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Is TV racist or is diversity ruining entertainment?

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In fact, Jones – one of Britain’s leading film and TV critics – goes even further. She’s not afraid to deploy the term “white supremacy”.

The Herald: Ellen E JonesEllen E Jones (Image: free)

Any notion that a black Doctor Who somehow offsets – or even ‘ends’ on-screen racism – gets short shrift. That’s pretend diversity. It blinds society to racism. “It’s just screen-deep,” Jones says.

That’s the title of her caustic new book. ‘Screen Deep: How Film and TV Can Solve Racism and Save the World’. It’s sure to ruffle feathers in Britain’s entertainment industry.

Jones is a contender for Britain’s movie-critic crown, once worn by Barry Norman and currently on Mark Kermode’s head. She co-hosts the BBC’s flagship film show Screenshot, presents the Barbican’s ScreenTalks podcast, and regularly appeared on the BBC’s Film series (once fronted by the likes of Barry Norman and Jonathan Ross). You’ll read her in Empire, National Geographic, and myriad other publications.

The Herald on Sunday caught up with Jones at her London home. She’s in sparkling form. Don’t mistake her for some clunking online culture warrior. Cancellation isn’t her bag, and Jones finds social media’s lack of nuance intolerable.

What Jones wants is for people of colour to simply get a fair deal on screen. Entertainment matters, she believes. It influences how we think and treat others. So if what’s on screen changes for the better, society will follow.

BLACKFACE

As a mixed race woman, now 40, she’s seen her share of media racism. When she started in the industry in the early 2000s, she endured young white hipsters wearing “gollywog t-shirts – ironically; having slave and colonial parties – ironically; using the n-word, because everything was ironic especially in media culture. I’m glad to be on the other side of that”.

Jones begins with an anecdote about Idris Elba. One of Britain’s biggest stars started his career as a “mugger” on The Bill. It underscores the relentless stereotyping of black actors.

“If you trace the history of film and television, it’s uncanny how many big milestones were overtly, outrageously racist,” she says. In 1915, The Birth of a Nation – still hailed as a masterpiece – turned Klansmen into heroes. The first talkie The Jazz Singer saw Al Jolson in blackface. Gone with the Wind was “an antebellum fantasy about ‘wasn’t it lovely when we’d slaves to do all the work, and we wore big pretty dresses’.”

Jones knows pointing this out infuriates the ‘diversity-has-ruined-the-movies’ brigade. Although she doesn’t care, nor does she want to spoil anyone’s fun. She loves Gone with the Wind. She just wants folk to realise that something else is going on in a lot of entertainment: a reinforcement of racial stereotypes. And that has consequences.

“I want people to have a more mature way of engaging with pop culture, where you can say ‘this is brilliant, yet it’s also quite racist’. The racism doesn’t necessarily detract from the greatness, and the greatness doesn’t mitigate the racism either. We must hold these two thoughts in our heads at the same time so we can properly discuss it.”

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Take The Jazz Singer. Jolson had many black friends and wanted to bring African-American culture to white audiences, but that doesn’t excuse blackface. “I don’t have much patience with that defence because of all the other harm it’s causing,” Jones says.

She references the infamous Harry and Meghan tweet by TV celebrity Danny Baker, showing a monkey and captioned ‘Royal baby leaves hospital’. “I’m sure he’s a lovely bloke. I’ve no doubt of that, but it’s irrelevant. People will say in his defence, ‘he hasn’t a racist bone in his body’. That may be true. But intention isn’t necessarily the barometer of racism, or whether entertainment is racist. What matters is the real world harm caused: how it dehumanises people.”

Just think of how little consideration white America gave to the historic cruelties inflicted on indigenous people, while the Western was the nation’s dominant cinema genre. White ‘cowboy’ characters were fully rounded, often heroic; native Americans mostly villains. Art affects reality.

“There’s a drip-drip dehumanisation,” Jones says, “narrowing down a group’s representation to stereotypes, not giving them the full range of humanity afforded to white characters.”

Large swathes of Britain are predominantly white, Jones points out. That means the only way folk in these areas “learn about black people – or other groups – is from TV and film.” For a brutal illustration of the link between pop culture and real-world racism there’s Jim Crow. That’s the name of both a blackface minstrel character, and the segregationist laws of America’s deep south.

The Herald: Riz AhmedRiz Ahmed (Image: free)

MUSLIM

Evidently, some black writers and actors broke through this race wall. Sidney Poitier probably being the most famous. He starred in films dealing explicitly with race in the 1960s like ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’. These breakthroughs are often used to claim racism is no big deal.

The same happens today with the successful British-Pakistaini actor Riz Ahmed, despite Islam often portrayed on screen as threatening and linked to terrorism.

Jones calls it the ‘Obama effect’. “It’s a fig leaf to cover-up all the other racism in society. You’ll hear ‘we can’t be Islamophobic as Riz is nominated for an Oscar’.” But Ahmed, obviously, is “just one person”. A single success story can “obscure the work that still needs done”.

This enforces ‘the Good Negro’ stereotype, Jones says. In other words, for black actors to succeed they must be as “handsome, brilliant and brave as Poitier. That’s a very high bar. You have to be respectable enough to earn your rights. That’s not how human rights work”.

Times have changed, though. At least somewhat. There’s more actors, directors and writers of colour now. So what happened? Frankly, says Jones, white people “don’t want to get called racist … So the solution was ‘diversity’ – a misused, abused word. You start getting lots of film and TV around the turn of the 21st century with racially diverse casts.”

This ‘token’ diversity allowed the entertainment industry to avoid “talking about racism. You needed a racially diverse cast so nobody would call you out. But there’s a difference between that and actual diversity which reckons with how race functions in society. This is what I call the ‘screen-deep’ idea of diversity.”

The conversation turns to Quentin Tarantino and his films beloved of white liberals, full of black actors in leading roles, yet splattered with the n-word. It’s a symbol of “complacency. There was an idea among white liberals that racism was pretty much solved”. So hip filmmakers could joke – again ironically – about racism while believing they’d “never do anything to perpetuate racism”.

The sitcom 30 Rock, created by “liberal darling” Tina Fey, featured blackface. “It speaks to this culture of complacency”, Jones says. Though she isn’t “interested in deciding who is and isn’t a racist. I’m more interested in [entertainment] perpetuating racism, than damning people”.

Offence isn’t the issue. “Artists have a right to hurt people’s feelings,” Jones says. But blackface isn’t just offensive or bad taste. It does real damage to black people, reducing an entire group to a cruel joke and setting up the conditions for people of colour to be seen as ‘other’.

Jones is conscious that such conversations are “dour and depressing”. She’s a funny woman and likes a laugh. But this matters to her, so it must be taken seriously. She’s still irritated by what she calls “the Great Blackface white-wash of 2020”.

In the wake of Black Lives Matters, many British comedy acts, from Little Britain to David Baddiel, were called out for blackface routines. “It just got shoved to the back of the streaming closet. Nobody talked about it again. They just pretended it never happened.” Entry into British comedy remains dominated by “white middle-class preserves” like the Cambridge Footlights and Radio 4.

The Herald: Idris Elba got his break playing a muggerIdris Elba got his break playing a mugger (Image: free)

CRIME

When people from ethnic minorities do get positions of power in entertainment, often little changes. Noel Clarke became a major figure in the British film industry, yet his movies – like Kidulthood – primarily focused on “urban street culture” and crime.

“The industry got to say they were being ‘diverse’ but really there was only one black guy. You can’t have diversity if it’s just one person. Sometimes people in TV will even say to me ‘we hired someone diverse’.”

The “gatekeepers” remain “predominantly white middle-class people with no experience of black lives”.

Spike Lee, Jones notes, was a “trailblazer”, telling nuanced stories about black people. But he trod a lonely path. The white director Norman Jewison was even in contention against Lee to make Malcom X. The Colour Purple – seen as a game-changer due to its majority black cast – was made by Steven Spielberg as Hollywood believed “a white director had gravitas, and there were no black directors who the industry respected and trusted”.

It’s often impossible for actors to navigate the industry’s weird racial attitudes. Anna May Wong – an early Chinese-American star – often lost parts to “white women in yellow-face makeup”. Yet West Side Story star Rita Moreno had to “wear skin-darkening makeup to play a Puerto Rican – even though she’s Puerto Rican”. So the very physical appearance of these performers was shaped by white executives.

The recent furore over Margot Robbie and director Greta Gerwig losing out on Oscar nominations for Barbie really needled Jones. Not that she dislikes the film. What irritates her is the “white feminist” agenda that’s pushed: “This idea of feminism centred on white, straight, middle-class women, which ignores the plight of other women. Where the successes of white women are celebrated as if they’re the liberation of all women”.

Little is said when black actors or directors miss out, and far less fuss was made over Lily Gladstone – a cause for celebration this year as the first Native American woman nominated for an Oscar – compared to the row over a film about “an archetypal blonde white girl”.

“It’s all about white women – again,” Jones sighs. “None of us are free, until we’re all free. It’s possible for the oppressed and the oppressor to be the same person.”

The casting of black actors in British costume dramas has become something of a culture war battle-ground, with online voices screaming about the lack of ‘historical accuracy’. Firstly, costume dramas aren’t known for great accuracy, Jones says. They never say much about the realities of slavery, for instance.

Secondly, costume dramas are a major British export. So cutting out black actors excludes them from a huge swathe of our entertainment industry. Stars like Sophie Okonedo must head to America to get roles “beyond the racial stereotype”.

Thirdly, why not diversify costume drama? If we can suspend our disbelief that the world of costume dramas – often set at the time of slavery – is free from any sign of slavery, why can’t we suspend our disbelief that an aristocrat in Bridgerton is black?

Finally, Jones says, why shouldn’t people of colour see some representation of themselves as debutantes or princes for once?

The Herald: BridgertonBridgerton (Image: free)

BRIDGERTON

However, Bridgerton, she warns, “includes race, but isn’t about racism. In fact, it includes race in order not to be about racism”. The “neutrality of the diverse cast is a fudge”.

The show makes it seem as if racism didn’t exist in Regency Britain. Hardly an accurate depiction of the realities of empire. That fudge can have “dangerous consequences”. It smothers the reality of racism, and allows an audience to think that slavery doesn’t still echo today.

Yet, if we’re genuinely interested in ‘telling history properly’, why not dramatise the stories of real people from ethnic backgrounds who lived in Britain in the past?

Recently a story came to light about a Roman soldier from Syria who married his British slave. They lived in northern England. Wouldn’t that make a great film – and without any token diversity?

Black Lives Matter didn’t have much effect despite all the “pledges” from the entertainment industry. “Once we got past the trendy moment, it’s been depressing to see how much was cycled back, and thrown into the long grass.”

In fact, asking ‘what Black Lives Matter changed’ is looking at the problem from the wrong perspective. Racism is, after all, a “white person’s problem”. Nor is the issue of race and entertainment just about black people. It’s about people from all non-white backgrounds. What Black Lives Matter did change was this: it made “white people more uncomfortable with being perceived as racist”.

Yet all that led to in the entertainment industry was the curse of token diversity, which executives could use as a shield. “That’s a very dangerous place to be.” It means “uncomfortable conversations” get “shut down”.

Equally, depictions of racists tend to be “rednecks from the deep south”. That means “your average white person in London or Glasgow can distance themselves. That makes racism harder to deal with … Surface diversity is a mask, a really good way of not talking about race.”

Shows like Bridgerton allow executives to feel good about themselves “without actually making any real change. People are more scared of being accused of racism than they are of perpetuating racism”.

Most crime dramas “neuter” the issue of race. Add in the ‘wise black police chief’ cliche – in shows like Mare of Easttown – and you can avoid talking about racialised “police violence or disparities in sentencing”.

Some crime dramas break the mould though, like The Wire, with its extensive cast of fully-realised black characters across the entire moral spectrum from villain to hero. Jones, however, sees The Wire as much more than a crime show. “It’s Dickensian,” she says.

 

The Herald: Horror film Get Out Horror film Get Out (Image: free)

HORROR

Profit lies behind the rise of the black superhero film, not white executives trying to be inclusive. Black Panther clearly catered to young black audiences desperate to see themselves represented, but what mattered most was box office. It made “a shitload of money”.

Today, it’s horror movies which seem the one genre excelling at exploring racism. The films of African-American auteur Jordan Peele – like Get Out – or the British horror movie His House, about the lives of refugees, “elevate” horror.

Once, black characters were just fodder for villains to kill – known as the ‘sacrificial negro’, Jones explains. Think Scatman Crothers in The Shining. Now black roles lead many horror movies, showing that ‘whiteness’ itself can be terrifying.

Unlike many movies, these horror films “don’t assume their audience is white”. That’s the key to changing entertainment.

It’s certainly a break from the wearying ‘white saviour narrative’. Recently, Hidden Figures, which told the true story of the black women in Nasa, featured Kevin Costner smashing down racial barriers.

“It says something about Hollywood that it’s necessary when telling a story about black women to insert a fictional white character to sooth racial anxieties,” Jones adds.

The white saviour narrative is “dangerous”. The subtext is that injustice can be solved by one nice white guy, and frankly just makes white people feel good about themselves. It’s another way of burying racism.

When filmmakers “start to conceptualise that an audience isn’t exclusively white, we get more nuanced racial narratives”. The big shift needed is to “start recognising that whiteness isn’t the default setting of human existence”.

While rows over the notion of black actors playing James Bond, or the Rwandan-Scottish actor Ncuti Gatwa starring as Doctor Who, are often confected for attention on social media, they also obscure the more important point: that TV “tells us who we are”. So clearly, seeing black actors in these totemic – very British – roles matters.

But again, “it’s definitely possible to overstate the effect this has on real-world injustices. It can be cynically used to cover-up the lack of progress. But let’s take our wins where we can”.

Jones believes, though, that as Bond represents “a nostalgic celebration of colonial power” asking which black character should play the role is something of a “dead question”. It might be better to find a new vehicle for a 21st century black British fictional spy.

SOAPS

Soaps are surprisingly positive. “They’ve always been at the forefront of social change”, bringing nuanced black characters into white living rooms for decades. “There’s less stereotyping in soaps”. Britain should be “proud of our soaps at their best”, Jones feels.

Cancellation isn’t for Jones. But that doesn’t mean “freedom of speech is freedom from the consequences of speech. If you say something that makes me think you’re racist then I’m not going to be interested in the art you’re making. That’s my prerogative.

“But equally, it behoves us all to be more compassionate and forgiving. It will aid the quality of our public discourse if we allow room for people to change their minds, to misspeak or get something wrong, realise that, and apologise and move forward … What gets me is people not apologising or understanding what they did was harmful and then just being allowed to move on.”

So to answer the question her book poses: how can film and TV solve racism and make the world better? “There’s a desire to see entertainment as disposable,” Jones replies. “But entertainment is important, it’s the air we breathe culturally – so many assumptions come from film and TV into our brains, and we act on those assumptions.

“So I want people to examine the messages they’re being sold, that they’re absorbing. TV and film can change the world if we as the audience think about the message, challenge it, and are discriminating in our tastes. There’s a distinction between addressing race at a surface-level – as window-dressing – and really contending with how racism manifests in our society.”

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