyumva), and then ended up dumping what he thought was Jamil’s dead body after the drug dealer was accidentally shot by Kyra during a struggle. (HERO argues in court that because his conscience made him phone Jamil’s sister to tell her where the body was, and she called the ambulance that revived Jamil, he actually played a part in saving him.) While HERO was present at the scene of Jamil’s actual murder, he wasn’t the one who pulled the trigger.
Who Shot Jamil?
Bless, HERO’s younger sister, who was being held hostage by Jamil at his club on the night he was murdered. The real events played out in flashback as the defendant talks to his barrister the day after the murder.
Bless had posed as a volunteer in order to find out when Jamil was being released from hospital, where he was being treated for the gunshot wound Kyra accidentally inflicted during the struggle at the cocaine robbery. They needed to know because the minute Jamil was free, he’d promised to come after them all, including Bless and Hero’s mother. Jamil must have recognised Bless, because he kidnapped her and called HERO, demanding the £10K he says he cost him for bringing his North London dealing to the attention of the Camden gang. Jamil was being pressured for the money by his own boss, Face (Michael Balogun).
HERO and Kyra went to the club, and Kyra secretly brought the gun he’d sourced from Jamil to save her from the Camden gang. When Jamil made HERO kneel down and prepared to execute him, Kurt arrived, a fight broke out, and Kurt was shot. In the confusion, Bless picked up the gun Kyra brought and shot Jamil to save her brother. He died. They took an injured Kurt to the hospital, where HERO made Bless promise not to tell anybody what happened.
Did Kyra Frame HERO?
No. That was a lie he told so that he could publicly pin Jamil’s murder on Kyra to protect Bless and try to exonerate himself. Immediately after the murder, he sent Kyra out of the country, so he knew that she would be safe. He told her not to contact him, but to call in an anonymous tip leading the police to his door. He then planted his passport and the murder weapon, wiped clean of Bless’ prints, with cash and his plane ticket in the same box – an outrageously unlikely collection to keep in one place if he’d been actually guilty – to back up the idea that he’d been framed by Kyra.
HERO’s plan was for Kyra to leave the country, thereby escaping the trial, and the Camden gang who were still after her. He’d then clear his own name by spinning a story that pinned everything on Kyra and made him look like a romantic fool who’d fallen for and trusted the wrong woman. He did it all for love – gambling with his own life to save his little sister, and to protect Kyra. Whether the gamble paid off is for you to decide.
How Realistic Is It?
The novel on which the series is based was written by practising barrister Imran Mahmood, who was inspired to write it when composing a closing speech in a defence case, and wondering how his client might give the speech, given the opportunity to put it in his own words. The novel obviously comes from a well-informed source, though given that closing speeches in even complex UK trials usually max out after an hour, there’s clearly poetic licence in the the idea of one playing out over multiple days. What’s more important than realism is the argument for empathy made by the series, the rich emotional story it tells, and the voice it gives to an often-silenced lead.
You Don’t Know Me continues on Monday the 6th of December on BBC One at 9pm. All episodes are available now to stream on BBC iPlayer.