Mo Gilligan’s Channel 4 documentary Black, British and Funny highlights the lack of opportunities and exposure Black comedians face in the industry, reflecting a pattern of institutional racism taking place throughout the arts, as well as in other industries.
Gilligan speaks to professional comedians that have made it to the top of the Black comedy circuit, but are repeatedly turned down or ignored by mainstream comedy programmes and TV channels. What is great about this documentary is that structural racism is explored microcosmically by focusing on the comedy industry, but Black and brown viewers everywhere will be familiar with the glass ceiling that prevents people of colour making it to the top of their field, despite their talent or popularity.
The most eye-opening part of the documentary comes at the beginning, when Gilligan is talking to Slim, a comedian who was huge on the Black comedy scene and had performed around the comedy circuit successfully for years. No matter how successful his shows were, he was never asked to go on a comedy panel or mainstream stand-up show. This highlights the attitudes of television and film companies, that, at the end of the day, exist not to entertain, but to make money. For some reason, these companies either think that Black comedians aren’t profitable, or that a limit on the number of Black comedians they platform needs to be put in place in order for the show to be a success.
The same goes for other comedians Gilligan talks to, including Michael Dapaah, who became famous when he first performed as the character Big Shaq. Again, he is a young Black comedian with a massive following and social media platform, but he too is unable to penetrate the Black comedy industry.
One part of the documentary that I had mixed feelings towards was Gilligan constantly referring to imaginary white viewers who might be hostile towards the issues he raises. On the one hand, it felt apologetic, and I find it uncomfortable when Black activists and entertainers feel it is their job to get people with racist opinions on side. On the other hand, communication with people that haven’t accepted institutional and everyday racism as a fact of some people’s lives need to be educated somehow.
The documentary is very funny, engaging, easy to understand and inspiring. I do feel, however, that it coddled and tried to wrap viewers in cotton wool by not naming the elephant in the room: institutional racism. These comedians live under a glass ceiling because they are Black and because their industry, like so many others, is racist. The question of how we fix it isn’t addressed. Do Black comedians just keep trying to break into the industry until one or two become successful? This tactic seems to have failed so far. The people that wield power and seek to profit from these industries need to be held accountable and confronted with the fact the structures they maintain are racist. One successful Black comedian doesn’t change a racist comedy industry, even if he does manage to get his own documentary.