Comic Relief to stop producing ‘white saviour’ appeal films

Announcing the move for Red Nose Day 2021, the charity's honorary president Sir Lenny Henry said it is ‘time for young black and brown filmmakers to take charge’

Sir Lenny Henry (Photo by Comic Relief/BBC Children in Need/Comic Relief via Getty Images)
Sir Lenny Henry (Photo by Comic Relief/BBC Children in Need/Comic Relief via Getty Images)

Comic Relief today announced plans to modernise its international appeal films for Red Nose Day 2021, scrapping white saviourism and images of poverty overseas in favour of local stories that empower and preserve the agency of their subjects. 

The charity said all African appeal films for Red Nose Day 2021 would be led by local filmmakers. 

The move forms part of the charity’s commitment to shifting the narrative in its storytelling, to reflect “modern, astute audiences” and empower local leaders and communities to lead their own stories, it said. 

At an online event exploring inequality and racism across the charity and creative sectors, Sir Lenny Henry, honorary life president and former trustee at the charity, said Comic Relief had gone through an “evolutionary process” in terms of the content it wants to platform. 

“In the past, when I went to film in places in Africa, like Burkina Faso, I would usually be the only black person on the team. Everyone else was white,” he said. 

“The most important thing we came to ask was why we were not giving local people agency, and the platform to say: ‘Here is my representation and my platform, this is my story – let me tell it.’” 

Henry continued: “We have seen a lot of white saviours in the past. An indigenous local filmmaker telling their own stories has just as much agency, power and resonance. It is time for young black and brown filmmakers to take charge and say: ‘This is my story.’” 

Donor-centric fundraising that perpetuates ‘poverty porn’ and reinforces ‘white saviourism’ has been the subject of growing levels of criticism in recent years, with experts warning the practice “reinforces systemic inequality” and “normalises traumatic power imbalance[s]” that frame subjects as victims without agency. 

Comic Relief said its practice of working with celebrities and high-profile supporters on appeal films had helped to raise £1.4bn in recent years, but added that the formula “had led to valid criticisms and sector-wide debate”. 

The charity was embroiled in a ‘white saviour’ film row in 2019, after journalist Stacey Dooley published an instagram picture of herself holding a black child while visiting Comic Relief projects in Uganda.

“We know times are changing rapidly now and we need to modernise our approaches internationally to give local communities the opportunity to lead their stories,” chief executive of Comic Relief Ruth Davison said. 

“We have listened to communities, our peers, critics and supporters, and I’m proud to be leading the charity at this exciting time as we develop our approaches and shift the power.” 

Comic Relief has announced it is partnering with media organisations across Africa on a range of additional creative projects to raise awareness of wider narratives across the continent. 

“I hope audiences will see that by investing in wider creative partnership across Africa our films will be more authentic and engaging than ever,” Davison said. 

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