I watched Ava DuVernay’s documentary ‘13th’ last night – for the second time. I think she’s doing extraordinary work in the field of agitprop, cinematic documentary and kick ass/uplifting movies. She really is punching way, way up.
‘13th’ is a stunning indictment of the American political system in terms of the criminalisation of black people. The day slavery ended, the 13th amendment to the Constitution stated: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States…”
Which is Latin for: “Yeah, you guys are free unless you’re criminals, in which case we can use you for slave labour, like we used to back in the good old days.”
It’s the terrible idea that this strangely invisible superstructure of control that’s enshrined in law can be used to oppress people – without them really knowing it. They know something’s wrong, but they can’t put their finger on it. It just seems such a pernicious, awful, terrifying concept that a group of people would choose to do that. I watched the whole thing last night, my anger growing and growing by the minute…
Having seen George Floyd’s horrific murder, it struck me that if I shaved my head and cut my beard a certain way, I would have a strong resemblance to him. He looks like he could be a member of my family – in fact there are several of us that look like George Floyd.
So the innate sadness of watching the social media circus surrounding this terrible event and then watching “13th”, made me really ponder this idea of how we are meant to live in a society that chooses to treat us in this valueless way. It’s a real struggle for black people, whether in Europe or the United States.
In many respects I’m lucky, I’m a member of that strange group of people that have been on the telly. To a lot of folk I’m the bloke who used to say: “Katanga, my friends.” Or “O-KAAAAY”, or “Well crucial, y’know what I mean?” Although I experienced racism throughout the early days of my career in the entertainment industry, my experiences were not as overtly clear or physical as those of my family and friends. TV somehow made me exempt from this kind of macroaggression.
But if you’re like my dad who laboured in a factory for most of his life and hated every single day of his working life, if you’re just working to survive, mashing on regardless and half smiling at every racial slur and then coming home, having your tea, reading the Daily Mirror and going to bed, it must be really, really, really tough to endure. In retrospect, I feel deeply for him.
What we go through every day in film and television (whether those in charge like it or not), is a series of microaggressions which slightly defy description in that often the racism isn’t in your face.
It’s not even behind your back. It’s very, very subtle, and I think that’s why people get so frustrated, confused and befuddled by it. It’s a racism of casual exclusion, casual marginalisation, casual insults, which, if you’re not on guard, can sneak up on you later and take you by surprise.
I remember doing a photo session a few years ago where the guy asked me to hold a watermelon which was cut in half. At the time – I think I might have been about 17 or 18 – I wasn’t aware of the watermelon’s association with Slavery, Jim Crow, racism and all of that. So I did the picture.
It was only when I was doing research for my autobiography, ‘Who Am I, Again?’, last year and I saw the picture that I made all these connections. It was like an electric shock going through my body. I thought, “that guy was humiliating me.” But he was doing it in a way where he was pretty certain I – small town kid, secondary school educated – wouldn’t get it.
What’s interesting about trouble spots such as Minneapolis and Atlanta, is that the authorities are not even bothering to hide their need to ultra-control and dominate the black populace now; the police have been militarised. A commentator said recently that “when you militarise something, everything else becomes the enemy”. If we’re in a world where black people have become the enemy for the police, whether they’re innocent or guilty, that’s really a parlous position to be in.
I relate that to watching the George Floyd murder, at home on your computer or on your television set. We have such access now with the media, people are filming events with their phones all the time. There’s a quick-acting function on your phone now where you can say to Siri, “I’m just about to be stopped by the police”, and it immediately starts recording. So people have got access to this technology where they can film themselves being arrested. They can also film their friends being arrested or harassed. I think that’s hugely empowering.
Of course, the question that springs to mind when the media films these dangerous flashpoint events of rebellion is, “what was the cameraman doing at the time?” Who, for instance, was filming the Rodney King incident?” (Rodney King was a construction worker who was beaten by a group of LAPD officers after a high speed chase during his arrest for drink driving in 1991 – the resulting film was a trigger for the LA riots that followed). Because what I wanted was for that person to drop the camera and wade in and say, “This is wrong! Stop!”
I read an article by Don McCullin, the photojournalist famed for his harrowing wartime images, who said, “If I don’t document this, people won’t know about it. If I drop the camera and steam in, I’m not doing my job.”
Similarly, if I’m in Ethiopia or Burkina Faso for Comic Relief and I see something incredibly tragic, I strongly feel that it’s not my job to burst into tears. My job in those situations is to hold it together and report to the audience back home that this is what’s happening and this is what we can do to help. Tough to do sometimes, but it has to be done.
Watch George Floyd’s horrific murder by a law enforcement officer via social media, and it makes the viewer think about empowerment.
George Floyd was disempowered in all ways imaginable. The reason it touches me and fellow travellers worldwide is because as you watch, you feel you’re witnessing a taboo event: you’re not meant to see somebody being killed in front of you.
As you watch the images unfold, you can’t help becoming that person thinking, “Jesus, imagine if that was me.” You’re start to live that person’s life, walk in that person’s shoes.
The knee of that policeman is on your neck. You can’t breathe.
But the fundamental problem remains: if you’re marginalised in the industry that’s telling those stories, it can be incredibly disempowering.
If you’re not allowed to tell the story of your neighbourhood, your life, your social group, your family, if you’re not allowed to depict what’s going on in your neighbourhood, or to relay your thinking, or perspective on life, if you don’t have the same access to those things that everybody else has got, that’s a devastatingly disempowering feeling.
Which is why the announcement that Director General of the BBC Tony Hall, and his colleagues Charlotte Moore and June Sarpong made the other day about the corporation releasing 100 million pounds over the next three years to increase diversity in TV was heartening to an extent.
It’s a form of ring-fenced money, which is what my colleagues and I have been arguing for, for God knows how long. We’ve been saying that if there was a segment of ring-fenced money sliced from the licence fee, diverse production companies (led by black people, brown people, women, people with disabilities etc) could think of themselves as being in business, because they would have not only access to funding, but also the possibility of slots on a major network.
But if that money and those slots aren’t available, you are really pushing a boulder uphill like that dude Sisyphus. You’re not going to succeed because there’s no regular revenue stream or funding pipeline for you and therefore you’re not going to be able to put shoes on your kids’ feet and food on the table.
Even though it would possibly be better if it was 100 million pounds made available every year for the next five years, it’s not nothing. Which is why nobody’s going, “Hang on a minute, that’s just 33 million pounds a year. That’s what they gave to BBC Digital in Scotland.” Even though you could say that, I’m saying it’s something.
It’s a massive step for the BBC, who treated the idea of ring-fenced money for a very long time like kryptonite because they thought it was a distraction. They thought it was a retrograde move. They thought, “If we give that to black and brown people, that will open the door to other marginalised minorities. If you’re going to do that for them, others could l ask, ‘What about us?’” Whereas my colleagues and I always thought of ring-fenced funding in terms of a minority producer receiving funding, climbing up the ladder and then reaching down and pulling the next person up. You gots to pay it forward…
So in terms of opening the door for marginalised people, giving them access to the mainstream in order to produce work that reflects their unique perspective on British (and everywhere else’s) society, I think that’s a pretty good place to be.
Just to be ultra cheeky here: how brilliant would it be if ITV and Channel 4 and Netflix and Amazon and all those other guys said, “That’s a really good idea, and we’ll match that money”? That would be a massive step forward.
We’ll wait and see how everybody else responds to this news because, let’s face it, the BBC is the number one public service broadcaster – if not in the world, then certainly in Europe. Let’s see how other broadcasters choose to react to what they’ve done, because it’s not an insignificant move.
All that plays into what Steve McQueen said recently when he expressed his concern that black and brown people are being increasingly marginalised in the industry. I thought it was brilliant.
Steve McQueen and I spoke yesterday, and we’re going to meet up and chat soon. He’s a very genial, smart man. He just kept saying, “It’s time. George Floyd’s death should not be in vain.”
There’s this super talented guy: an Oscar winner, a Turner Prize winner, a Golden Globe winner, our most successful filmmaking export, and he is saying, “There’s a problem.” Somebody somewhere has to listen to Steve McQueen.”
This guy’s won everything, Tufty Club certificate, Blue Peter gold, all the Scouts badges (before the recent trouble about Lord Baden Powell) – he’s got every single award going. And Steve McQueen is saying he feels marginalised. It’s almost as if winning all those awards and getting all that attention and box office success suddenly gives him permission to admit, “I feel marginalised too.”
That’s why those in power who green-light and commission, need to really, really look at who’s in the room when they’re doing that work. Because if they haven’t got black and brown people, people with disabilities, and people of a certain age and if it’s not a 50/50 gender split, they’re not representing as many corners of the diverse diaspora as they can, and they run the risk of excluding and marginalising everyone..
We’ve been saying this for years. These are all things I’ve said over and over again. Marcus Ryder and I talk about the echo chamber all the time. That’s this idea (replicated in our Government in the higher echelons of power) of recruiting all of one’s colleagues from Oxbridge – floppy fringe mandatory – everybody who was a member of the Bullingdon Club and thinks driving 260 miles during a lockdown is A-OK.
To have an echo chamber where everybody looks and dresses like you and just agrees all the time is not healthy.
It’s not good enough to say, “But there’s diversity of thought”, when it’s not, because diversity of thought is not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about ethnic diversity, cultural diversity and diversity of experience. We’re not talking about fake diversity, as Marcus Ryder calls it.
We really believe that diversity is representation and inclusion. In fact, in a minute, we’re probably going to stop using the word ‘diversity’. And we’re definitely going to stop using the word ‘BAME’, because it’s too confusing. Every time somebody says ‘BAME!’, I always want to sing, “I want to live forever!”
So I feel like we’re getting to a point now where proper inclusion and representation means defining diversity properly. That is what the BBC and all those others are saying – they’re going to make criteria for allowing diversity to happen. What do you mean when you say “diversity”? Do you mean that if you hire a black, brown, gay, disabled or trans person, you’re going to get funding because of that?
Certainly, if you’re going to do tax breaks for diversity in the British film and television industry, you’re going to have to define diversity very carefully. So that’s the work that somebody has to do and we are saying now that if you want us to do it at the Sir Lenny Henry Diversity Centre at Birmingham City University, we will happily do that research for you. Because there are academics, researchers and very smart and passionate people there just gagging to help make this dream a reality.
Let’s talk about all of those young activists who are being brilliant, too.This millennial generation, who are totally into social media, who seem to be fearless, who are risking their skins in the US and all over Europe. I applaud you.
This is an important thing to say: whatever anybody thinks, what they’re doing in toppling the statues of racists and ex-slavers is incredibly brave. I know there are people who are saying, “They’re defacing public property and somebody paid for that statue in blah, blah.”
But it’s the principle of the thing. It’s not the fact that it’s public property. Of course, there are other ways to protest, but in the heat of the moment, in the passion of toppling these concrete icons of over privileged slave masters and slave owners, the idea is good. The principle of it is honourable and heartfelt.
Of course, those people who are worried about that kind of protest – usually older people, and slightly on the right of things – are going to talk about damaging public property because that’s what those guys care about. But actually, I think taking down monuments to the hateful triangular trade is not a bad way to start levelling the playing field. To disavow slave owners, investment in slavery and all of those things – it’s not a bad start. So God bless the younger people.
As Dave Chappelle said the other day, “Go ahead, young people. I’m happy to sit in the back of the car while you do all the heavy lifting.” Let’s have the young people with the strong legs and the strong arms, doing all this statue toppling and running around yelling! It’s good for them – at least they’ll get some exercise!
What’s great is young people are really thinking about which side of history they want to be on. When something terrible happens like this, you do have to collect yourself. If a man that looks like you and members of your family is seen on social and broadcast media being killed by an officer of the law, that’s significant and appropriate feelings and reactions will follow.
For quite a long time, I haven’t known what to say about the toxicity of that experience. I’ve been horrified and rendered inert because of what that officer did to George Floyd. But now, with reflection, I realise that all you do is you put yourself in that person’s place. All you do is think, “What must it be like to have that happen to you, to have someone kneel on your throat, your windpipe for eight minutes and 46 seconds?”
I know it’s a stretch, and I know people will read this and think, “Oh, come on, what’s that got to do with broadcast media, then? What’s that got to do with being given permission to speak your true voice, on television, in drama, in documentaries, in the newspapers?”
Well, here’s the thing. The question of who’s telling the story is as important as, if not more important, than the subject matter of the story. The idea of who controls the story is really important. If you’re not part of the storytelling process, then you become the subject. You don’t just want to be the subject of the story. You want to be the person who’s telling the story in broadcast media.
We often see dominant-culture broadcasters telling stories about people from the black and brown communities, or as my friend calls it, the global majority. However, there has been a slow shift in the last 20 years. We have Trevor McDonald, Clive Myrie, Naga Munchetty, all of those broadcasters of colour, but it’s still not good enough.
There are not very many news editors of colour at BBC radio or independent radio. There are not many green-lighters or commissioners of colour in broadcast media. There are more women now, but it’s really, really easy to notice when there aren’t very many women in the room. That still happens.
I went to Downing Street to present our ideas about tax breaks for diversity with Marcus and the rest of my lobbying group. There was one person with a disability in the room who made a huge difference with his opinions and his perceptions of what was going on and what needed to change. It was a boon to have him in the room. But it made me think, “Imagine if there were two or three of you guys here…”.
There’s this idea of being sick and tired of being sick and tired. I’m sick and tired of being the only black person in the room when I walk into a meeting or when I walk into any gathering where we’re discussing how things have got to change.
I went to see Porgy and Bess at the Royal Opera House and it was brilliant. It’s a musical drama by composer George Gershwin that focuses on the poverty-stricken residents struggling to survive in a ghetto area called Catfish Row. It’s set in the times of Jim Crow and segregation in the Deep South.
It’s one of the few instances of an all-black cast in opera, but an opera house sandwich costs you over 40 quid! Imagine that. Doing a show where the cast can’t afford to eat at the front of house restaurant. They’re all backstage eating Greggs… extraordinary.
It was an incredible education watching these brilliant singers and actors telling this amazingly tragic story. But I found myself fascinated by the audience, which was almost entirely white, and that was a shock. I thought, “There are six black people here.” I counted them.
Anyway, I enjoyed it, the whole Porgy and Bess log flume ride… tragic but strangely uplifting. Then it was the interval and there was lots of talk about, so Lisa and I went down into the bar area. Here’s the thing: when I went down to the bar, I saw four black people and I knew all of them. All of them. Not just one or two of them, all of them. That’s not right.
The weird thing about going to meetings as a black broadcaster is that if there’s another black person in the room, you probably brought that person yourself. So that needs to change, and it is changing, but too slowly.
There are rooms that you walk into now at Channel 4 and at the BBC, where there’ll be another brown person or a black person there. I’m not celebrating yet, but this is the beginning of something, not the end.
Even in the short space of time that she’s been there, June Sarpong’s interventions at the BBC have given the lie to the statement that diversity departments don’t do anything. They can do something, depending on who’s running them. If you’re front-footed and you’re brave, and you’re interventionist, you can step up to a director general or a commissioner, or a CEO and go, “Actually, this is all wrong and things are going to change.” I think June isn’t frightened to speak truth to power. That’s going to be an asset and she’s going to be an ally as we seek to level the playing field.
So, final thoughts. The one area, of course, where black people and brown people are well represented is on that stunningly harrowing checklist of the dead from COVID-19. One hopes that in the near future we will get to the bottom of why that is the case. I know we’re all asking these questions. Is it physiological? Is it a societal, socio-economic thing? What is it that means that minorities particularly feature so heavily in that devastating roll call?
I really hope for all our sakes that before the next spike happens and we are all locked down again, that we get to the bottom of this because those on the frontline are severely in danger. Clap for them by all means, but can we look after them better please?
And now for some good news.
I’ve been working with some colleagues on a new sitcom. I’m very excited about that. (Can you see how excited I am? I’m practically drooling…)
We sat down for the first time the other day and started thinking about how to reboot the book tour and talking about when we are allowed to perform in theatres again. I zoomed with the director Nadia Fall and my co-writer Jon Canter yesterday, so watch this space.
I’ve also signed to do a comedy show for BBC Radio 4. I felt this was an optimum moment to have a platform like that in order to sneakily sneak in sneaky, sneaky, sneaky themes: marginalised voices, brotha’s in space, Jamaican quiz shows and black lives mattering in the oddest of places. A mix of some old characters but many new, hoorah. Jokes and laughter, yaaaaay!
I think it’ll be very funny.
I’m Co-Exec producer on the show, so I’ve asked for a diverse and inclusive writers’ room, and that’s happening, which is excellent. It only happens if you ask for it.
They’re great. We’ve found some lovely people. We’re Zooming and I’m laughing a lot, which is kinda the point… it’s fantastic.
But the bigger thing in the end is this idea of empowering the disempowered in broad terms, but also in terms of broadcast media because we certainly need more voices, and we need more seats at the table. Pertaining to this, Ava DuVernay made an acceptance speech in 2016 and she said this:
“Our work is a mirror. A mirror of what we believe; all of our work, so what we put on screen is important… but, the way that we go about doing that work is also important. Our crews, our directors, our writers; we talk about them and we’ll keep talking about them – that’s a part of the conversation that’s being centred right now and we’ll keep doing that until we don’t have to have that conversation any more…” Ava DuVernay from Variety’s Power of Women Speech 2016
Sounds exciting…. can we get on with it, please?
Sir Lenny Henry, somewhere in Lockdown 2020….