Andrew Billen - Skin deep

Television - Black people are finally aesthetically acceptable in fashion and the arts, writes Andre

Only 40 years ago, Stokely Car-michael had to say it and say it again - shout it, in fact, from a platform until his voice was hoarse: black was beautiful. When someone needs to make a point so feverishly, you know his audience needs some persuading; and the thing was that his audience itself was black. The advertisements for skin whiteners, the comical obesity of black maids in the movies and all those Wasp beauties on magazine covers had done their work on the black psyche. Undoing it in four decades seems, in retrospect, a rather speedy accomplishment. The very best thing about the new documentary series When Black Became Beautiful (7pm, Sundays) is the first word in its title.

According to this three-parter on how black people became aesthetically acceptable in fashion and the arts, skin colour was almost a side issue. You could be whiter than Penelope Cruz and still be black, if your features were wrong. Even if she "photographed white", it was unlikely a black model would get used in the mainstream media. Among blacks, however, your pigmentation was scrutinised. The lighter you were, the higher your status, a discrimination inherited from plantation days, when the jet-blacks would toil in the fields and off-whites would be allowed to skivvy in the big house. As the saying went, "If you're brown, stick around. If you're black, stay back."

No, the real problem was your hair. Diahann Carroll, the 1940s model-turned-1960s TV star, explained: "Hair is a major contribution to the dilemma over who we are." Madam C J Walker became the world's first self-made female millionaire by selling hair-straightening products and Mary Wilson of the Supremes spoke of the childhood trauma of hot combs and curling irons applied by her aunt, a whole day wasted combing and pressing. A breakthrough of sorts came for the model Dorothea Towles when she arrived in cosmopolitan Paris and a fashion designer instructed her to go platinum blonde, a look that prefigured a million honey-streaked black women appearing in your high street now.

"I stopped traffic," enthused Towles. But the imitation was not all one way. On 21 March, Cornrows, Afros, Anything Goes (although the episode could just as cleverly be entitled Roots) explores the afro, a hairstyle that started as a political statement and became a fashion so potent that by the late 1960s Caroline Baker, then fashion editor of Nova, endured a rigorous morning's perm in order to emulate it. The musical Hair was not misnamed.

The argument so far is that black Americans, who for years were repressed by white standards of beauty, learnt first to copy them and then to sell the replica back to the prevailing culture. Once the door had been opened by black models who did not look too black, other shades and nose and lip shapes sashayed through it. The second programme describes the repossession of Africanness, while the third, the most entertaining of the lot, celebrates how, with mass migration and interbreeding, we have arrived at an infinite variety of black beauty archetypes, a variety that reflects the heterogeneity of black faces on the streets, each belonging to a potential customer. Black became beautiful because black became bankable.

Made under the aegis of the black and beautiful Trevor Phillips and Samir Shah, When Black Became Beautiful makes individual comparisons to prove things have moved along. In 1814, Sara Baartman, the so-called Hottentot Venus, was unveiled to Parisian society as a freak, connoisseurs invited to inspect her gigantic bottom. When Josephine Baker hit Paris in 1925, she was instantly accepted by high society, yet for her show she had to gyrate in a miniskirt made of bananas. In 1975, the wealthy politics student Iman was taken to America and was advertised as a cattle-herd whose bedtime beverage was camel's milk. However, the latest black sensation, Alek Wek, really is a Sudanese refugee, and what is more actually looks African (rather than like a white woman dipped in chocolate, as the sisters said of poor Mrs Bowie).

This series, I am willing to be told, is a little simple-minded. It avoids any scientific definition of beauty and does not question the fashion industry's preposterous valuation of its own importance. It gives little weight to the distinct British black experience: save for a giggly sequence in which the girl band Mis-teeq described impersonating the Supremes for the Queen's jubilee, the first episode might as well have been made by Americans for Americans. But it has a wonderful story to tell, uses great incidental music and gets to talk to all the players that mattered. It is also, for obvious reasons, a pleasure to look at.

Is its optimism also simple-minded? At least, whatever other obstacles they still face, black women can now wear their hair any way and any colour they please - provided they can pay the hairdresser's bill. It is comforting, too, to think that among British youth at least, wiggers these days outnumber Oreos, imitation being the sincerest form of flattery. On a grey Sunday, made bleaker by the news that al-Qaeda had scored its first victory in the west (by altering the course of a democratic election), I was looking for good news. When Black Became Beautiful was it.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times