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Black is the new black

MOTIVATED: Simon Frederick

ACROSS FOUR episodes, ‘Black is the new Black’ features 40 exceptional figures drawn from the world of politics, business, culture, religion and science who face the camera and share their experiences of being black and British.

Shot by artist and director Simon Frederick, the line-up of influential individuals reveal their heartfelt stories and unfiltered opinions to paint a unique portrait of modern Britain’s past, present and future.

Typically used in reference to a fashion trend, fad or flavour of the month, Frederick yields the phrase ‘new black’ in a steely cultural reclamation. “I worked for Elle magazine back in the day and it’s a fashion cliché that I always heard. I think it had something to do with Coco Chanel with the little black dress and jacket”, he explains.

“I thought I’d appropriate that phrase because, as a far as I am concerned as a black man who’s grown up in this country, we keep reinventing ourselves in everything we do.

“Black will always be the new Black. That’s never going to change. We will always be the people doing the new things, inventing the new things, coming up with the new forms of music, new forms of style, new ways of speaking. We’ve had such a great impact of British culture that that name was apt”.

Like most great ideas, Black is the new Black was a long time coming and involved an intricate production approach. Frederick reveals: “I had this idea five years ago. The process was speaking to people, first of all. I started to make a list of black people I admired, was inspired by, had read about in the magazine or newspaper, who were doing something.

“I then started to Google people to find out what exactly these people doing, and what surprised me was the breadth of industries that we were involved in, of which they were at the top of their games.

“I then realised that this was a story that hadn’t been told. It’s then that I thought, well it’s incumbent on me to ensure that everyone knows this information”

Initially a brilliant idea, the programme slowly but surely became a reality, “I started calling people, photographing them, and as a portrait maker, you have a very intimate relationship with those people. We get to have conversations that no one else hears when we’re working.

“We started talking about race, growing up in Britain, the ways in which they’ve had to filter their behaviour and the way they speak to white people in order to be successful, in order to not come across as aggressive or intimidating.

“I found that there were three things going on. When our parents arrived here in the sixties, they learned to play ‘the game’ by learning the rule which was not to win, but to understand what was going on - which they passed onto my generation.

“My generation then learned to win but, at the same time, not to intimidate our white counterparts”

Frederick further outlines, “Like any immigrant which comes to this country – you learn the ways of the people but they never learn you. That’s where the disconnect comes”.

Though not nearly enough, programmes have been produced and developed, outlining the black British experience in the past. Why hasn’t this conversation, in its transparency taken place on such a public platform before? Simon says, “Because the conversation always starts from a really angry place. On one side, you have the legacy of the Empire – anger – and on the other, you have embarrassment. The two don’t go well together in any conversation or relationship”

He continues: “What I did with this project was I didn’t bring either side to the table, I just sat down with people, taking the conversations from our homes.

“Being open, honest and unfiltered in those conversations, talking as people to other people, as it is. I felt it was time, in 2016, that we have this conversation.”

Moreover, Black is the new Black addresses the issues which come with being black, British and successful.

“It doesn’t matter who you are, whether it’s a Naomi Campbell or Lewis Hamilton, that success is always predicated by a feeling that it can be pulled away from you at any moment.

“There’s always nervousness that doesn’t allow you to actually feel like you made it. Until we get to that point in Britain where this isn’t the case, that conversation will need to be continued. But at least, with this programme, that conversation would’ve begun in a really big way”

Some people, particularly Pan Africanists, who are of the opinion that the term ‘black’ heralds ethnic ambiguity. Whilst Frederick empathises with this notion, he insists upon its importance – particularly in the UK context: “I think Lenny Henry summed it up best when he said if we don’t define ourselves, someone will always define us. So, it’s up to us to self define”.

Black Is The New Black will be aired on Wednesday November 9 via BBC Two.

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