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A controversial British documentary claiming to showcase “all things Jamaican” has come under fire for playing up to stereotypes and misrepresenting the culture.
My Crazy New Jamaican Life, a documentary televised on a major UK terrestrial channel on October 24, chronicles the lives of two young British white women and their relationships with Jamaican men.
Debbie, 25, has three children with Jamaican-born Variel. Holly, 19, lives in a predominately white suburb in Southern England but is seduced by the bashment club scene in inner city urban London.
Within minutes of the Channel 4 documentary hitting the airwaves, social media sites were abuzz with angry viewers ridiculing or slating the content, even to the point of panning the narrator, R&B singer Shola Ama.
One of the biggest criticisms is that it took one segment of Jamaican culture – bashment – and made sweeping generalizations about Jamaicans in a UK context.
“It took an element and a generally negative element at that, and expanded in depth on this element and then labeled this element as the sum of its entire culture,” says Aurie Lloyd Green, a young up-and-coming British presenter and comedian of Jamaican origin.
In fact, bashment or reggae dancehall music is a small subculture within the entire black British music scene. The X-rated dance moves and skimpy outfits to titillate the male libido tend to attract low-income people or those on the fringes.
“The problem is if you look at that program at face value, then someone who is not familiar with the Jamaican culture, history or heritage, will automatically assume that’s the Jamaican way of life,” says Patrick Vernon, an East London politician and founder of Every Generation Media.
He says, unlike what is reflected in the documentary, there are “lots of ordinary Jamaicans” working in a variety of fields across of broad spectrum of professions, “people in the health service, teachers, sports personalities.”
Traditionally, a large sector of the Jamaican community is also very religious, with Christian values playing a part in the culture.
Another touchy subject is the way club promoter Variel is portrayed. On a positive note, he works three day jobs but during the course of filming Debbie discovers he is about to have a child with another baby-mother. His nonchalant explanation to her is pretty simple: “It’s normal.”
This is where entertainment editor, Davina Hamilton, of Britain’s longest serving and biggest black newspaper, takes issue.
“My Crazy New Jamaican Life insinuated that men having children with multiple women is inherent in Jamaican culture and that is most definitely a false representation of our culture,” says Hamilton of The Voice newspaper.
Still, Hamilton dismisses the idea that the program is a representation of Jamaican culture and says by and large she took no offense from it.
Though, Vernon says for viewers sampling Jamaican culture close-up for the first time, films like My Crazy New Jamaican Life can have a negative impact.
“If that’s the only reference point it can be dangerous,” says Vernon. “It must be reflected in other programming that reflects the diversity of black people in Britain.”
The issue is My Crazy New Jamaican Life is a one-off documentary on the Channel 4 First Cut documentary strand. It is not a series where there could be a chance to give a more balanced and varied representations of black and/or Jamaican culture in the UK.
Indeed, Vernon says for the most part the “black British experience isn’t fully recognized or respected” in the British media.
He adds that it does not surprise him filmmakers focused on the small Caribbean nation. There has always been a commercialization of Jamaican culture and since the country’s unprecedented success on track and field at the 2012 Olympics this has exploded, he says.
Yet, he berates the producers for focusing on the highly sexualized dancehall culture, which he has no doubt is to bolster ratings in the fiercely competitive and crowded multi-platform market.
“There is a pressure for ratings, not only to compete with the BBC or ITV but content on different platforms. This type of programming is “easy [to make], sensational and reinforces stereotypes,” says Vernon.
Ironically, My Crazy New Jamaican Life was aired in October during Black History Month, which typically celebrates and highlights Caribbean and African achievements in the UK.
However, there are those that didn’t take My Crazy New Jamaican Life too seriously. It is what it is: train wreck TV.
“I found the documentary hilarious because it’s always funny to see people from other cultural and racial backgrounds immerse themselves in black culture,” says artist and curator Dr. Michael McMillan.
Aside from My Crazy New Jamaican Life’s obvious flaws, McMillan says it was refreshing to watch a program which tackles multiculturalism and inter-racial relationships.
“[Holly’s] passion for bashment and dancehall culture speaks to that constant intercultural exchange and cultural appropriation that takes place in multi-cultural Britain and the world,” he says.
We contacted Vanessa Van-Yeboah — the director/producer from independent production company Acme Films that produced the Channel 4 commissioned documentary — for an interview but at the time of publication she was unavailable.
A Channel 4 spokesperson has said, “This film is not a representation of all Jamaicans but aims to document the personal stories of the contributors — who agree it is a true reflection of their lives.”
By Kunbi Tinuoye | Originally published on November 1, 2013 at 3:11 PM
Follow Kunbi Tinuoye on Twitter at @Kunbiti