(LEFT) Jacket ROKIT, top CHAMPION, trousers PREVU LONDON
(RIGHT) Jumper FRED PERRY, trousers ROKIT
Reggie Yates is the everyman’s everyman. Making a name for himself as one of the young faces of the factual documentary game for quite a few years now, his steadily growing popularity speaks largely to his uncalculated approach – one in which he acts as fresh-faced and relatable conduit for younger audiences hoping to gain an insight into the beliefs and ideologies of everyone from refugees and toxic wasteland workers, to white supremacists; Reggie is the antithesis of the oft-adored, but stale interrogatory faces of British television.
Indeed, his curious persistence with even the most volatile of subjects always glitters with genuine intention, and sitting down to talk to him, his is an empathy that shines undeniably both on and off camera. Ahead of the release of his debut book, UNSEEN: My Journey, we discussed everything from fashion to contemporary media representation, and what he hopes to achieve with his own unique brand of filmmaking.
Jacket ROKIT, T-shirt UNIQLO, ring REGGIE’S OWN
So what can readers expect from your book, UNSEEN: My Journey?
[I’ve had] this desperation to really explain just how much these films have actually affected me, because I’ve been making documentaries now for five, seven years, and I’ve had so many formative experiences in making them; so much has happened, on screen, but there’s so much more that went on (in my head) and so much that could be told, that I’m finally getting the opportunity to in the book. The most important thing is being able to share the lessons that I learned while making these docs and just how much they’ve changed me as a man – they happened while my life was changing dramatically, while what’s important to me was shifting, and I think that’s been reflected in the films and the subject matter and who I am as a result.
You touch on this in a chapter in the book. What’s it like when you’re a black man with a camera crew in the middle of a Russian white nationalist rally and you find out you’re basically trending on Russian Twitter?
Well that was a moment where I realised that all bets were off – it’s kind of a silly realisation to have so late in the day. When you’re making [factual documentaries] there is no plan, there is no script. You have pillars of a story that you wanna hit to make sure you reflect different takes on an issue for instance, but there’s no way of knowing where the story’s going to take you, and in making that film there was no way of knowing just how dangerous the story could become, and when you’re trending in the worlds of white nationalists and the right wing, that’s the last place you want to be spoken about, the last place you want everyone to be looking for you and asking the question “Why is he there?”
A lot of people who ask me about that rally specifically have spoken about me being “brave” or being “crazy” for being there, but I don’t feel those words speak to how I felt, because I never particularly felt intimidated. What I did feel, was sorry for them, because I was surrounded by young men and women who had incredibly sort of, archaic views. It just didn’t reflect their age group, and when you’re growing up in an era where information is at your fingertips literally, for you to not educate yourself socially, makes absolutely no sense, so it just saddened me that there were people who were born in a time where they had access to so much more than their parents did, and there’s almost no reason to be as offensive as they were being… But it was a long time ago, so forgive me, I’m a little wooly about how I felt while I was there.
You’re often praised for your ‘empathetic’ approach. In a time of Neo-Nazi’s marching in Charlottesville, do you worry that a “nice” guy like you, approaching these documentaries and the people featured from this place of neutrality, will inevitably just humanise them while providing them with a massive platform?
That depends on the perspective of the viewer: if you’re watching it expecting someone to argue on your behalf, then you’re watching the wrong person. The role I fulfill is of someone who allows the subject to speak their truth, and it’s then down to you to decide about [the merits of] that truth. For me, as offensive as some of these “truths” may be, it’s important to hear them to know in their entirety what they really stand for, and then be able to make a decision. Yes, there is definitely a place for challenge, but I do it in a way where I allow them to really explain how they see the world, and why they see it the way they see it, and then eventually over the course of a story start to chip away at it, and come away with my own conclusion. But the point of these films isn’t to solve an issue, or come up with a remedy to a problem, it’s to start a conversation. I’m by no means an expert in any of the fields that I make films about – I’m just an opinionated guy who feels massively galvanised by his audience to speak on, not necessarily their behalf, but in their voice. That’s the role I play, which is why I’m so adamant that I’m not a journalist – I don’t ever want to be one – and I think the book really speaks to that, hopefully…
I never want to justify a bigoted point of view; that’s the last thing I’m trying to do. I think the way that we make these films is about creating a platform for discourse, and that discourse doesn’t necessarily need to come in the form of a Paxman-style heated debate. It comes in the form of somebody delivering their “truth” and allowing me to go away and dissect that in my own way and not so much of a framework based on conflict. Bringing these views to light and showing them in their entirety, [without] cutting someone off and saying “so what you mean is…” Let them tell me what they mean, I want to see how ignorant, how backwards they are, and then they’ve done my job for me.
Tracksuit PIERRE CARDIN, shoes NIKE
One of the moral questions the first episode of The Insider poses, is are we complicit in creating a wasteland like Agbogbloshie? (*spoiler alert* yes). Do you want people to just reflect or create impetus to act?
Showing and encouraging conversation and thought, that’s what these films are about. I’m not cutting-edge, I’m not trying to galvanise the government to do something they’ve never done before. That’s not what I do and I think a huge part of growing up in front of the camera is that you’re forced to confront your own bullshit, and you’re also forced to confront who you truly are. Having been made to do that on screen, and in situations like this, being challenged on some of my bullshit in the past, I know what role I fulfill and I also know who the fuck I am. So to be in an environment like Agbogbloshie in Ghana, and to make the film that we made I am incredibly proud, but I’m also proud of the questions that it poses, knowing full well that the intent of the film wasn’t to actually fix the problem, it was to present it to people who didn’t know it actually existed.
What excites you about the contemporary television programmes that people are making today, and what bores you?
What excites me most is the complete opposite of what bores me, because what bores me is what’s been going on for so long: that horrible, samey homogenized voice, we’ve all seen and heard a million times and those same faces that we just keep on seeing. What excites me are new voices, new stories, new characters, new worlds that I didn’t know existed, they’re the things that really excite me. So to have at the same time a Donald Glover and an Issa Rae, really excites me. Because yes, I am a black man, talking about two black people, but I think to hear the point of view of someone like Issa Rae, from the LA perspective, presenting LA in a way we’ve never seen before – let’s face it, nobody’s seen the hidden hills. I didn’t even know it existed until Frank Ocean sang about it… They went to the real black Beverly Hills, here the black middle classes, lived and moved in LA, and you’re looking at this, and you’re going “holy shit!” this is a real thing, this actually exists and I’m a young black guy, so for young people of all colours, around the world, particularly somewhere in America, that’s as fractured as it is, it’s just amazing that there are these voices being given the scale of platform that she has to tell these stories, and to tell them in the most interesting and authentic way.
Someone like a Donald Glover, for instance, to have the audacity to show the real Atlanta is amazing to me, because I’ve only ever seen Atlanta in glossy music videos – it just looks like one big strip club – but on the other side of the coin you’ve got black people in poverty really trying to make something of themselves, and that’s the world he’s reflected; normal working class black people trying to be something in a place where it does’t really happen. Eddie Huang, Lin Manuel Miranda, these voices are being taken seriously, and these are award winning people who suddenly have huge platforms and now they have global ears because of the internet. So it’s an incredibly exciting time, but I’m always one to say more, more of them! I’m good friends with Michaela Coel, she’s the best, and for her to exist in this climate… She’s won two BAFTAs – just think of who she’s inspiring. Diversity is such a loaded word, and I don’t like using it anymore because it stirs up a lot of negative stuff – tokenism – but the reality is, having a broader spectrum of voices is making for better content, and I’m just really proud to consider myself a part of that.
When you started doing this in your 20s, there were next to no young black male presenters fronting this kind of factual programming, and there still aren’t many. Why do you think that is?
It’s the same problem, there’s been a changing of the guard, but things haven’t really changed. It’s a generation of people that don’t understand that there are voices (and an audience) that they can’t speak to, and that audience is only growing. And it’s that thing of not letting go of the power, there are people who have been in their jobs for a long time and they don’t want to move. They don’t want to have young people, with different reference points, in their position. You know the fact that you’ve got Prince Harry and William high-fiving Tinie Tempah at the BAFTAs, rapping along – says everything about where this country is now for a certain age group. The fact that that way of seeing the world, that broader spectrum, that broader range of references that our generation have, I think needs to be reflected far more. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air for some people is just as important as Seinfeld, but that might not necessarily be reflected on screen.
(LEFT) Jumper FRED PERRY
(RIGHT) Jacket ROKIT, top CHAMPION
Why do you think your style of presenting resonates with younger audiences?
It’s interesting. I never came to the table thinking I had a style, I just came to the table being me, and I’ve been in television for so many years now. A long time ago I realised the only way I could sustain a career was to actually double down on what made me unique, and that is taking on board and using my history, my truth, culturally what makes me, me, both as a British person, but also as a British person of colour, but also as a British person with African roots, and the culture that I was raised in reflected all of those things. So to be able to bring that to anything that I do, be it an entertainment show, or an interview with a pop star, or even a documentary, I feel strongly that for me to be me in that environment is what can only lead to something that feels healthy and different and original. So if ever there was a “style”, the style is me, and I think all of my favourite presenters, and I use the word presenter quite loosely because I don’t think that’s what I’m doing in these documentaries, are those who do just that. There’s only one Jonathan Ross, Davina McCall’s the same, Graham Norton’s the same – these are all people who are themselves all the time, and I think that that is why audiences have resonated with me.
If you wouldn’t call it presenting, what would you call it?
You describe yourself as a “big old metrosexual” and in the book you seemed very excited to be attending that fashion show in Russia, before you realised just how “different” it was. Who are your fashion inspirations?
I don’t subscribe to fashion per se…I’m much more a fan of style, the people I’m drawn to have timeless style, like Al Pacino in Serpico. I think following trends is something we all sort of occasionally slip into and I’m definitely guilty of that, but more than anything I’ve had an opportunity to make all of my mistakes on screen, so those years that we had where we were wearing stupid shit in our teens, I was doing that with millions of people watching! And I was able to look back on it and go “what was I thinking”, whereas now I know what I like, and I know what works for me and what makes me look better.
So finally, what do you want people to take away from The Insider?
Because these films are so immersive I’d have to say what I want people to take away from them is the value of experience. I think you can never truly understand something until you immerse yourself within it, and it’s so easy, in an age where everything is super fast, it’s easy to form a “complete” and “finalised” opinion on something based on a Tweet, that someone clever has written, or a news article, that a journalist you admire has written really beautifully, and eloquently explained their position on an issue. Get all the facts before you make a decision, know an issue, before you have an opinion on it. That’s the thing I’d like people to take away, immerse yourself in something before you’re sure about your position on it.
UNSEEN: My Journey is out on Thursday 26th October.