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Culture

‘The system is controlled by gatekeepers – Black creators are doing it their own way’

Photographer and filmmaker Simon Frederick’s new YouTube series The Outsiders? features Clara Amfo, Ncuti Gatwa, Reni Eddo-Lodge, Alex Scott and Jamal Edwards.

The ideas for my series always come from frustration. There’s been a lot of reports that show Black people in a particular way.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to sort out with gang violence and knife crime, but there seems to be a propensity by the media to present Black people and Black lives always in a way that is tragic.

Yet when I look around me, I look at my family, I look at my children, I look at my parents, I look at my friends, I look at the people I admire, I see a very, very vibrant culture.

I tend to think of Black culture as like NBA basketball. The court we play on is not owned by us. The rules are not made up by us. And we don’t own the ball.

Yet we’ve come into that game and the range and scope we have added to it has changed it immeasurably – the way it is played, the way it is watched and the way it is consumed. But we’ve done that with everything. This is why I wanted to make The Outsiders?

If you are excluded, you have to find a way to survive. It’s through necessity, through having to create things so you can pay your rent, so you can eat. Black people have created things that have improved our society.

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In this country we are told that you shouldn’t stand out. That you should try to fit in. And fitting in for me as a Black person means being invisible.

So when I see people standing out – when I see a Lewis Hamilton, a Stormzy, a Michaela Coel, a Mo Farah or a Mo Gilligan – and see that audiences love them, I see the ordinary man and woman in the street don’t give a damn what colour you are.

They just give a damn whether or not you’re good enough. Then you realise we are in a system that is controlled by gatekeepers – and it is those gatekeepers who are trying to stop culture from moving forward. It’s not in any of our interests to allow that to happen.

I started to make a list of names of people who were the first to do something. Like I was the Black person to have the largest acquisition of portraits acquired by the National Portrait Gallery. I have had a lot of other firsts in my life and that made me scratch my head.

What has happened in society that means we have been kept out of the room for so long that a few of us are making inroads now, 21 years into a new millennium?

That’s how I made my list. And it’s a considerable list. So I’m hoping that we get to do The Outsiders? over a few seasons. Because there is a lot of conversation still to be had.

I’ve always found that human beings are always interested in the stories of other human beings. And that will always be the case.

Talking to them, it feels like being an old portrait maker. Because if you’ve got five minutes or five hours, you have to get inside someone’s mind in order to unlock them. And that’s what we tried to do with our interviews.

Racism is a key part of this series. We have a problem in society. I call it a disease. Racism is a disease that certain people in our society suffer from and put that on to other people. They make them the victims of their disease. A key part of our series is the fact that you’ve got a group of people who, in spite of racism, still prevail.

Racism isn’t the only part of this series. This series has lessons for anyone who has been told in their lives that they can’t, anyone who sees themselves as being different, anyone who ever had a dream and was told by their own mind that they weren’t good enough. This series is a love letter to all those people.

We have a group of people who are talking about their shared experiences, how they overcame, what they went through, so that it can become a guide for somebody watching it.

An inspirational figure

Lord Bill Morris Photo: ROGER HARRIS PHOTOGRAPHY

Who did I see when I was growing up that showed me I could be anything? Lord Bill Morris is one. I grew up thinking, how’s he got there? How has he become so powerful?

He ran the largest trade union in this country [Lord Morris was general secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union from 1992 to 2003] – and in doing so had more votes than any politician in the country.

I used to look at him, tackling Thatcherism. He tackled several prime ministers and they could never get the better of him. And he looked after the people within his union as if he was their father. He is a really brilliant man that I think doesn’t get enough flowers. Maybe I should make a documentary about him…

For a long time, we as Black filmmakers were told that anything that comes from us, anything that has a Black cast is not going to sell around the world.

The people in this show have said: we can do things differently. We don’t have to go to the normal gatekeepers, we can change the paradigm. We can do business differently. That has been really liberating.

What usually happens is that you have a commissioner who doesn’t understand what you are putting in your show. They don’t understand the subject matter. So they ask you to dumb it down to a level that they personally can understand.

But they don’t say it’s them who can’t understand – they tell you the audience won’t understand. But the audiences are miles ahead of them. It’s about that person, that commissioner, that gatekeeper’s lack of cultural education.

It’s the first time I’ve had that relationship with a network where I had creative freedom. I wasn’t being told what to put in my show. We’ve ended up with a show that is by us, for us, about us. And when you do that, when you make something that is authentically speaking to Black people, you end up making something that authentically speaks to all people.

Halfway through making The Outsiders?, I thought we were making something so important that we went back to YouTube Originals to discuss not putting the show behind the paywall. Making it available to anybody on YouTube, which is a considerable amount of people around the world.

In this country there’s a group of people that are insistent on defining people as other. So, last week, I was in a meeting and I asked the people to stop referring to people that looked like me as BAME.

Why? A few decades ago, it was common to call people who look like me by the N-word. And now in polite society we realise that the N-word is no longer appropriate – so why the hell do we replace the N-word with one that begins with B? Why don’t I have a word for you?

The UK television industry and the way it is run needs changing. There’s a lot of talk about the D-word: diversity. In a lot of places it has become a dirty word. Because a lot of people now think diversity simply means Black. It’s another euphemism for Black.

Instead of thinking about diversity, we should be thinking about the word inclusion.

There are channels that think if they put more Black people on popular TV shows, they have done their bit. That’s why people are watching YouTube and other streamers in their droves, because there’s a real diversity of content on there.

There isn’t a diversity of content on UK television. The people who run UK television have not got to grips with how to solve that because they see it as a problem. It’s not a problem, it’s just a lack of creative thinking.

For a long time, TV was a white middle-class world. But we live in a multicultural society. Instead of thinking about diversity, we should be thinking about the word inclusion. Who are we including? If we include more perspectives, if we include more ideas, if we include different people, we get to see a diversity of perspectives. And we get to use the word diversity in the way it was intended to be used.

We need to start doing things differently. I hope that’s what we show within The Outsiders? – that people have gone through this but in spite of all that they have ended up on the other side, creating things we can all enjoy consuming or taking part in.

Because I want to ensure that any child growing up in the UK – and the rest of the world – should be able to see people who inspire them and know they can be whatever they want to be.

Inside The Outsiders? 

Ncuti Gatwa Photo: © 2021 Simon Frederick/Atelier Frederick/ AFL

Ncuti Gatwa

Ncuti is an exceptional star in the acting world who could go on and do anything. He’s only limited by the writing he is given. An absolutely immense talent – he can do comedy, he can do straight drama. He could do it all. He was homeless and couch surfing, thinking he was going to have to go back up to Scotland and take a job in a supermarket.

He went into the Sex Education auditions thinking they hadn’t given the character of Eric Effiong a description.

He was convinced – because this is the nature of the acting world for Black actors – that this character was going to end up white. So he went in there with no fear, no inhibitions and did his thing. He says on our show that he ended up twerking, and looked over to see the producers cracking up. He had an inkling then that he might get the role.

Sex Education absolutely changed his life. He went from being someone who was homeless to somebody world famous in that instant. And he will change people’s lives. He is undoubtedly one of the stars of this series.

Reni Eddo-Lodge Photo: © 2021 Simon Frederick/Atelier Frederick/ AFL

Reni Eddo-Lodge

I love her dry wit. I first met Reni when she interviewed me just before her book came out, about my BBC series Black is the New Black.

And I think, just like I have done with all my series, she wrote something out of frustration. And her book, Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, just caught fire around the world in a way no one could ever have predicted. That is testament to this group of people who really are just doing stuff from their gut and putting it out there, but their talent is immeasurable.

Alex Scott Photo: SIMONFREDERICK-AFL

Alex Scott

I think Alex is an inspiration to a hell of a lot of people. Being a football pundit is not easy. Being the first female football pundit is incredible. And doing the other things she’s now doing in not just staying there, but opening up her universe in a way that six-year-old Alex Scott could never have imagined, is inspirational to anybody.

Literally a minute into her interview, she broke down and really started to open up on things about her life that weren’t in the research. Because it was that personal. And to her credit, she allowed us to keep it in.

Jamal Edwards Photo: © 2021 Simon Frederick/Atelier Frederick/ AFL

Jamal Edwards

Sometimes I like to think that Jamal is underrated. But then I look at all the things he’s doing and the people he knows.

We started interviewing last November. He was really tired and had been working really hard. He told me he had never been to St Vincent [in the Caribbean]. And it’s the next island up from my parents’ island, Grenada. So I know it very well.

I told him he should go and he went and fell in love with the island where his parents are from.

We were talking just after Christmas. I rang him up and he was saying they were helping somebody buy an island! This guy grew up poor on a council estate and now he’s helping someone buy an island. He is friends with Richard Branson and Prince Harry.

In a 15-year period he has gone from creating music videos on YouTube to having a production company and becoming a philanthropist. You can’t make this stuff up.

The Outsiders? is available to stream on YouTube Originals
Simon Frederick was speaking to Adrian Lobb @adey70.

This article is taken from the latest edition of The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach local your vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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