What The BBC’s New All-Black Drama Tells Us About Race & TV In 2016

Photo: Courtesy BBC
If you tuned into the BBC on Sunday night, you may have noticed that the broadcaster has chosen to fill its coveted 9pm spot with Undercover, a drama where white people are background characters and a black family takes centre stage. It boasts some of our best black British actors – Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester – in challenging roles that will show the audience the breadth of their talent. This alone is enough to make you faint with shock.
It's a turn of progress not just in the representation of black British people on TV, but also in the way the industry treats black British actors. Just over a year ago, black British actor David Oyelowo starred as Martin Luther King in Oscar winning film Selma, the story of the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery Alabama. To some, Oyelowo cast as Martin Luther King was a bit odd, in the same way it was odd to see Idris Elba and Naomie Harris play Nelson and Winnie Mandela in Long Walk To Freedom. Why was prime British acting talent being exported overseas? In an interview with Radio Times, Oyelowo was asked exactly that. He replied: "I remember taking a historical drama with a black figure at its centre to a British executive with greenlight power, and what they said was that, if it's not Jane Austen or Dickens, the audience don't understand. And I thought, 'OK – you are stopping people having a context for the country they live in and you are marginalising me. I can't live with that. So I've got to get out.' “There’s a string of black British actors passing through where I live now in LA. We don’t have Downton Abbey, or Call the Midwife, or Peaky Blinders, or the fiftieth iteration of Pride and Prejudice. We’re not in those. And it’s frustrating because it doesn’t have to be that way. I shouldn’t have to feel like I have to move to America to have a notable career.” Period dramas aside, fictionalised accounts of the black British experience on television – whether historical or modern day – are few and far between (except for the ever-reliable Eastenders). A search for black British television shows yields a meagre list of less than a dozen programmes over the past few decades. Better characters – or simply just more work for actors – might be found abroad. We have become used to certain types of portrayal of black characters in TV over the years. The feel-good, family values, sitcom like US export the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. The “heart-warming” television where a member of a black family gets into mild scrapes but it’s ok because everything always turns out alright in the end. The kind of TV in which it’s glaringly obvious that the creators are feeling the weight of writing perfect characters in order to challenge negative stereotypes of blackness – an effect that ends up as limiting and narrow as depictions of black folks as criminals and sidekicks. Instead, the characters in Undercover are interesting and complex. Good writing and acting means that a character’s bad decisions are met with audience sympathy rather than disdain. Whatever you think of them, it isn’t binary. Race neither comes first or last – it’s just a part of who these characters are. Despite some initial reviews calling the programme "so much more than about race", in my opinion, Undercover has everything to do with race.
The plot, drawing on a plethora real life events, is intriguing. It’s predicated on the shocking case of the spy cops scandal, in which seven women recently received large pay outs from the Metropolitan Police after it was revealed that they had been tricked into relationships with undercover police officers who had infiltrated activist groups decades ago. It explores British police brutality, and the disproportionate number of black people at the receiving end of the United States death penalty (a 2007 Yale University study found that African-American defendants were three times more likely to receive the death penalty than white defendants in cases where the victims were white). From the first episode (and we’re only one episode in so far), there are hints of state trials against Black Panther-esque American activists, with a man on death row accused of killing an "esteemed public servant" – most likely a police officer. And there are nuggets of information that, if you’ve been paying attention to conversations about race and justice, you’ll understand. Like the conflict a middle class black couple face when one of them is presented with the opportunity to become Director of Public Prosecutions, an incredibly senior position in a British criminal justice system still laced with racial disparities. It’s a debate that is repeated on the opinion pages of The Voice every few years: Is it better to be outside the system shouting about its injustices, or inside – at the top – trying to change things? Will you succeed in changing the system, or will the system change you?

A race-flipped cast means that black characters are depicted as full human beings rather than props.

The black fingerprints all over the script of Undercover are clear. It isn’t surprising that creator and playwright Peter Moffat told the Independent of Sophie Okonedo’s input on the script. “We had lots of conversations," he said, "and she challenged, helped and argued, which was fantastic for me because, after all, she had to stand up and do it. If something wasn’t quite true or didn’t feel quite right – boy was she paying attention – she told me.”

He told
the Guardian that a black main cast wasn’t the programme’s original aim, but that it felt appropriate as the script was developed. “Here was a black family sitting around the dinner table eating pasta. So normal and yet I had never ever, not once, seen that on mainstream TV [in the UK]," he told the newspaper. Watching, it feels like something new, and fresh, and relevant. A race-flipped cast means that black characters are depicted as full human beings rather than props. Undercover might not come across as about race in a blunt and obvious way, but – because race is not a singular and distance part of our lives – it cannot be abandoned or compartmentalised. Rather, it’s intertwined with everything we do.

leads aren’t characters who just happen to be black, consistent with pushes for colour blind casting. Neither are they Obvious Black Characters, awkwardly inserted into a storyline to make a clumsy, glaring point. Instead, they are people who deal with race in their everyday lives because their lives are racialised against their will. That is the reality of race today. And for depicting it, Undercover is refreshingly honest. @ReniReni

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