Yesterday I was in Birmingham for a concert. On the way back, in the train carriage with me, were two people passionately discussing Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B. From the snatches of their conversation overheard it seemed like they were involved in the protests against it. In a lull in their conversation, I asked if they were, and they confirmed that they were. I asked them why. What evolved was a long, broad-ranging conversation with two people who turned out to be Simon Woolley and Sara Myers. Most of the conversation was with Simon Woolley – this is hardly surprising as they were on their way to London because Sara Myers was about to go on Newsnight, which must be a pretty terrifying prospect (the Newsnight interview is available here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b04jjt1w/newsnight-25092014 at 42:34).
Over the course of that conversation Simon made the following points:
- The Barbican had the right to show the show. But they had the right to protest about it.
- It was interesting that the Barbican withdrew the show so quickly. There was no need for them to do so. The protests were peaceful, and the show could have gone ahead. If they were worried about the protests being (for example) a fire hazard, they could have cancelled that night’s show and planned to show it the next night.
- Talk about censorship is misleading. The Barbican is a venue, it therefore continuously censors some artists over others by determining what to put on, and what not to. The board of the Barbican is overwhelmingly white and middle class.
- The protests were not the start of the dialogue between Operation Black Vote and the Barbican. Operation Black Vote had written to the Barbican, and Simon, Sara and three others had visited the Barbican to discuss Exhibit B with them. Whilst the Barbican did talk to them, it had security outside the meeting room where the meeting was taking place.
- The Metropolitan Police were called to the protest outside The Vaults. Their response was that the calls were “Much ado about nothing”.
- Simon anticipated (correctly) that Newsnight would interview Sara with one of the actors from Exhibit B, rather than with Brett Bailey, or one of the individuals from the Barbican responsible for the decision to pull Exhibit B. He stated that this would be done because it would allow the discussion to take place on the basis of weakening Sara’s ability to claim to represent black people by finding another black person who held the opposite view.
- Simon thought that there were two weaknesses with this approach: First, the actor of course was not impartially talking about how black people in general would react to Exhibit B – she had a vested interest in Exhibit B going ahead – she was being paid to take part in it [although it is not clear whether she was paid anyway despite the cancellation]. Second, Sara is not just talking on her own behalf, but also for the 10,000 black people who signed the petition [although it is not clear that all of them are black. In all fairness, I didn’t raise these points with Simon.].
- There was a bias in media reporting – Simon had been talking to a reporter from The Times about Exhibit B. Simon’s stated position was that he would rather that Exhibit B was not shown, but that the Barbican was free to show it. Only the first half of this position was reported.
- Simon thought that the show, and attending it, was basically about white middle class guilt. It might be interesting and thought-provoking for them, but it wasn’t clear to him how it was going to help black people.
- The cancellation was good publicity for Brett Bailey. Probably better publicity than had the show gone ahead. The Barbican had pulled the show very quickly. On reflection Simon wondered if they had fallen into a trap.
During the course of the conversation I asked Simon about 12 Years a Slave. He didn’t really answer – talking instead about Django Unchained, and how that denigrated black people. I didn’t come back to 12 Years a Slave, but I did think that it was a pity he chose to talk about Django rather than 12 Years. I haven’t seen Django, so whilst I can see that he might be right – Tarantino’s films are generally not very complimentary about anyone – I can’t really comment. I found Steve McQueen’s film to be different from all of Tarantino’s films I have seen. It would have been interesting to hear what Simon had to say about it. In her interview on Newsnight Sara did provide what might have been a response to this – namely, that she would have protested against Exhibit B because of its crassness had it been put together by a black artist instead of Brett Bailey. Unfortunately Newsnight’s time was up at that point, so there wasn’t time to explore that thought in more detail.
Postscript – Steve McQueen on Desert Island Discs
By chance, this morning’s Desert Island Discs was with Steve McQueen. The programme is available on iPlayer here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04hml41. They didn’t talk explicitly about Exhibit B, but at 37:37 the following conversation takes place (if you can, I would listen to it, the transcript doesn’t do it justice):
Kirsty Young: “But a lot of people, when I said that I was coming to talk to you today and record a Desert Island Discs with you said: “Fwww… I wonder what he’ll be like.””.
Steve McQueen: “I’m a black man, I’m used to that”.
Kirsty Young: “Is that what it is?”
Steve McQueen: “Should I say anything more? Honestly? I’m a black man, what do you think? Before I walk in the room people make a judgment. You know, I don’t care.”
Kirsty Young: “When you hear that does it make you annoyed?”
Steve McQueen: “Totally not. Uhu. You know, I wouldn’t be talking to you if it did, I’d be in jail locked up somewhere, where a lot of people are, to be quite frank.”
The last exchange is very telling – Steve McQueen believes black people have to be able to keep their calm in the face of racism in order to stay out of jail. That is a sad indictment of our country.