Melanin without tokenism: black people are slowly being allowed to be normal on TV

In her first column on television and pop culture, Bim Adewunmi explores the progress made by non-white characters on British telly.

Last Sunday night I felt, like Obi Wan before me, a great disturbance in the Force. No one had died, thank goodness, but my Twitter feed was abuzz with activity. The euphoria was evident: “What's this advert??” tweeted a friend. “Never seen so many black people in a prime-time advert in my life!!” Another replied to the post with: “British peak time ad full of black people. #WellINever”. My favourite was: “Listen... the way I almost snapped my neck, by doing a double take cos there were still black faces on the second time I looked up!”

Yes, there was an ad, full of black people, on terrestrial British television, during one of the most watched programmes on a Sunday night. The Force was properly disturbed.

The advertisement – starring singer Janelle Monáe and a coterie of attractive, well-dressed people, hanging out – was for Sonos. I have only a vague idea what the product does, despite the ad being about a minute long. But more importantly (for me, not Sonos) the ad was a small thing highlighting a much bigger thing: the – slowly – increasing presence of people of colour on television. Let me qualify that: we (or at least one version of us) have been on telly for a long while now. I’ve watched a lot of television, and I remember that much. What I’m talking about here is the evolution of people of colour on television. Things are still far from perfect, but that have got so much better than when I was a child or even a teenager. Back then, spotting brown people was like a game of Where’s Wally? except instead of the distinctive striped jumper of our cartoon hero, they were sporting assorted stereotypes, from aggressive criminal to street kids in need of a hot meal and a chance meek ‘model minority’ – tokenism at its purest.

I remember reading a Sidney Poitier interview in which the Oscar-winning actor spoke about his role in Stanley Kramer’s 1967 film Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. He spoke of the character Dr John Prentice’s qualities, and the thinking that he had to be perfect in the context of the movie. Not merely "very good", but absolutely perfect, a paragon: a highly-educated and qualified doctor, and a world traveller (stopping off to give talks at the UN, as you do). I read later that he was going to be written as divorced, but it was decided to make him widowed, to complete his "perfect" image. He had to be utterly above reproach in order for white audiences to embrace him as an equal. But more than that, he had to counter the prevalent representation of black people onscreen.

Here and now, in 2012, we’ve reached the latest stage of our evolution onscreen: we are "normal". We are just like everyone else. We’re not over what I call the "Poitier Exemplar" just yet, but we are slowly moving past it. Monáe – hanging out and listening to music with friends – did not look entirely dissimilar to me and my life (pompadour and expertly tailored suit notwithstanding).

That’s what struck me the most about seeing it – in a world where the default experience of "normal" is "white", and more and more people of colour are finally being seen as possibilities when casting the default. Seeing that ad was seeing a reflection of what my life looks like. At the start of the ad, it was Janelle Monáe and friends, evolving into a black woman and her friends, and ending on just a woman and her friends. It’s the normalcy that strikes. Finally.

And most fantastic of all, it’s all over telly. My current favourite black woman on television is Vod (played by Zawe Ashton) on Channel 4’s Fresh Meat, a role that has almost nothing to do with her melanin. She is a fully-formed character, written as a rounded individual, and a full part of the world she inhabits. In US TV (and also on More4 at the moment), Kerry Washington is kicking arse and taking names as Washington power player Olivia Pope in ABC’s Scandal. Keeping her company is Mindy Kaling’s new comedy on Fox as well as Brit-doing-an-accent-and-wielding-a-baseball-bat Archie Panjabi in the superlative The Good Wife on NBC. Other casts with a dose of melanin that sidesteps tokenism include the very funny Happy Endings (will it ever return to E4?)and New Girl (Lamorne Morris’s Winston is fantastic if somewhat underused).

Some Girls. Source: BBC

But wait, there’s more! BBC3’s new comedy Some Girls follows four teenage girls and has a black lead in Adelayo Adedayo. The rash of ads in the run up to the orgy of consumption that is Christmas has yielded a bumper crop of "normal" brown folks too. Sainsbury’s has a black family with the little boy doing the dishes to the surprise of his parents, and Tesco’s campaign also makes use of another, sipping on champagne in the kitchen on Christmas Day. Baileys’ Blondie-soundtracked ad features several hues and shades. As a lifelong telly addict, I can’t lie: it’s all kind of thrilling.

There is still a need for the Poitier Exemplar, for we are not yet at the Promised Land in terms of the narrowness of our represented reality (hello, Top Boy). But what struck me the hardest about Sunday night was that we’re firmly on the way, and that is A Good Thing.

Viva from Some Girls. Source: BBC

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era