Black British Women’s Stories Deserve Air Time All Year Round

Photo: Courtesy of Channel 4.
When Judi Love: Black, Female and Invisible premiered on Channel 4 this October, lining up with Black History Month, the 45-minute documentary, developed by Sir Lenny Henry’s label Douglas Road Productions, was a breath of fresh air. It followed the comedian-presenter as she spoke to Black British girls and women, as they unpacked their experiences within the workspace, as well as during motherhood, education, and more. Unlike many factual TV shows about the British experience, the documentary pinpointed Black women's experiences at the centre of the discussion. All the women featured in the documentary reiterated wanting to be “represented” and “heard,” yet the show was aired after 11pm at night. When a TV show titled Black, Female and Invisible is aired at a graveyard slot during Black History Month — inevitably making it harder to find an audience — the irony is disappointing. It’s clear there’s a need for Black women’s stories to be spotlighted all year round.
In Judi Love’s documentary, we’re confronted by statistics and experiences that depict the harsh realities that Black women face across various social, political and economic spaces. Love reported that Black women are "84% more likely than anyone else to be mentioned in abusive or problematic tweets," as well as, "Black women-led companies received 0.02% investment from venture capital from 2009-2019." Accompanying this research were moving stories from women like Ebinehita Iyere, founder of the charity organisation Milk Honey Bees. Iyere tells Love that at age 15 she was placed in an 18-plus hostel after being expelled from secondary education, where she was forgotten by the social care system and left without a social worker for two years.
The programme did a good job of highlighting Black British women's experiences with an overwhelming volume of first-hand accounts of misogynoir and erasure. When the issue of safeguarding Black girls is raised, I’m reminded of the tragic story of Child Q; earlier this year a 15-year-old Black girl was strip-searched at her school, while on her period, by a police officer after being wrongly suspected of having cannabis by a teacher.

The stories shared in Black Female and Invisible are not isolated stories; these experiences are happening year-round and are deserving of year-round representation.

These complex and heartfelt stories are compressed into a 45-minute single episode and I feel it is a disservice that these experiences were not examined and investigated in longer TV formats often gifted to non-Black and brown stories. As a viewer, I’m left at the end of the show frustrated that these diverse experiences, from Black school girls to Black mothers, do not receive the space in factual programming where they can be examined profoundly. The factual TV genre has long made it a habit of glossing over Black stories and even more with Black women’s experiences that are hoarded and later released for that one time in the year. However, Child Q, as well as the stories shared in Black Female and Invisible are not isolated stories; these experiences are happening year-round and are deserving of year-round representation.
It’s not an overstatement to suggest that Black British women’s contributions to British society (past and present) haven’t always been reflected in factual television. On the surface, this seems to be improving. Una Marson: Our Lost Caribbean Voice, also produced by Douglas Road, debuted on BBC Two on Thursday, October 27. The film explored Marson's story of becoming the first Black producer and broadcaster at the BBC. Hailing from Jamaica, Marson travelled to London to work on BBC Radio during World War Two in the 1940s. Also a playwright and activist, Marson is recognised as a pioneer, yet her story is one that has been buried. The powerful documentary takes time to honour Marson's contributions when British TV has often discarded Black women's contributions to British culture and history.  To see factual programming moving in the right direction, there has to be space that spotlights Black women's contributions in this country, with the opportunity for Black women to front more of these types of formats. 
On the other side, this does not mean the inclusion of Black women's experiences in the factual genre should only be dictated by discussion of racism. The Guardian previously reported on a study conducted by Media Diversity which found that among 275 documentary shows between April and May last year, race and racism were still the leading subjects when they featured a Black person. Rather, what it necessitates is not neglecting Black women from wider-shared narratives.

When Black women's experiences are not reflected in programming, it only reaffirms the notion that their stories are less respectable and not palatable for TV.

Photo: Courtesy of BBC Pictures.
This could speak to a wider problem with broadcasters not commissioning enough projects that include Black women's experience and even further, the lack of Black commissioners. There is a responsibility for broadcasters to be consistent with commissioning from Black-led indies and ensuring factual programming is not solely catered to maintaining what a universal experience, a male or white experience is. For factual programming to hold weight and to be relevant, it needs to be intentional and include new perspectives.
ITV does this successfully in their Fresh Cuts strand which included five films that captured Black Britishness from rising filmmakers Louise Coleman, Yemi Adegbulu, Daniel Dempster, Jason Osborne and David Adeyemi. The films included The Bottom Line, which explored the rise of the Brazilian Butt Lift surgery as well as Slam Dunk by David Adeyemi, which follows two basketball players highlighting the importance of the sport in Black communities and its place in the UK sporting landscape.
In The Bottom Line, Louise Coleman speaks to women who have set their hearts on going under the knife for the infamous BBL body. In the Black History Month special, it is clearly understood that the rise of BBL culture is one that heavily impacts Black women. But, where the film includes discussions with non-Black participants, it highlights the pressure of beauty standards that are not universal to one race. Black women's experiences are prioritised in the ITV documentary without removing other races from the narrative of the pressure of beauty standards. But, the same courtesy and privilege have not been extended to Black women in factual programming.
Ultimately, when Black women's experiences are not reflected in programming, it only reaffirms the notion that their stories are less respectable and not palatable for TV. There is also power in Black women's stories and experiences, so while Black History Month has ended for another year, it is vital that the commitment to Black women’s stories in factual TV is one that should be extended year-round in order to make meaningful television.

More from TV

R29 Original Series