The office microwave might seem as inconspicuous an object as any, but in Adjani Salmon's Dreaming Whilst Black, it is a minefield for people whose lunch smells unfamiliar. In the series pilot, part of the BBC's Comedy Slice series, filmmaker Kwabena (played by Salmon) is working in a soulless recruitment office job while trying to get his film career off the ground. In one scene, he heats up his lunch and sits down to eat, only to have an uppity colleague remind him to eat hot food in the kitchen as a courtesy to the others. A cursory glance around the room shows all his white colleagues eating hot food that doesn't seem to offend her, but resigned he goes to the kitchen where he finds his Indian colleague, who has been banished there too.
Salmon, who was born in London but grew up in Jamaica, had his own microwave moment in an office where a colleague drew attention to what he was eating, while ignoring the fact someone else was – horrifyingly – tucking into microwaved Brussels sprouts. "They didn’t ask me to leave but they pointed out my food is different," he says over Zoom. "It’s that coded language of highlighting something, like going into work and someone asking if 'you’re going into the meeting with your hair like that'.”
After graduating film school, Salmon made a short which he had faith in, but the process of getting funding felt impossible (happily, he reuses that experience to hilarious effect in Dreaming Whilst Black). Then, inspired by seeing shows like Issa Rae's Awkward Black Girl and Insecure, he decided to make a web series instead of waiting for funding. In the same way Aziz Ansari's Master of None takes you on a tour of New York through the eyes of an Indian man, Salmon wanted to show the reality of London through the eyes of someone like him.
The character of Kwabena is a composition of the filmmakers he knows who have struggled with the inherent bias which the industry is built upon. Like Michaela Coel's I May Destroy You, the show interrogates how white people have taken on a role as the gatekeepers of culture. Also like Coel's hit series, this is often played for laughs, with one white filmmaker pitching a film about a working class, queer, non-binary, Asian, disabled person, before adding it's "very personal to me".
"Dreaming Whilst Black sits in this observational space," Salmon says. "We present the story as a minefield where we show things which can be funny but might be racist, and we’re not going to tell you which is which. You’ve just got to laugh wherever you feel fit and ask yourself why."
Take the scene centred on an office trip to karaoke, where Kwabena is pulled onto stage to rap alongside his white colleagues. It doesn't end well. Salmon has his own funny karaoke stories, having been dragged to a lot of pubs where he often found he was often expected to get on stage for "Gangsta's Paradise", despite not being as excited as everyone else seemed to be about the track. "I remember going karaoke and seeing everyone singing it and I was like ‘I don’t listen to this song!'"
'Dreaming Whilst Black' is on iPlayer 19 April and BBC One 26 April
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