Sunday, February 17, 2013

Dancing on the Edge & Colourblind Jazz Fans

I greatly admire Stephen Poliakoff.  He's not perfect, although some of his television work - particularly Shooting the Past - is as very nearly.  He has a luxurious way of film-making, instilling his characters with both curiosity and his own passion for story-telling.  His films are always beautifully shot (he has an ability to make every actor look so beautiful) with a great use of music and point of view.  He's done a few I couldn't sit through again, but I can't name many directors who haven't.

Dancing on the Edge is his new BBC series charting an all black Jazz band in 1930s London. It has a few problems. It's been criticised for slow-pacing, but that's cool with me; it's all very beautiful, as usual, and the actors are flawless. There are however four glaring problems. The first two have always been there with Poliokoff but become really obvious in this miniseries, the second two are unique to Dancing on the Edge and the forth really matters:

  1. Rich people spend their money on things ordinary folk can't afford. Thus rich people are treated as eccentric and fascinating, even when those characters are in no way eccentric or fascinating.
  2. When something interesting or notable is happening, characters will say so, in case its not obvious. "Isn't this an amazing party?", "Isn't it fantastic that we should all be here together at this time and place, especially what with us living in a poignant historical context and all?" And perhaps worst of all, one character actually says, "Other people's private lives. One never knows what goes on!" 
  3. The inexplicable compulsion on the part of all characters to say the name Stanley in an emphatic way at least once every two minutes, and every sentence if the character of Stanley is in the room.
  4. Apparently, nice white jazz fans in 1930s London are magically and completely colourblind. 

Here's the deal.  In 2013 UK, there are white people, who are good people and have black friends or even family members, who love music, films and books by black people, but who sometimes say and do the wrong thing around race; they make an assumption based on stereotypes, they use clumsy language or make an unwise joke. Same with straight folk and queer folk, non-disabled and disabled folk, even - perhaps especially - men and women. Most good decent people make awkward slips. We live in a prejudiced world, we grew up here and even if we have no prejudice in our hearts, this stuff is part of our culture, so part of us we all have to keep an eye on.

In 1930s London, there were white people, who were good people who loved jazz and had black friends and lovers, who fairly often said and did the wrong thing around race. They would have been far more conscious of race, living as they did in a very racist mono-cultural world. They would have grown up with racial stereotypes being put forward to them as scientific facts.  We see it in the literature written by groovy, progressive white folk of the time (Waugh, Lawrence et al.), and forgive the language and racist humour because it is of its time. It was a very racist time. It's not like Nazism succeeded in Germany because they were the only racists in Europe - they were just the most desperate and demoralised racists around.

Poliokoff has created a world in which only negative characters ever remark upon or behave clumsily about race. White characters who love jazz are immune from racism. When racism is discussed, all the nice young white people find it utterly incomprehensible.  I have the sense that there will come a breaking point in the narrative, where the white folk may well close ranks to scapegoat their black friend, but while the going is good?  Only sinister characters and money-minded squares give so much as a raised eyebrow when the band leader forms a romantic relationship with a middle class white girl.

This is not an unusual world for television and film, where prejudice is often seen as something individual, rather than cultural, even in narratives which hinge on prejudice being a massive issue in the lives of its victims (this is particularly remarked upon in science fiction and fantasy, where writers often create a sexist or racist world, which they people entirely with egalitarians).

It's perhaps most noticeable in something like Dancing on the Edge because it is a rare British drama with people of colour at the centre of things, it's beautifully made and because it is about a historical period - would it really make the audience uncomfortable to imagine that people in the 1930s had very different, contradictory ideas about race?  If the history of 20th century music teaches us one thing, it is that it is possible for privileged white folk to dance, cry, worship and make love to the music of black folk without eliminating racism by the sixteenth bar - or the sixteenth album.

You know how I feel - art matters dreadfully!  I believe that many people will have overcome some of their own prejudice by listening to beautiful music produced by black people or gay people especially, other marginalised groups as well.  Music demonstrates that we all feel a great deal, and often some of our highest, lowest, deepest and most personal feelings are shared by song-writing strangers.

But for many people, music is a product to be consumed, its production a little like a clever trick, not the expression of something both essentially human and essentially higher than that. Racist ideas around black music were never - are still not - exclusive to people who dislike the music black folk make.

The early years of British jazz provide such a good opportunity to explore these issues, or at least demonstrate the likely reality. So far, no exploration and an . The jazz band live in a racist world with very few racists in it - and so far, no truly powerful racists (even though they met the future King Edward VIII, a vile racist and personal friend of Hitler).

Two episodes to go.


Elizabeth McClung said...

The most notable trait I experienced starting my first day in the UK was the rampant racism. I think it was the second hour when the woman putting me up for the night started on about the Jews bringing the country down. Then the ever and always present warnings that I not get an apartment in the 'ethnic' area of Cardiff. I thought it was some code for 'old' as no one ever defined which ethnicity.

My first visit to Birmingham had me asking people on the street "Why isn't there more rioting?" While I was in the UK France had country wide rioting for the social attitudes and economic differences towards blacks, in Britian, everyone soldiered on. While a guy in his late 30's told me, "You know, Saturday night we used to go round and bust up those chink and paki shops....but these days, I don't mind a kabab after pub close."

I would say that I agree, racial attitudes, particularly in the type of backroom comments of the upper class would be particularly useful and I think cleansing, like lancing a long term boil. But perhaps, having grown up and come out of a closed cult which used the texts of the KKK, it is a subject I examine. The first black female/white male married couple I ever saw was in the UK at age 13. My eyes stared as wondered how it was 'allowed.'

Matthew Smith said...

I've started watching it but I'm only 30 minutes in so can't comment on the particular race issues in this show. However, there is a trend towards period dramas that graft very modern attitudes towards some things onto past times and keeping the period costumes and accents. We've been watching Call the Midwife and seen very liberal attitudes towards abortion, adultery (resulting in a mixed-race baby) and other things which would certainly have caused serious disapproval then, if not resulted in the offender being disowned in a lot of cases.

To Elizabeth: About the riots in France - I presume you were there in 2005 or thereabouts? The rioting was mostly by North Africans, and was prompted by two young boys of North African origin being electrocuted while running away from the police. We did actually have riots here two summers ago - that was prompted by police shooting a black man dead in the streets of north London when, it later turned out, he was not armed.

The Goldfish said...

Elizabeth - Wow, so sorry you had such a discouraging introduction to our country! I was lucky to grow up at a time and in a place where I saw and heard very little explicit racism, and none from adults, and meanwhile kids TV in the 80s and 90s was more racially diverse that the rest of television put together.

So when I was older and heard stories from friends or met white folk from other parts of the country, I was extremely shocked. But what I did see and hear growing up, was a fair amount of othering, nothing vile, but certainly patronising and clumsy. Which in many ways is more interesting than the flat out racial hatred, and is certainly the biggest barrier to, for example, getting our parliament to look more representative of our population.

Matthew - I haven't seen any Call the Midwife but I know just what you mean. It's very tricky because if you listen to my Granny, you'll hear stories about things that went on in the 30s and 40s, which you'd imagine would cause a complete scandal, but were quietly accepted (including very bad things).

At the same time, she'll talk about certain attitudes which are shocking and somewhat alien to us today (my Granny's family were a huge mix of Christian denominations from Catholics to Quakers, so she was very conscious when she heard people casually talk about certain denominations having no morals, being bound to hell and so forth).

You'd hope these sorts of dramas and all fiction set in these periods would be created with the help of extensive research and talking to people who lived through those times - since there are some still with us and there won't be for long!

Elizabeth McClung said...

Matthew Smith: The 'North Africans' rioting a.k.a. 'French', where young French born whose parents came from French Colonies. The riots occurred in 2001, 2005, 2009, 2010, 2012 (I might have missed a few years) about estate housing, racism, hiring discrimination and government sponsered oppression - from denial of service pensions for service persons in WWII to black teens being frisked and checked going to and from school.

Goldfish: It wasn't my introduction to the UK, and from when I visited as a child and teen things had improved. However, it was tricky keeping Passover or Atonement after the B&B owner had ranted about what they would do if they found jews.

My grandparents were middle-lower class English desperate to be upper-middle class so I heard LOTS of 'them' talk, 'Oh, I saw three of 'them' in the lobby of the Empress...' - with me thinking, "So is that black 'them', gay 'them', arab 'them'....." Racism is so much a part of Britian, from Pollywogs to Boys Annuals with the white hunter shooting the black tribesmen point blank (from the 70's) that often those having grown up still think of Britian as a 'white society' or culture, when it is not. Canada faces similar identity crisis with the new national party advocating electing of white christan men only.

One thing I found so notable in Dancing on the Edge was how all the black characters of the series while played as the center are actually background. It is the looks between the whites, the whole upper clique we are shown, given histories of parents and issues for white characters but nothing for the black jazz players. The white openly 'use' Stanley, whether it is to shock mother or hook the royals, Stanley and the band are commodity and openly so. I find it interesting that the one man deported is from Cardiff, which as I was often told in Bristol, 'isn't England is it'.

The Goldfish said...

Yes, I am often surprised to hear extreme racism (as opposed to low-level awkward-around-race, subconscious discrimination and exclusion, which is more like what I saw growing up).

And yes, Dancing on the Edge just got worse in this regard. Out of the band, only four black characters had speaking parts, one vanishes at the end of the first episode, one is killed about part way through, so at the end you have the remaining band participating in the climax of the story and yet only two of them speak at all. It was all about the white folks, and class (also a naive view where a working-class mother and son have a turkey the size of a barrel for Christmas dinner during the depression) much more than race.

It was disappointing and I felt it got worse after I wrote this post.

The Goldfish said...

Oops - I meant to complete that first sentence, I'm often surprised to hear extreme racism ("This is a white country" etc.) from people around my age. Like when an MP moaned that the Olympic Opening Ceremony was "multicultural crap", I imagined he must be 65. He was 33.

Matthew Smith said...

About the turkey: actually the Depression did not have a huge effect on London. Much of DOTE was filmed in the London suburbs and they prospered during the 1930s - it is when a lot of nice suburban houses (known as £600 semis!) were built. The Depression hit the industrial working-class the most, particularly in the north of England and south Wales.

Of course, the family could have saved up for months to get that turkey, and maybe a turkey from that time wouldn't have been as big as that one (certainly, chickens have got bigger because of changes in feed). And not everyone with a working-class accent is poor.

The other thing I was wondering about was why Jessie's background was never spoken about - she is obviously mixed-race, something that was nowhere near as common then as now and certainly not mentioned, and it was never mentioned.

The Goldfish said...

Matthew - Yes, I thought they were going to make something of that, plot-wise, like perhaps Jessie's father was one of this rich white folks who might even become a suspect in her murder... would have made for a more interesting story, a bit of mystery, apart from anything else.