I read with interest that Lenny Henry is to embark on a PhD researching into the representation of Black people in the media (see BBC article here). 25/30 years ago Lenny WAS the representation of Black people on UK television, so a big part of his thesis could aptly employ the methodology of vulnerable anthropology and autoethnography, which sees the researcher transparently including their own story into the research data and interpretive narrative.
Lenny is the best placed person to take on this task as long as he can disassociate himself from his younger self, and critique his own role in the history as well as others. The danger is that he will overcompensate, and over criticize his own role and be less critical of others, (as he’s such a nice guy!). But this assumes he’ll be analyzing individual artists at all, and may instead be critiquing the media machine and market forces for the prevalence of certain types of representation. This begs the question, where does the representation start and finish – at the commissioning stage, in the writing process, at the point of acting, in the edit suit, or at the point of transmission? Stuart Hall’s encoding/decoding analogy suggests representation is an ongoing process with the viewer employing their agency to create their own meanings in the work. I agree with that, but drill back further, and ask what is the motivations of the actors themselves who need to pay their mortgages and feed their children. Where do their motivations lie in the process of representation?
During the 80s Lenny Henry was a comedian that I presume had a team of writers behind him, but he was his own talent vehicle and his skill was portraying characters. On television he was more of a sketch show comedic character actor than straight up comedian. (I say ‘on television’, as I watched him do a stand-up routine in person at the Bath Theatre Royal and he was hilarious, and much more raw and edgy than his comedy was on television). For his television work he was praised and vilified in equal measure for his representations of black people – from the (in my opinion) funny over-sexed Theophilus P. Wildebeest, to his (in my opinion) embarrassing “OOOOOOKKKKAAAAYYYYYY” chanting Rastafarian character that made me want to curl up and die every time I had it shouted to me on the way to school.
So who were the audiences for that work when Henry formed those characters, as that would then arguably inform the basis of the subsequent representation? Black people watched his shows, as that is what black people did in those days – we watched anyone who looked vaguely like us as the novelty was so rare. His show was also funny, so we watched it for that as well.
In many ways his PhD is already in his own back catalogue of sketches, as the majority of his work was a parody of the representation of black people in popular culture. But that is where the analysis of Henry’s back catalogue gets tricky in relation to representation, as his parodies were of the individuals themselves, and not the media machines that projected them. Were we laughing at ourselves, or were we being laughed at? The representation of black people according to who? Was Henry’s portrayal of these characters ahead of its time, or a product of its time? Likewise all the black drug dealers who acted on The Bill and other cops shows. In this supposed post-racial post-modern world we all now live in, is the unapologetic sight of a black drug dealer on television progress, or is it just a sign that nothing has changed? Mortgages are getting paid, but as I keep telling every black actor I know, “write your own scripts!” Actors are ciphers of the characters they are given, so whose representations are being presented? Who wrote The Bill, Eastenders, and the other shows notorious for badly written and suspect black characters? Looking at today’s television, I watch Ugly Betty, Desperate Housewives and other shows, and as much as I may like them, I can’t help but notice their black characters are problematic. (Ugly Betty is really bad for this, I’m not sure if any of their black characters over the years has ever been a good person!)
In much of what I written here I’m assuming Henry will be analyzing television from when he was in his mainstream prime up to today, but he may be concentrating more on contemporary representations. I can’t help but feel it would be more honest if he looked at his own era rather than avoid it, but of course that is up to him. It’s his PhD and I should keep my nose out, I already have mine!
Back in 1994 I defended Lenny Henry in the (now extinct) Weekly Journal newspaper, after their ‘culture columnist’ criticized a documentary Henry presented about black comedians. (You can see the full letter here.) As I said back then, and as I say now, I feel he is the perfect person to write about the representation of black people in the media as he informed so much of it, but he needs to be mindful that he’ll need broad shoulders if he’s going to tackle this subject honestly and transparently, as much of it will read like an analysis of his own career. In some cases that was argued of pitching black representation as two steps forward and one pace back, (or even one pace forward and two paces back, though I don’t agree with that harsh judgement).
On the flip side, I feel the service Lenny Henry (and others like him) have given to the black community is the ability to laugh at ourselves. As a Rasta I would say this is a serious time and the situation of education of black young men is no joke, or the high percentages in prison, etc. But at the same time humor is a part of humanity and the ability to laugh actually breaks down more barriers than it builds up, and is a survival instinct. One has only to look at the horror of the Danish cartoonist who was threatened with death and other artists who have been murdered for their portrayals of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and Islam, to see how a deficit of humor in a community is an unhealthy and self-destructive thing.
I don’t know how Henry’s PhD supervisors will be suggesting he measure notions of representation, but if I was his supervisor I would be saying “autoethnography all the way baby!”
I would say it exactly like that, just to see his reaction, and hopefully make him laugh. I’ll forgive him the awful Rastafarian character. What didn’t kill me made me stronger. I wish Lenny all the best with his studies.