As of late, an uneasy coexistence between personal autonomy and social responsibility has been placed in ever higher relief. This is not merely a by-product of the political and public health decisions Covid-19 has necessitated. Conundrums of the sort have also arisen in the realm of consumption and entertainment in the wake of George Floyd's murder and the rightly sustained call for justice heard from millions globally. In the UK, one way this has manifested itself is a heated debate over the relevance of Little Britain and the ethical boundaries of comedy.
Running from 2003 to 2008, the successful sitcom saw Matt Lucas and David Williams portray characters from different ethnic backgrounds, including the use of blackface, so as to highlight the racial stereotyping which still pervades the fabric of British society. BBC and Netflix have been unequivocal in their decision to remove the series from their streaming platforms, concluding that “times have changed.” The decision has proven to be derisive. Its supporters have declared it as an action long overdue whilst its opponents have labelled it an affront to comedic licence and imagination. Its creators have apologised for creating "cruel comedy," acknowledging that they crossed a line in their attempt to critique Britain's harrowing relationship with race and ethnicity.
In reality, though, it is surprising that shows like Little Britain have remained in place for so long. The intense social activism stemming from #MeToo, Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion in recent years has catalysed a re-evaluation of modern society, where it is fatally flawed, and how these structural defects can be mitigated. The presence of blackface on our TV screens in 2020 can only be regarded as an anachronism when compared to this liberalising impulse. Understanding why is crucial.
Image: James Eades (2020)
Rising to prominence in the 1830s, blackface was central to American "minstrel shows," a form of theatrical entertainment in which white actors assumed blackness and, as political scientist Michael Rogin argues, depicted African Americans as "lazy boastful creatures of physical need, the underside of hardworking, ambitious white protestants." Through blackface, white actors were able to cross the colour line, if only to reinforce it politically. This was evident in the establishment of Jim Crow segregation throughout the South in the postbellum period, behavioural codes which were in fact named after a blackface character. As historian Dale Cockrell concludes, "by distorting the features and culture of African Americans—including their looks, language, dance, deportment, and character—white Americans were able to codify whiteness across class and geopolitical lines" as an antithesis to blackness.
Closer to home, minstrelsy blackface became increasingly popular throughout the first half of the twentieth century. This was paralleled by the growth of the British Empire throughout this period: it reached its greatest extent following the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. The expansion of the so-called "civilizing mission" and "white man's burden" cemented the position blackface held in Britain's popular entertainment culture. Between 1958 and 1978, the BBC broadcast the Black and White Minstrel Show, a variety show based on the very form of entertainment which buffered and justified slavery in the prior century.
In Little Britain, David Walliam's use of blackface in assuming the character of Desiree, a Caribbean woman, disregards this painful history. In crossing the colour line, perhaps he did not intend to deliberately offend Black people en-masse. But assuming a different skin colour in return for cheap laughs shows a deep ignorance to what was once perceived as a normal and widely supported form of entertainment; during a time when slavery was a legal institution strengthened by British involvement and after the American Civil War, when lynchings became a regular occurence across the Deep South and when Britain's colonial project accelerated.
Removing Little Britain from streaming platforms exacerbates the need to differentiate between racist comedy and comedy about race and how the former is steeped in centuries of inequality. Far from erasing or rewriting history, it encourages discussion of the importance of such history. Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of those who have rallied against the decision have taken to social media to spread the false notion of "reverse racism," pointing to the "whitefacing" seen within the 2004 film White Chicks.
Yes, White Chicks. The movie directed by a Black man, in which two Black men must masquerade as two white women in order to infiltrate the world of the white upper class.
Surely the underlying premise of the film itself is a vivid indictment of "an overtly white culture that indulges itself in excess, elitism and discrimination." In this way, the movie can be seen as a thinly veiled critique of a modern society which has not fully disentangled itself from the institutions, values and ideas of the old.
Furthermore, when Shawn and Marlon Wayans adopt their disguise they don't change their personality and behaviour in order to dehumanise and subjugate the white population. Rather, the inherent shortcomings of the film's white characters are placed in higher relief, particularly the casual racism found within the affluence of the Hamptons and the privilege they fail to acknowledge. This can be understood as comedy about race, rather than racist comedy.
So is Little Britain really a hill worth dying on?
Those who agree - on the grounds of freedom of expression - will need to grapple with the fact that blackface was borne out of an intersection between politics and culture which sanctioned the treatment of Black people both as commodities and as a source of entertainment which ridiculed, dehumanised and demonised their very being. As such, crossing the colour line has always been a political act.
Relying on evidence like White Chicks to establish a crude colour tit-for-tat, however, shows the damage caused by personal ignorance and an education system which has neglected matters of race. It makes a mockery of the hurt blackface has caused historically and the structures of slavery and discrimination it reinforced. Far more than harmless comedy, blackface demonstrates vividly the mutually reinforcing relationship between cultural and institutional forms of racism, both in the 1830s and in the 2000s.
So, again: is Little Britain really a hill worth dying on?
Michael Rogin, ‘Blackface, White Noise: The Jewish Jazz Singer Finds His Voice,’ Critical Inquiry 18 (Spring 1992): 417-453
Dale Cockrell, Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and their World, (Cambrigde University Press, 1997).
Edited by Ellie Muir