Just last month, multi-award-winning British filmmaker Steve McQueen reflected in an opinion piece for The Guardian about the obvious and shocking racism within the British film industry. McQueen, known for his vast filmography of stunning drama films including the Academy Award-winning 12 Years a Slave (2012), being the first black director win, and the British-Irish co-production Hunger (2008), discusses both his own experiences of racism within the industry alongside the clear lack of BAME diversity within a large proportion of productions made within the UK.
Alongside McQueen, in the past year, many actors and filmmakers of different backgrounds have stepped forward to discuss issues within the industry, with the recent Black Lives Matter protests across the globe pushing people into action once again. This is an issue that arises time and time again, and it becomes ever more present as our culture diversifies more and more but the media products that are set to represent us simply fail to do so. White British filmmakers Matthew Vaughn (Kingsman) and Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes) recently launched the innovative ‘Set Access’ program which helps give inspiring BAME filmmakers the opportunities they deserve but are quite often denied.
In a recent statement, popular British actor David Harewood (Homeland) stated that he began to find it so difficult to find work within the British film and television industry that he (and many other British stars) moved over to Hollywood where it was ‘easier’ to find roles. Alongside Harewood; actors David Oyelowo, Idris Elba (who has arguably straddled both the British and American film industry successfully), and Chiwetel Ejiofor have all migrated over to work in Hollywood as they have found the film industry there more inclusive and less discriminatory.
When speaking with The Big Issue a few years back, Selma (2014) actor Oyelowo revealed that “If I looked like Benedict [Cumberbatch] or Eddie Redmayne, I could do the films they have done that are being celebrated now. But myself, Idris Elba and Chiwetel Ejiofor had to gain our success elsewhere because there is not a desire to tell stories with black protagonists in a heroic context within British film.” It is clear that even the most successful and popular actors struggle to find work in the British film industry, so what lies ahead for upcoming BAME talent in the UK?
In a BFI Infographic released in 2016, research with the BFI concluded that a horrifying 59% of UK films from 2006-2016 did not feature a single black actor in any named character role at all. It was discovered in parallel with this that UK films which do feature black British actors usually revolve around what could be considered as ‘stereotypical’ subject matters. For example issues of crime (Brotherhood), memoirs of slavery (12 Years a Slave), and documentary-style biopics (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom) all feature the most black actors but it could be argued that diversity is lost when stereotypes are in play. It is also becoming clearer that films appear to ‘cluster’ BAME actors, which contradicts the diversity that can be seen within Britain, and therefore the industry lacks true reflection in the country it claims to represent.
Over the past few years, both the BAFTAs and the Academy Awards have come under criticism for issues of BAME representation and diversity, but over the past few years have been putting important stages into place for their selection processes. Although these stages have been put into place, it is still clear in 2020 that awards ceremonies lack diversity and it is important to question why these stages not only appear to fail BAME talent but still must be a reminder in our modern age.
What appears to be an industry that is struggling to fulfill a need for diversity does, however, have some redeeming factors. The British Independent Film Awards (BIFA), established in 1998, has proved itself in recent years to encourage a push in BAME representation within the film industry. The incredible independent British drama film The Last Tree (2019), with rising star Sam Adewunmi as the film’s protagonist received an abundance of awards wins and nominations at the 2019 BIFAs, amongst a whole host of other diverse film productions. The film, which was supported by funding from the BFI, stands as one of the few British productions with a black actor in the leading role in the last year.
Akua Gyamfi, a supporter of the BIFAs, launched the incredible platform The British Blacklist which celebrates a range of black talent that flourishes in the British film industry, but still proves the lack of diversity within the mainstream of the film industry. Other sources to check out include We Are Parable and The New Black Film Collective (TNBFC) which is a nationwide network of film exhibitors, educators, and programmers of black representation on screen.
Whilst the independent British film industry shows it is beginning to strive more and more for diversity, the industry as a whole still appears to struggle in its BAME representation. With the evergrowing discussion of Black Lives Matter, perhaps 2020 is the year for change.