Black & White?

By Paul Gilroy

The recent BFI-hosted conference on the prospects for black intervention in TV aimed to do more than just celebrate the BBC’s Black and White in Colour documentaries, which had provided the immediate stimulus for staging the event. Those documentaries, directed last year by Isaac Julien, created a form of pleasure in the history and achievements of black actors, writes and programme-makers that almost anyone could share. It was asking too much of a conference to duplicate or even continue in the same open, joyful spirit.

Black programme-makers, writers and hopefuls from a variety of different fields and institutions were primed to interact with each other and to debate the present state of TV broadcasting as well as their future aspirations with a wide selection of corporate types: mostly programme commissioners and business people bold enough to engage their clients and suppliers on neutral ground. Panels covered particular areas of work, like comedy and drama, as well as wider political questions – North-South relationship, the new Europe, and political and cultural shifts within and between Britain’s black communities.

The racial politics of producing TV programmes got an overdue and valuable, though somewhat uneven, airing, but this seemed to be by default rather than design. The discussions were disappointing and this was not so much because of the understandable if regrettable reticence that shaped the proceedings, but was produced no doubt by the bitter competition for limited amounts of money which operates powerfully and silently to make people more cautious and less willing to be truthful than they might otherwise be. The political rhetoric of the 70s collided with the market-based logic of the 80s, but the results were far from volatile. It seemed that no coherent political language could be found in which the stubborn diversity of the conference could comprehend itself, let alone raise the possibility of making politically savvy TV programmes tailored to subaltern concerns that might also be able to pay their way.

The diminishing band of activists who still hoped to find a collective voice for blacks in the industry opposed the smug marketers who abandoned that ideal long ago. These two groups sat next to each other but talked past each other, despite the fact that they are bound together by a reluctance to move away from the old idea of racial constituencies as fixed, immobile and essentially unchanging groups whose televisual and other media needs could be readily discerned and catered to by cultural insiders with the right sort of good will. In the meantime, while the experts with hotlines to the special needs of the culturally disenfranchised sort out their funding if not themselves, we were urged to take racial pride in the prominence of black celebrities like John Fashanu and Trevor McDonald. So that’s all right.

The discourse of independence was intermittently deployed but it seemed out of place in an atmosphere where the assumption of dependency on the funding bodies was complete. Even the affectation of independence has been undermined by the loss of political skills that once made the pose seem believable. In its place, the image of the hustler now stands as a yardstick with which we are invited to evaluate today’s cultural and political achievements. A tacit agreement dictates that the survival of TV programmes legitimated by the idea of racial representativeness is an end in itself. More disturbing was the unchallenged assumption that all that is wrong with the broadcasting system in this country was its lack of an adequately multicultural orientation. From this perspective, TV emerged as an unqualified good that can only improve when it includes blacks and which is entirely beneficial in its effects on black cultural production. The possibility of an ‘inside and against’ stance which was the hallmark of independent producers in earlier periods appeared to have been foreclosed.

The background debate over the future of the BBC was not by itself enough to stimulate any new thinking. Though interesting issues came and went, strategic calculations and tactical discussions just weren’t possible in a body that lacked a clear rationale for its coming together. There was obvious polarisation between those participants who were resigned to playing by the new rules of a deregulated industry and others who were still determined to use their questionable ability to broker black audiences and deliver cultural forms as a political lever on the gatekeepers and custodians of the corporate purse. What ought to have been an assertive argument about cultural democracy and pluralism imploded quietly on the launch pad of cultural particularity. The time has long past when the idea of ethnic or racial representativeness offered any credible guarantee of political integrity. It wasn’t so much the spectacle of some rather privileged people projecting themselves as the mouthpiece of the black poor that offended me, but rather the disappearance of any notion of accountability from their understanding of how one comes to speak on behalf of others and the discipline which that dubious role demands.

It is a hard thing to face up to, but the growing diversity inside the black communities and the divergent patterns in their economic life make the easy assumption of racial or ethnic homogeneity look either foolish or dishonest. Invariant black identity does not stand behind cultural products, generating them according to its special logic and labelling them authentic. What we call identity is often the outcome of those products. It is a means whereby we can gauge their effects on a world configured by misery as much as by creativity and by the pain that racial siblings cause each other as well as the effects of white supremacy. Black programme-makers would do well to remember that before they make themselves a new role model for the 90s from the figure of the hustler whose cynicism and disregard of community are legendary.