Since the millennium, reality TV has undergone a slow but steady shift – away from the pseudo-sociological experiment and towards the “dinner party descends into total chaos” genre. This latter-day variant is engineered to achieve a single goal: create a situation in which a group of people argue savagely (and usually drunkenly) over an extremely large table, until at least one person storms out, and everyone else sits there looking awkward. (Masters of the manoeuvre include: Made in Chelsea, Married at First Sight, and the Real Housewives franchise.)
On the face of it, the dinner-chaos format doesn’t seem the ideal vehicle for We Are Black and British (BBC Two), a two-parter that aims to examine the problems faced by Black people in the UK today, and to brainstorm potential solutions. Motivated, in part, by 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests, the show invites six Black Britons with divergent opinions on race, society and politics to live together in a Cotswolds country pile for 10 days. There, they are encouraged to engage in a series of crackingly tense debates, which routinely erupt into full-blown rows over dinner every evening.
And yet, these arguments are a world away from the squawking, self-involved drama that tends to act as reality-TV rocket fuel. Structured via a series of questions, each introduced by a different participant – “Should stop and search be stopped?”; “When Black kids fail, why do schools get the blame?” – most of the discussions are nuanced and insightful. In fact, We Are Black and British can comfortably claim to be the most intelligent reality TV show in recent memory.
This is largely thanks to the participants, who all come across as thoughtful, articulate and engaging. Only two of them seem to have arrived with a fully formed worldview: Birmingham City University professor Kehinde Andrews, who describes himself as a Black radical who wants to defund the police, and 23-year-old political commentator Dominique Samuels, who doesn’t believe in systemic racism and enters the house proclaiming how proud she is to be British – with a slogan T-shirt to match.
Everyone else – rapper Mista Strange, NHS doctor Raphael Olaiya, security guard and mother of two Michelle White, and property and litigation contractor Lin Mei – seems to possess a patchwork of opinions that don’t conform to any easily digestible agenda. That means group debates are often shaped by fast-moving logic and critical thinking rather than set-in-stone values. A discussion about the relationship between the police and the Black community is empathic, wide-ranging – and also deeply ambivalent. There is no right or wrong perspective here: everyone makes compelling points and equal numbers of viewers might come away convinced by Kehinde’s stance or by Lin’s.
That is not to say that all of the conversations go in edifying directions. When Mista Strange wants to discuss how difficult it is for Black people to come out as gay, a highly uncomfortable chat about Christianity follows. This, in turn, is derailed by Lin and Dominique, who decide to grill the rapper about the “transgender agenda” supposedly being introduced into primary schools, in what seems like a particularly unpleasant example of whataboutery.
That is really the only moment when you feel as if you’re in the Other Place. The spectre of social media debate is ever-present in We Are Black and British – but largely as a positive contrast. Twitter is where people who already know what they think about everything shout about it: this show makes room for deeply held beliefs as well as uncertainty. Its emphasis is on listening to the human being sitting next to you, and giving them a hug when they’re upset – even though you might find their political views repellent.
In fact, by the end, the group dynamic is so heartening that it’s discombobulating to discover – via some light Googling – that a few participants have clearly been cast in the show precisely because they are expert in this kind of social media discourse. In a couple of cases, their online presences feel like case studies in how social media has evolved to breed division – and a reminder of how the internet can warp your impression of a person entirely.
If you remain blissfully ignorant of that background, We Are Black and British is a masterclass in how to have divisive discussions in an uplifting, constructive way. And yet the show’s most memorable moments come when nobody is arguing: when Michelle breaks down in tears at the memory of her son being arrested for carrying the penknife he needs for work, or when Lin explains how her mixed-race background means she was subjected to racist abuse at family functions. There may be a questionable moral dimension to this: while the show never feels exploitative, it still asks its contributors to make themselves vulnerable by revealing distressing experiences of racism – essentially turning Black people’s pain into entertainment. But it would be difficult to make such a powerful programme about race without that emotional element. And, crucially, it also provides a sense of urgency to their discussions, underlining how imperative it is that Britain changes the way it treats its Black citizens. Something – everyone seems to agree – that is not up for debate.