Comic Relief to hire African filmmakers following ‘white saviour’ criticism

Sir Lenny Henry. Credit: PA

Comic Relief has announced it will hire local filmmakers and photographers for appeals in Africa following criticism of “white saviour” celebrities.

Labour MP David Lammy last year accused Strictly Come Dancing star Stacey Dooley of perpetuating “tired and unhelpful stereotypes” after she travelled to the continent for Comic Relief.

“The world does not need any more white saviours,” Mr Lammy, who is of Guyanese descent, said.

Following the controversy, all African appeal films for Red Nose Day 2021 will be led by local filmmakers for a “more authentic perspective”, Comic Relief said.

Ed Sheeran who visited the Street Child Liberia project as part of a previous charity campaign Credit: Comic Relief

The organisation said celebrities who have led films on camera have been “highly successful” and they will “continue to play a big part presenting” Red Nose Day TV shows.

Sir Lenny Henry, who co-founded Comic Relief in 1985 with filmmaker Richard Curtis, said a lot has changed over the charity's 35 years.

"So the way we raise money and talk about the issues we are here to tackle, and the people we are here to support, must change as well," he added.

“I think on certain issues right now, like representation, amplifying black voices and diversity, there’s a real sense of reflection and looking inwards, and asking ourselves what can we do to learn and grow too."

Stacey Dooley defended herself from criticism over a Comic Relief appeal Credit: Matt Crossick/PA

Sir Lenny added: “African people don’t want us to tell their stories for them, what they need is more agency, a platform and partnership.”

He said it was important to work with “indigenous filmmakers who can tell stories with dignity, integrity and lived experience”.

Comic Relief said it is finalising new “story telling guidelines”, which as well as local filmmakers will include a stronger focus on “grassroots” workers in appeal films.

The charity also said it will work with media organisations across Africa to raise “awareness of wider narratives across the continent” and promised to make “every aspect” of production “more diverse and inclusive”.

MP David Lammy Credit: Joe Giddens/PA

Speaking during an online Q&A with the charity, he said: “It takes a while to learn something. You are in learned behaviour for quite a long time and then there is a transition point when you go, ‘Oh actually, there are other ways to elicit sympathy.’ There are other ways to elicit someone going, ‘Actually, I am going to help with this.’ There are other ways and maybe we have been pushing on the same button for too long.

“It has been a while since David Bowie held up that picture at Live Aid, over 30 years, and it’s time to think of another way of telling those stories now and eliciting mutual love and respect and care.”

The panel also saw June Sarpong, the BBC’s director of creative diversity, praise Comic Relief for its commitment.

She said: “I think it is brilliant that this is happening and, actually, I have to say that Comic Relief received a lot of criticism from various groups and parties.

“It’s wonderful to see that they have heeded some of those messages, but also found a creative way of solving this issue.”

Sarpong added: “Who knows what kind of talent will be developed and found as a result of this?

“We may have the next Richard Curtis coming from Africa. I look forward to it. I think it is going to be an exciting thing so bring it on.”

Comic Relief said it has invested nearly £6 million in black-led and minority-led organisations across the UK.