It’s a shame an important discussion about the tone of Comic Relief has been focused so directly, and so vituperatively, on one woman – Stacey Dooley, and I can’t help wondering if the fact she’s glamorous and female has something to do with how she has been targeted.
I am not suggesting the Instagram photograph she posted with a random black child on her hip is unproblematic. MP David Lammy was right to point out it plays on all those tired old “white saviour” tropes.
But Dooley is not just some C-list celebrity who has popped her head into Uganda to boost her own profile. She may currently be dancing on Strictly, but she is also a documentary maker with a track record of tackling serious subjects: sweat shops, people trafficking and child soldiers. Forcing her to take the flak for the cloying paternalism of Comic Relief seems harsh and lets an awful lot of other people off the hook.
Thirty years after Live Aid, most people of my generation, who sang along with gusto to Do They Know It’s Christmas? cannot hear the line: “So tonight thank God it’s them instead of you” without a visceral sense of shame. We recognise, now, the flaws in the privileged pop stars’ approach: the way Live Aid treated the continent of Africa as homogeneous and its people as uniformly helpless; the way it presented Bob Geldof as a saint and relied on dehumanising shots of starving babies to guilt-trip comfortable First Worlders into donating.
We understand – or at least we ought to – that this sort of relief effort risks disempowering those it purports to help and deflects from the UK’s role as an oppressor that plundered many benighted countries of their resources.
Yet, despite this – and many high-profile calls for the West to confront the legacy of its imperial past – a sanitised and white-centred attitude towards racism and the developing world remains widespread.
We saw it at this year’s Oscars. Two years after Moonlight, a sensitive portrayal of black masculinity, won best film, Hollywood suffered a relapse, handing the award to Green Book, a buddy movie – made by white director Peter Farrelly – in which a northern white bigot agrees to drive a brilliant, but repressed black musician on a tour of the Deep South. And guess what? The white driver is the main character. And the story is seen through his eyes. And it turns out he’s not so bad after all. He teaches the black musician about black culture. They listen to Little Richard and eat fried chicken. And, in the end, the lonely black musician celebrates Christmas with his driver’s big white Italian family. No wonder Spike Lee walked out in disgust.
We see it too in the sixth-formers heading out to build clinics across the developing world. It’s all very well-intended, but – as they hold ceilidhs and race nights to fund their trips – do they ever stop to consider who benefits? Is it the local residents who could – with the money raised – have been trained to do construction work themselves? Or is it mostly about their own egos and CVs?
Founder Richard Curtis saw Comic Relief as Live Aid for comedians so of course it came with a similar condescending vibe. The very first one, at Christmas 1985, saw Lenny Henry broadcasting from a refugee camp in the Sudan.
The format was always excruciating. High jinks interspersed with war zones, cake sales interspersed with pot-bellied infants. Happy face/sad face, like Alex the Lion in Madagascar 2.
Not so long ago such comments would have you written off as po-faced and tight, but in recent years the backlash against “poverty porn” has grown. In 2017, the Radi-Aid awards nominated three films, involving Tom Hardy, Eddie Redmayne and Ed Sheeran, for the title of most offensive campaign of the year. The one that attracted most attention was Sheeran’s Comic Relief video, in which the singer offered to pay hotel costs for street children in Liberia. Sheeran was presented as a Messiah figure, dispensing western largesse.
In the wake of that controversy, Liz Warner, CEO of Comic Relief, which runs Sports Relief and Red Nose Day, pledged the organisation would change its ways, and push African voices to the fore. Last year, a film about street children in Kampala was introduced by Rio Ferdinand, but he did not appear in it. Instead, a Ugandan charity worker and the children explained the issues to the viewer.
Unfortunately, Dooley’s Instagram pictures – and the charity’s response to Lammy’s criticism – suggest it has fallen back into its old ways. Instead of reflecting on the validity of the MP’s words, it accused him of failing to respond to its offer for him to go to Africa – again that generic reference to an entire continent – and make a film himself. This was defensive, untrue and missed the point. Lammy did respond, but declined the offer, which is understandable given he wasn’t asking Comic Relief to give a platform to British politicians but to indigenous voices.
The furore prompted many angry-from-Manchester types to rant on about a lack of gratitude, thus proving Lammy’s point: that the Comic Relief model requires humility and submission from its beneficiaries.
In reality, no-one was suggesting the £1bn-plus Comic Relief has raised was unnecessary or unwelcome; just that there are ways to help developing countries that do not involve fetishising human suffering or ignoring our country’s complicity in their plight.
If I were going to tackle the “white saviour” syndrome, I would start in schools and particularly with To Kill A Mocking Bird. With his liberal benevolence firmly rooted in privilege, Atticus Finch is the archetypal white saviour, whose fate takes precedence over that of Tom Robinson, the black man he unsuccessfully defends against false accusations of rape. As long as the politics of Harper Lee’s book go unchallenged in classrooms, her paternalistic perspective is likely to persist.
Lammy’s solution is for Comic Relief to have African voices counter lazy stereotypes. One comedian he suggested the programme might promote is Kenyan-born Njambi McGrath. In a clip posted on his Twitter feed, McGrath suggests western backpackers who take off for the developing world are “detoxing from privilege”.
“I hear you went to Africa my love,” she says. “Tell me, where in Africa did you go? Let me guess. Did you visit the medieval city built by the Shona people of Great Zimbabwe? Or perhaps maybe you went and spent some time in the ancient kingdom of the Baganda people? And they will say ‘I went to an orphanage. I went to a clinic for HIV sufferers, and I went to a slum’.”
Dooley is not a villain. She shouldn’t be expected to carry the can for Comic Relief’s enduring colonialism. But perhaps if she and others were exposed to more voices like McGrath’s, they would think twice about treating black children like some sort of fashion accessory.