Leigh-Anne: Race, Pop and Power (BBC One) is the second documentary fronted by a member of Little Mix. In 2019, the now ex-Little Mixer Jesy Nelson made Odd One Out, a confessional film about the caustic effects of social media on the mental health of famous young women. It was a precursor to a number of other documentaries on a similar theme that have followed. This is a more open and collaborative film, asking questions as much as it seeks to answer them.
Leigh-Anne Pinnock was made very famous, very quickly, very young, after Little Mix became the first girl group to win The X Factor, back when The X Factor still made stars. They are now the biggest girl band in the world, despite reducing their lineup to a threesome in December last year, and on Tuesday became the first all-female band to win best British group at the Brits. For their fans, many of whom are young women too, their appeal lies in their relatable image. They seem nice, funny and down to earth.
At the start of this documentary, though, Pinnock reveals that there were cracks in the facade from the start. “Sometimes I felt I was being treated differently to my bandmates because of the colour of my skin,” she explains, recalling painful occasions when she was ignored by fans when her bandmates were not, and the numerous times she might look around a set or a room and see only white people. “It was something I could never fully explain,” she says, of the feeling that lingered.
Filmed over the last year, and capturing the moment that global Black Lives Matter protests brought those feelings into sharp focus, Race, Pop and Power is a discussion that seems long overdue. Pinnock treats the documentary as a chance to ask questions she says she has never felt able to ask before. When news emerged that it was being made, Pinnock faced criticism from both Tommy Robinson and from some within the black community who questioned why a light-skinned woman would be the face of a programme like this. She admits she is scared of saying the wrong thing, and worries that fans won’t want to hear her talking about social issues. But she decides, simply, that she must talk. “I’d rather say it not exactly right than say nothing,” she says, which, for someone in the public eye in this current cultural climate, is to be applauded.
Pinnock sits down with her parents and talks about their attitudes to race. Her mother is half-Bajan, her father half-Jamaican; their fathers came to the UK in the 1960s, and married white women. Pinnock’s mother identifies as black. Her father “identifies as John Pinnock”. When he heard she was making the film, he tells her, his first thought was: “Toughen up, get yourself together, don’t moan about it.” She talks to her fiance, the Watford footballer Andre Gray, about old Tweets he had posted that were offensive about black women with darker skin. They speak about colourism, mistakes, education, upbringing, culture and prejudice. It is frank and illuminating. So too is the panel of black pop stars, including Alexandra Burke and the Sugababes’ Keisha Buchanan, who come together to talk about their own experiences of racism in the industry. It is, says Pinnock, like therapy.
This is a transitional period in the world of fame, as celebrities move away from doling out media-trained platitudes. For a long time, a group like Little Mix would have kept their opinions to themselves, for fear of alienating fans or those in charge. But Pinnock gives the impression she has had quite enough of that. She talks about The X Factor dyeing her hair red and shaving the sides, to make her “the Rihanna” of the setup. “It’s clear my colour was being used to define my image in the group,” she says. Later, she tries to set up an on-camera meeting with the head of her record label, Sony, only to be offered the head of marketing, who is a black woman. She is openly frustrated by what she sees as an attitude of “let’s put two black women in a room to solve the issue of racism”. “Well, that’s me dropped from the label,” she jokes.
I liked this thoughtful, sensitive and determined documentary a lot. It seems to be aimed at a younger audience, but viewers who might see themselves as of post-Little Mix age will find it rich. It examines complicated questions without expecting easy answers, and sees Pinnock turning her efforts to educate herself and others into a practical plan to find and employ more black creatives in the UK. “This is just the beginning,” she says, and I don’t doubt it for a second.