In Depth

Why Little Britain has been shelved over blackface backlash

BBC and Netflix ditch comedy over offensive characters

The comedy series Little Britain has been removed from Netflix, the BBC iPlayer and Britbox amid concerns that the show’s “blackface” characters are unacceptable.

Past episodes of the award-winning BBC sketch show have been removed from streaming services during the past week, as the Black Lives Matter movement increases scrutiny of historic racial injustices.

The creators of the show, David Walliams and Matt Lucas, have “recently sought to distance themselves from some of the more controversial characters they depicted”, The Times says.

Walliams wore blackface for the role of Desiree DeVere, an overweight health spa guest, while Lucas played racially insensitive characters such as a mail-order Thai bride called Ting Tong.

Netflix pulled Little Britain from its website on Friday, also taking down Come Fly With Me, a sketch show written by the pair that featured a Jamaican airport care worker called Precious Little, also played by Lucas in blackface, and an Arab aviation tycoon named Omar Baba, played by Walliams.

The BBC followed suit, removing past episodes of Little Britain on Monday.

A spokesperson for the corporation said: “There’s a lot of historical programming available on BBC iPlayer which we regularly review. Times have changed since Little Britain first aired so it is not currently available on BBC iPlayer.”

So what is the history behind the controversial practice?

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What is the origin of blackface?

Blackface dates to the era of minstrel shows in the US in the early 1800s, when white actors used shoe polish to blacken their faces in order to mimic and stereotype enslaved Africans, says the website of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Sometimes the actors would also “apply some bright-red lipstick or wear white gloves to perform as these grotesques of what they imagined these newly emancipated black people to be”, US journalist and blogger Gene Demby told news site NPR. “And it was meant to dehumanise. Blackface corresponds with the rise of Jim Crow segregation and with spectacle lynchings.”

In fact, the Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation in the Southern US “took their name from a minstrelsy act, Jumping Jim Crow, by blackface showboat Thomas Dartmouth Rice - sometimes considered ‘the father’ of minstrel performance - who claimed it was based on a slave he knew”, says The Guardian’s Gabrielle Bellot.

It wasn’t until the 1950s, when the Civil Rights movement underscored the offensive nature of blackface, that the practice became less popular. In the post-civil rights world, “blackface moves away from public spaces and sort of retreats to all-white spaces - spaces where there’s not going to be a lot of social sanction for it”, said Demby.

But a number of people still appear to believe blackface has its place even today. US talk show host Megyn Kelly sparked controversy last year when she defended wearing blackface on Halloween, claiming it was “OK when I was a kid, as long as you were dressing like a character”.

Why is it offensive?

In a 2012 article for HuffPost, David Leonard, chair of Washington State University’s department of critical culture, gender, and race studies, wrote: “Blackface is part of a history of dehumanisation, of denied citizenship, and of efforts to excuse and justify state violence. From lynchings to mass incarceration, whites have utilised blackface (and the resulting dehumanisation) as part of its moral and legal justification for violence.”

Blackface’s powerful racist meaning is encapsulated in an anecdote from the 1960s, says Quartz.

In 1965, “members of the American Nazi Party entered Congress in blackface, interrupting a swearing-in ceremony, and saying, as a way of mocking black citizens, ‘I’se the Mississippi delegation - wants to be seated’”, the news site reports.

According to Greg Carr, a professor of American studies at Washington D.C.’s Howard University, tensions surrounding blackface stem from the fact that America remains unwilling to educate people about the history of the practice. 

“It is not taught at all in school, even in the most basic sense,” Carr told the BBC. “If it were taught, it would become problematic in America because the vestiges of blackface minstrelsy are a deep part of American culture.”

Indeed, while many argue that those taking part in blackface may not consider themselves racist, this will not change the impact that blackface has on the people of all races around them, says Washington State University’s Leonard.

“In many ways, one’s intent is irrelevant,” he told Vox. “The harm, whether it’s harm in terms of eliciting anger, or sadness, or triggering various emotions or causing [black people to feel] both hyper-visible and invisible at the same time, is there.

“When someone says, ‘I didn’t mean it that way,’ well, their real question should be not ‘Did I mean it?’ but, ‘Am I causing harm?’”

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