Six years ago I wrote a piece titled “All White At The Top,” asking why the UK film industry was painfully bereft of Black, Asian and minority ethnic executives.
I drew up a list of more than 75 leading companies in production, sales, exhibition, distribution, post-production, public and private finance, VFX, talent agencies and physical studios. None of the companies were led by professionals from an ethnic minority and few had ethnic diversity in their most senior ranks.
Among the reasons for imbalance were class, nepotism, access, lack of regulation, complacency, stigma, stereotyping, unconscious bias and public funding “jobs for life.”
The piece was written during a wave of industry soul-searching, whose cultural breakthrough was expressed globally by the #OscarsSoWhite anger that surfaced in the same year. The outrage led to reforms on both sides of the pond.
Six years on, a survey of the industry’s leading film and TV firms today reveals a disappointingly familiar picture.
As a sector, there have been some notable gains in that time, especially in terms of on-screen representation and from Black and Asian-heritage professionals setting up their own successful companies. But glaring disparities and inequalities remain.
Since the killing of George Floyd and the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, the desire for transformation has never been more present in the public consciousness with protests lining streets all over the world. There have been widespread calls for industry change and there is optimism from some quarters that meaningful revision is coming. Bold financial pledges have been made and promises of cultural development on both sides of the pond.
But is the industry ready for meaningful change?
Over the last 20 years, the proportion of Black, Asian or ethnic minority workers in the UK industry has sat stubbornly at around 3%. That is in sharp contrast to national averages. According to the most recent census (2011) by the UK’s Office For National Statistics, the UK population is 13% ‘BAME’ (a term which is increasingly unpopular). That number is likely to have grown in the intervening decade. London, where around 70% of the UK industry is accumulated, has an ‘minority’ ethnic population of around 40%.
Achieving diversity is not only important for reasons of equality and fairness. It is a fundamental point in fueling creative excellence and innovation. The financial incentive is there too. It is an irony that Black, Asian and ethnic minority groups are over-represented among cinema-goers and digital film and TV consumers.
Since Floyd’s death in May, I have spoken to a cross-section of embedded and rising UK film and TV professionals about race, inequality, employment and where the latest wave of protest, introspection and promises may lead. Where do they think we are today, what changes would they like to see and how does the picture in the UK compare to that in the U.S.?
Below are our discussions with actor David Harewood, director Asif Kapadia, BFI CEO Ben Roberts, manager and 42 co-founder Kate Buckley, The British Blacklist founder Akua Gyamfi, journalist Kaleem Aftab and a BAFTA-winning producer who asked not to be named.
Supergirl and Homeland star David Harewood is one of the UK’s finest actors. In 1997, he became the first Black actor to play Othello at the National Theatre and is known for movies including Blood Diamond, The Merchant Of Venice and 2015 festival hit Free In Deed. However, as he details below, speaking out about inequality meant that he had to go to the U.S. to forward his career.
DEADLINE: What have you made of the wave of protest and introspection prompted by the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement?
DAVID HAREWOOD: It has been exciting in many ways. What’s different about this explosion and protest is that many white people are finally listening. This is no longer an issue which only concerns the Black community. I get the impression the wider population are making an effort to understand and educate themselves.
I’ve seen that myself. On set a couple of weeks ago a sound guy told me that he had just left a Facebook group because of something unacceptable being posted in the group. He might not have done that one month ago, he said. People are now beginning to understand that there’s a line in the sand and if you’re not actively anti-racist, you are falling on the side of letting the status quo exist. That line in the sand has been drawn. I don’t think we’ll ever eradicate it entirely but the more people we can wake up to be actively anti-racist, the smaller this issue might become.
DEADLINE: It was moving to hear you talk about your own personal experiences of racism in a recent Channel4 interview…
DAVID HAREWOOD: There’s a backlash to that. It shows how deeply rooted racism is. Unlike the Me Too movement, where dominos fell very quickly and new codes of behaviour were drawn up, this is very different. It shows how deeply rooted things are here…
DEADLINE: When you say backlash, are you referring to the certain media outlets closing ranks and the anti-BLM protests?
DAVID HAREWOOD: Without a doubt. You can see it across the media. Racism can be subtle. I saw something in a national paper the other day about ‘Blacks being their own worst enemies’. It was a throwback to the dark ages.
There is pushback, and we should expect it. This won’t be easy. But I’m encouraged that so many more people are calling it out. Many of the top best-selling books in America right now are about race. There is frustration in parts of middle England, too, from people who want to know what they can do to educate themselves and get up to speed.
DEADLINE: Where are we in the UK when it comes to race and diversity in the industry?
DAVID HAREWOOD: This is the longest period I’ve spent in the UK in eight years. Whilst there has been some encouraging changes, I still don’t see enough leading Black actors in this country. I still don’t see enough shows with leading Black actresses. Any day of the week in America I will turn my TV or Netflix on and see a range of Black actors and actresses. I flicked through my TV during the first few weeks of lockdown here and I was thinking ‘where are we?’
That’s why younger generations leave. They know this isn’t a place you can build your name. I had to go abroad to build my name. I still don’t think the mechanisms are here for Black actors to build their careers and go from one central role to another.
DEADLINE: Why are we still voicing the same questions as 5, 10, 15 years ago?
DAVID HAREWOOD: I think in England we have a specific problem. We are inherently a classist society and many of the people who control the levers of power are middle class, upper class and white. It’s difficult for energetic, youthful talent to break through, which is why many people make things on YouTube and are less interested in twisting themselves in knots to thread the needle for a 60-year-old white BBC executive. They don’t care about that. The business is inherently middle class and white.
Even when I was working in theater at Stratford East many years ago, there would be packed audiences of young Black men and women roaring with laughter. The middle class white executives we would invite down wouldn’t understand what was going on, so we were constantly denied opportunities of turning those shows into TV programs. There was a fear of that audience and a feeling that the middle England Coronation Street audience wouldn’t understand it. In reality, they may well have done.
I see small signs with things that Channel4 are doing, like The Big Narstie Show. But it’s two decades since The Real McCoy and Goodness Gracious Me. Where are the new shows like that? This is the prime time to reach out to Black comedians just like they do on Saturday Night Live to encourage other voices. We need that other take.
DEADLINE: Do you see any difference between film and TV in the UK? Is one arena easier to navigate…
DAVID HAREWOOD: There’s obviously a well-trodden path in terms of British gangster flicks. Top Boy and that type of well-made street or urban genre does well. There is traction for that. But we’re still not seeing a wide range of stories. We’re not seeing Black lawyers and bankers. We’re not seeing the full range of who we are. There are some guys getting through but I’m not sure many dramas here would cast a Black Prime Minister because it would immediately be attacked for not being true.
To break that mould we need to smash it and we need to be more imaginative and daring in our casting. In the U.S., Watson is an Asian American woman. We’re still trapped in a world of tradition here but we need to start shaking that tree in order to breathe new life into audiences.
DEADLINE: There has been a level of stasis within the senior ranks in the UK but in recent years, actors such as Riz Ahmed and Idris Elba have begun producing, and Femi Oguns’ talent agency Identity has had enormous success bringing through the likes of John Boyega, Letitia Wright, Damson Idris, and many other Black British stars. But they have had to create that change themselves…
DAVID HAREWOOD: I agree with that 100 percent. Most of those actors have found success in the U.S. and come back to the UK to use their executive power and muscle here in the UK. It’s needed. It’s very pale here but the younger generation are far more adventurous.
I think audiences are going to have to change. They are used to being fed one particular story. Drama doesn’t need to follow one particular pattern. Michaela Coel has started to have success. Aml Ameen, too. The industry is going to have to start educating its audience but there’s a new generation that wants to see a more diverse picture. Perhaps the industry needs to stop the safe bets and play a different brand of football.
DEADLINE: You’re soon heading back to the U.S. for the next season of Supergirl…
DAVID HAREWOOD: I’m looking forward to getting back to the U.S. I’ve just signed another contract and there are a couple more seasons then we’ll see what happens.
I’ve got a few ideas. Once I’ve finished Supergirl hopefully I won’t be in a position like I was 5-6 years ago where I had to take what I was given. I was never able to take charge of my career in England.
I’ve been saying this for 25 years and a lot of people have told me to shut up. But I’ve seen the business come to where I am, thankfully. When I spoke out before, I didn’t work for 6 months. My career slowed down considerably. The tone of the conversation has changed, at least.
BAFTA and Oscar-winner Asif Kapadia is well known for directing hit movies such as The Warrior, Amy, Senna and Maradona as well as TV series such as Netflix’s Mindhunter. Born and raised in East London, Kapadia has worked in the U.S. and UK and has a unique perspective on what it takes to get to the top. He also shares a shocking experience from a UK set.
DEADLINE: Asif, what has been your take on this new movement for cultural change?
ASIF KAPADIA: This is an important time for everyone to look at themselves. Because of Brexit, Covid, Black Lives Matter…If something doesn’t change now, it never will. People have time to look at what’s going on around them. To look at who is suffering. Who is struggling the most…
DEADLINE: Where do you think the UK industry is today in terms of racial diversity and equality?
ASIF KAPADIA: I’ve thought about this a lot. I’ve been in the business a while and I’ve got to an age when it’s time to talk about this.
I’m from a working class background from East London. I had free school dinners and I had help to pay for my school uniform. I only went to college and university because I got grants. I only did an MA because I got a bursary. If you’re not from a middle class background today, how do you afford to send your kids to art school or film school?
London is one of the most diverse cities in the world. It’s an amazing city where in theory you can do anything. But there is a huge class issue. And there is a race issue. People in power have to actively try to make change, it doesn’t just happen. The system is stacked. Private schools, universities, Oxbridge, first job etc. If you’re not already in that inner circle when you start, due to your connections, you’re way behind everyone else.
There are hurdles and racial filters at every stage of the industry: development, commissioning, production, film crews, festivals, distribution, media coverage.
DEADLINE: Some Black, Asian and minority ethnic professionals have said they have felt the need to go to the U.S. to progress their careers…
ASIF KAPADIA: I think the options and roles for people in front of the camera are far greater in the U.S. Many of my friends have had to go there to show what they can do. I regularly work there but let’s not pretend the U.S. doesn’t have its own issues. They do. Fundamentally, London is my home and I feel very European. I love being based halfway between the U.S. and Asia.
DEADLINE: To what extent have you seen positive change here?
ASIF KAPADIA: Of all the years I’ve been in the industry, the executives at the top at the UKFC, the BFI, BBC, ITV, Channel4, at newspapers, trade publications, magazines, how many of those people in power, who can genuinely commission, are people of color? In the film sector, how many of those people are Black, in particular? I can’t think of any. The same people get the same jobs, they move around and maintain power.
There’s one executive who came into the industry at the same time as me who I can think of in a position of genuine commissioning power. Anne Mensah. She’s the only person I know of in the UK. She was in TV, now original series at Netflix. In film, it’s even harder to think of people.
This is the moment for different sections of the industry to talk and to take action if they genuinely want a richer and more diverse industry.
I feel BAFTA are trying. They made a conscious decision to listen to all sections of the industry, they are looking to change, but they are at the end of the filmmaker chain and can only do so much.
Unconscious bias training is something I did recently. That is something everyone and anyone can try at home. The first stage is to understand that we all have a bias, all of us, none of us is perfect. But if you are aware of your unconscious bias you can at least try to balance it out.
Somewhere a long the way, we have also arrived at a system where people stay on in public funding jobs for many many years. It’s different in Scandinavia where there are limits on how long someone can stay in the same funding role to ensure diversity of ideas and decisions. It’s tricky, because the more you speak out about these things, the less likely you are to be one of the funders’ favourites. It’s important to remember that it’s not their money. It’s public money.
DEADLINE: People speaking up is helping…
ASIF KAPADIA: Yes…I want to tell you a story.
I didn’t know anyone in the business growing up. I worked my way up. I was a runner on TV shows, I ran on different film and TV sets, I laid track, worked as an electrician, in the sound department. I worked in many different departments. I worked on short films, features, at other people’s companies, I did many different jobs.
On one of the first films I worked on as a runner, there was a crowd scene and some of the people were meant to be people of color. So, they started darkening up two white people to look brown.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and said so.
I remember the crew telling me, ‘we haven’t got time, no one will ever know’. I heard someone say to me ‘don’t have a chip on your shoulder’. I thought, ‘I’m not going to let this happen’. “Give me 2 minutes”, I said. I walked off set. We were filming in Harrow of all places, and I immediately found two young Asian people who agreed to be in a movie. When I took them back to set, everyone was so embarrassed.
I was the youngest person on that set. By being there and speaking up, that made a difference. If I hadn’t been there, they would have darkened someone up. The point is, if you’re not there, you can’t make a difference. If you don’t speak up, you can’t make a difference.
Ben Roberts is CEO of the UK’s lead film organization, the British Film Institute. The core British funder promotes and preserves filmmaking and TV in the country and is essential to the flow of production, distribution, and education. Roberts became CEO in 2019 after joining the organization in 2012. He has been a key player in helping to develop the BFI’s diversity targets. Here he discusses the BFI’s efforts to diversify the landscape and breaks down how the organization itself is faring when it comes to hiring ethnic minorities.
DEADLINE: Is the film industry more racially diverse today than it was six years ago when I wrote my article “All White At The Top?”
BEN ROBERTS: There is a persistent diversity deficit across the industry which collectively, we must urgently address.
People across the sector have worked hard to help improve equality in the film industry and to help open doors to people of color in front and behind the camera, and there are areas of improvement. But the film community is undoubtedly and persistently a system that privileges whiteness, which must change.
Since your article six years ago, the BFI introduced the Diversity Standards in 2016, making them both a requirement of the projects and organizations we fund and actively working with the industry to encourage their adoption more widely. The initial findings from the Diversity Standards, which we published in January, showed the Standards are making a positive impact particularly in productions portraying diverse stories and characters on screen, and encouraging more women in a range of roles behind the camera.
However, the report identified where there is comparatively low level of engagement with people from underrepresented ethnic groups – including in lead roles on screen and in leadership and creative roles behind the camera. We have therefore committed to assessing how we can strengthen them to drive change. And while the Standards have already been formerly adopted by Film4, BBC Films, BAFTA, BIFA and Paramount Studios, we are continually encouraging all production companies and studios to incorporate them into their production practices.
At the BFI we are also continuing to invest in education, training and skills, to open up opportunities to all, regardless of background or where you live in the UK. But crucially, we need to ensure that all underrepresented groups who enter the industry, are able to progress, develop and successfully further their careers.
DEADLINE: Why do you think many of the same questions about racial diversity in the industry that were voiced 20, 10 and 6 years ago are still being asked today?
ROBERTS: These questions persist because we still don’t have a representative industry. This isn’t a new priority for us, but over the last month it is clearer than ever to me that we all must stop convincing ourselves that sufficient progress has been made – we need to move away from schemes and panels, and towards swifter solutions; tangible action is needed.
In my recent open letter to the industry, I am inviting colleagues from across the film community to commit to change, to commit to being actively antiracist, and to collaborate with us on making our industry a better place to work. We have made some initial commitments for ourselves at the BFI, and will share resources and experiences openly, and engage with the people and organizations who are already doing the work, using our voice and our platform to showcase and celebrate that work.
But we warmly welcome industry colleagues to get in touch with us and take action.
DEADLINE: Many professionals I’ve spoken to are tired of hearing about general willingness for change and schemes. They want to hear about concrete and meaningful changes from the most important companies and organizations. The BFI is the UK’s lead organization for film. How many full-time Black staff does the BFI have who are not currently furloughed and what percentage of staff are not white?
ROBERTS: We have made progress by setting targets – for those we fund and who we employ – in order to hold each other and ourselves to greater account. Against these targets, we have been publishing this data to be more transparent and highlight where we need to improve. With 16% of our people identifying as underrepresented ethnicities, we do lack diversity across the organization, including in senior positions, and there are no people of color in the Executive team.
When I took on the role of Chief Executive in February, it was with a commitment to colleagues and our Board that I would put us on path of radical change. This involves addressing biases and hierarchies present within the BFI, and ensuring we represent and welcome the perspective of all audiences and filmmakers through our people, our programs and collections, and the work we fund.
In terms of the furloughing of BFI people, decisions have been taken by activity – ie those who cannot carry out their roles from home (mainly BFI Southbank and Berkhamsted), or those shielding, or who have carer commitments, have been furloughed. Those who can work from home, have continued to do so, and of course as we are looking at our staff returning to work, ensuring their safety is paramount. A priority for us is ensuring the needs of any vulnerable groups, which will include people of color, are addressed and we are fully communicating with them about the risks and how we are managing them.
Just over 50% of our staff who identity as an underrepresented ethnicity have been furloughed. With almost 60% of all our staff currently furloughed, 15% of those are from underrepresented groups.
DEADLINE: How many Black senior commissioners does the BFI employ?
ROBERTS: Taken from our diversity and inclusion data of our staff in 2019/20 the Film Fund team (apart from the Operations, Partners and Projects team) who work on the distribution of National Lottery funding for features, shorts, talent development and audiences development projects, the numbers are: 39% of all employees identify as belonging to an under-represented ethnic group; among all managers and above: 32% identify as belonging to an underrepresented ethnic group; among senior managers and above: 25% identify as belonging to an underrepresented ethnic group.
These numbers currently meet our minimum target, which is 20% for underrepresented ethnicities, and I must make it clear that the team do a fantastic job, which is born out in our brilliant and diverse slate of shorts and features, as well as the talent development and audience projects we run and support.
However, I’ve been very honest that we have work to do in terms of recruitment to ensure the BFI’s workforce across the board is more representative, particularly in terms of those involved in distributing our National Lottery funds and curating our cultural programs and the BFI National Archive.
I have also committed to reporting our data in greater detail to ensure our numbers are not skewed by people of color largely being in entry level and administrative roles.
DEADLINE: How much money (via National Lottery funded activity) does the BFI give to supporting Black organizations and product as a percentage of its output?
ROBERTS: The latest diversity and inclusion stats for those we fund can be found here.
For feature films we supported in 2019/20, 28% of the production awards and 20% of our development awards went to teams from underrepresented ethnicities – these percentages are taken from data provided by writer, producer and director of each projects. 67% of production awards to debut directors went to directors from underrepresented groups. Both represent an increase from the previous year’s figures.
Through the Audiences team – which includes the Audience Fund supporting organizations and projects, as well as supporting the BFI Film Audience Network – National Lottery funding aims to boost inclusivity in audiences by supporting a broad film culture which seeks to rebalance underrepresentation on screen and in the workforce.
Of the total award value of all reported projects since start of BFI2022 (April 2017) to date is £9,908,827. Of that the total, the amount awarded to projects with at least one person of color in an ‘Artistic Leadership of the Project’ role is £3,608,998 (representing 36.42%).
These stats meets our current national, minimum targets, but we know we need to support more organizations led by people of color. However, more importantly, the figures indicate a lack of people of color getting into positions of leadership, and the majority of the organizations we’ve supported with people of color in leadership roles, were founded by people of color.
From our position of encouraging and processing applications from screen organizations across the breadth of our work, we can see there continues to be a significant lack of people of color in leadership roles in larger and more established film organizations, which is something we need to support the industry to address.
DEADLINE: Why is there no race equivalent to Reclaim the Frame?
ROBERTS: A fundamental and strategic aim of the Audience Fund is to support organizations and activity which reaches audiences of color across the UK, which it does. For 2019/20, of survey respondents attending Audience Fund projects, 23% identified as underrepresented ethnicities.
Picking out Reclaim the Frame is interesting, as obviously its central focus is on gender. However, when the project was proposed, celebrating better representation – including and especially representing people of color – in content, contributors and audiences was the stated aim. It has delivered on this, with positive stats showing that for the period Aug to Dec 2019, 23% of audiences identified as an underrepresented ethnicity, as did 22% of their ‘influencers’, 49% of their event speakers and 25% of the films programmed were directed by those identifying as an underrepresented ethnicity.
This is true of many of the projects we support – MASSIVE, which is primarily targeting young audiences, of which young people of color are a key priority; London Short Film Festival, Encounters Festival and Flatpack Festival similarly had young people of color as a priority audience; and the Independent Cinema Office’s FEDS project is trainee scheme addressing underrepresentation in the film archive and exhibition workforce.
We would obviously be keen to support long term audience projects which focuses on promoting only the work of filmmakers of color. There is certainly space for people of color focused projects (see examples below), but we also want to ensure this content becomes part of mainstream programming and achieve racial equity of audiences UK-wide. Film has the power to teach history, amplify voices, and to challenge stereotypes, so increasing access to a greater range of representative content to all audiences is important and key to our aims.
Examples of projects where people of color are the focus of the content and audience include: through FAN, Phizzical, Flatpack, Afrika Eye, Dardishi, Bounce; festivals supported directly by the BFI include LIFF, LEAFF, UKAFF, Film Africa; and film releases supported by the BFI include Yardie, Rafiki, Sprinter, Hero.
DEADLINE: We hear frustration from some Black, Asian and minority ethnic professionals about a lack of feedback on why funding applications are not successful. Sometimes, emails asking for feedback are not replied to, we are told. In a landscape where those professionals don’t always have the same support networks as white members of the industry, this can be vital information for progress in the sector. What more can be done to provide feedback on funding decisions and applications?
ROBERTS: Unfortunately there is a resource issue here – we have a huge amount of applications and live projects and don’t have the capacity to give every application that we pass on the time they deserve. We will try to improve this, as of course we know it is valuable, particularly to underrepresented groups who feel they are not being considered.
However, I also want to draw attention to the significant number of talent development opportunities we offer to filmmakers around the country, particularly through BFI NETWORK. We understand networks are crucial, which is what we are trying to build through our Film Hub across the UK, and offering bespoke mentoring through programs in partnership with BAFTA, as well as labs such as the NETWORK Weekender and NETWORK@LFF. Beyond development and production funding, there are many ways to receive our support, so I urge filmmakers to utilize all of them.
DEADLINE: How much more can the industry, and the BFI, do to improve racial diversity in the UK business?
ROBERTS: We can lead by example – by being actively antiracist, admitting where and how we can do better, and starting by implementing the changes I have outlined. We have long been clear about our values, but I accept that isn’t currently fully reflected in the makeup nor the output of the organization.
But I am also calling on the industry to work with us to take action. We have a collective responsibility. The Diversity Standards are an effective framework which exist to interrogate decision making processes through every stage of production. We will consult with the industry on how to strengthen them, but we need more productions – of every size – to use them.
We must continue to talk and to learn and ensuring the people who have been marginalized or ignored are part of that conversation. But this is also a time for action. I urge my colleagues across the industry to take action and make changes. The BFI is committed to supporting the industry to do this, but we certainly can’t do it on our own.
Leading UK manager Kate Buckley formed 42 Management and Production in 2013, which she runs with partners Rory Aitken, Ben Pugh, Cathy King and Josh Varney. They make film and TV for the global markets and have first look deals with Netflix and MGM. Buckley’s clients include Nicholas Hoult, Michael Caine, Sofia Boutella and Ed Skrein and she sits on the board of Time’s Up UK. Buckley tells us what the company has been doing, and will be doing, in a space that is one of the least diverse in the industry.
DEADLINE: We noticed that your company was off work on Blackout Tuesday. What were you doing?
KATE BUCKLEY: We took the day to read, to educate ourselves, to learn and think about what we’d like to do both inside and outside the company. The night before, an artist and educator well-versed in African American history talked to us for a couple of hours, all 50 people at the company. We realized that there were a lot of things we needed to educate ourselves on, despite the work we had previously been doing.
DEADLINE: Are there changes you can enact to help improve the business? Some people may say this is a company of 50 people and all the managers are white. How does that happen given your appreciation for and understanding of the issues?
KATE BUCKLEY: There are no excuses. You are right. We do have diversity among assistants and members of the company but we do not currently have ethnic diversity among our managers.
It’s our responsibility and duty to put things in place to make changes systemic. We formed a group within the company to think about how we make the industry, the people we hire and the clients we represent more diverse, representative and inclusive of all socio economic backgrounds. You have to create pathways and find new networks.
Access and affordability are key. Going into schools to talk to pupils about the industry, demystify the process, telling them about the many careers available; shadowing schemes for producers; free entry level courses; paid internships; unconscious bias training, these can all help. We run a program of paid internships.
None of this is new, however and it’s not enough. We need to pull diversity through the eco-system of our company and industry, to give people of color a meaningful voice. If we only do shadowing schemes, entry level internships etc… then we are ignoring the many practitioners of colour already in our industry. Having spoken to writers, producers, directors and actors of colour they agree. We need to progress people of color through the industry not just at the start of their careers, or the system and current representation both in front of and behind the camera and in agencies, production houses etc… will remain the same.
So, we have decided in order to make real change it has to happen all the way through our company. We are appointing two people of color to our board and will look to hire men and women of color with transferrable skills to positions of managers and in production as well as assistants.
We’re also doing some structural work around our production slates, how we build our lists, how we build out our networks, the types of stories we look for, how we conceive our lead characters as pen goes to paper. It’s about having more people of color in the creative vision roles of director, writer, star.
That means also considering the DuVernay test, the Bechdel test, and checking that in the first five minutes of a script we do not show a woman being raped or a person of color being killed, for example…
We’re doing it this way because we want it to be about more than individual steps, we want the system of 42 to work towards real inclusion.
DEADLINE: Sometimes there is trepidation about speaking on these issues among white professionals for fear of saying the wrong thing. That’s true in the media as well as in the film and TV industries. Speaking up is important…
KATE BUCKLEY: I think you have to be prepared as a white person in our industry to speak up. Everyone is concerned about getting it wrong but if we are not prepared to have the conversation, get out of our lanes, be ok with making mistakes and then learn from them – nothing will change.
This is the beginning of a consultation at 42. We’ve pledged to each other and our clients and partners that this is the beginning of along term habitual change. We now need to work on this each day going forward. It’s no longer an agenda item for us, it’s now at the heart of everything we do.
In 2012, Akua Gyamfi launched platform The British Blacklist, an extensive online resource and database recognizing and championing the work of BAME entertainment professionals. She has more than 20 years of experience in the sector, with a career spanning fashion, film, TV, theatre, print and online media. Here she discusses why a ‘Black Normal People‘ is less likely on our screens.
DEADLINE: Where are we in terms of diversity and the UK industry?
AKUA GYAMFI: I launched the British Blacklist in 2012 and since 2012 I’ve been to too many diversity events. We have the panels, the discussions, the solutions…It’s that ten year cycle when race becomes the thing again.
A lot of Black creatives I work with are being contacted. They’re being asked, ‘What can we do to help in light of what’s going on?’ I say: ‘Why are you still asking us this?’ We have long been saying what needs to change. We are the talent that needs to be employed to effect the change that is needed. No one really wants change, that’s the overriding feeling.
DEADLINE: Have you seen any progress in recent years?
AKUA GYAMFI: There has been progress on screen. I May Destroy You and SunnyD are among the only Black narratives with largely Black cast on primetime BBC. But in the last six years there haven’t been many. The screens have been peppered with Black talent but generally there are very controlled narratives.
It’s behind the scenes that are completely devoid of representation. I know a lot of writers who go through the hoops but are kept waiting and waiting and waiting. In the meantime, there are young white writers who are being inundated with projects and opportunities.
There are Black Normal People out there but they don’t get picked up. Black normal lives aren’t seen as something that sells by white commissioners. We don’t want the guns and crime stories, but a Black story is still seen as a risk.
DEADLINE: Is it harder in film than in TV? The film sales and distribution landscape, for example, has remained very homogenous….
AKUA GYAMFI: My answers above are about TV. Film is even harder.
Farming is an example. That was a film that was so important to British history, Black and white, but it wasn’t given the support it needed to live in the way it should have. We’re at the mercy of whether distributors understand Black projects. Getting buy-in and support is very hard and hasn’t changed. How many other UK movies with Black narratives or cast have really broken through in the last few years? Blue Story was one.
DEADLINE: Do you see change on the horizon?
AKUA GYAMFI: I was cynical before lockdown. Maybe this recent awakening might force people to change but I don’t know how that happens. A lot of people need to do a lot of soul searching about why Black stories aren’t seen as viable or commercial. Why is Normal People so acceptable but a Black story isn’t?
It’s partly because the same people are in power. Of course, it doesn’t make sense that everyone loses their jobs to make way for Black people. But can you shift in your seat a little to let someone capable in next to you to help oversee certain projects? Budge over.
DEADLINE: The British Blacklist is a tremendous resource. I see the database isn’t currently available. How is it going?
AKUA GYAMFI: The database is currently out of action while we seek funding. It takes a lot of work and it has been me largely driving it.
Journalist, programmer and filmmaker Kaleem Aftab is the author of the authorized biography of Spike Lee, Spike Lee: That’s My Story And I’m Sticking To It, and has been working as a freelance journalist in the UK for more than 20 years, writing for publications including The Independent, The Telegraph, Vice, Deadline and Screen International. Aftab talks about the media landscape and how the internet has been a force for good and bad when it comes to hiring a more diverse workforce.
DEADLINE: How has the media landscape changed in terms of diversity since you joined the sector?
KALEEM AFTAB: In terms of reporting on film, in the early 2000s there were a number of BAME editors working on film and arts desks. There were people like Sukhdev Sandhu writing reviews for the Telegraph and I had started writing regularly for The Independent. The picture was looking quite promising and there was a possibility to have a career writing or editing about the arts as a diverse person.
However, the 2008 financial crisis, and the surge of the internet changed that. The internet has democratized, to an extent, but it has also lowered wages. A generation of ethnic minority writers and editors was lost. There are people who went into programming in part because that was considered a surer bet. And as we have seen with the recent media contraction due to COVID-19, it is people from the BAME community most likely to lose their jobs.
DEADLINE: You have had an overview of the UK film and TV industries for many years. How have you seen it evolve?
KALEEM AFTAB: The question of diversity has always been on the agenda, probable from before I started out in the film industry in the late 90s. In TV we had diversity officers being appointed and a push for new talent. Film was lagging behind.
The art world provided a haven for our best Black filmmakers, from Isaac Julien to the arrival of Steve McQueen. But diversity became a heinous word for all, and it was clear that multiculturalism meant surface changes. There was no plurality of thought.
The BFI initially tried to cajole an evolution, when an intervention was required. The idea that just putting in extra faces from communities would be a magic bullet, does nothing to actually change the social dominance problem. Look at the membership of BAFTA for example and who works at the BFI in gatekeeper roles, and who programs our major film festivals. There is a through-line that has hardly changed. Of course within all this, there have been some happy changes, there are more filmmakers from underrepresented backgrounds, but they still remain that: underrepresented.
Meanwhile, in the media landscape pretty much all the gatekeepers at the major publications are white. There are more writers from the BAME community, but is it a coincidence that that has happened only when pay rates have been slashed and it is much harder to make a living as an arts journalist? The positive changes in numbers come with major caveats, and nothing has been done to change the hierarchical, patriarchal structure on film and TV sets, or in the media.
DEADLINE: What changes would you like to see in the media landscape, and beyond, to improve levels of diversity?
KALEEM AFTAB: On the media front, there has to be a fundamental change. Organizations should be more open about the number of salaried staff they have from different backgrounds, and not talk in numbers but the percentage of salary that the BAME community receive as part of their workforce.
I would like to see organizations bringing in external, independent bias auditors. As the Swedish film industry has discovered, it’s no good getting gender parity if there is still a huge financial disparity between the grants awarded and it is only white middle-class women getting help.
There needs to be recognition that different communities have very different ways of looking at the world and that their conclusions are often challenging to the mainstream.
I would like to see an end to nepotism in hiring practices and more blind interviews where possible.
The hierarchical structure of film sets is problematic and the secretive way that the gatekeepers work, from casting agents to producers, needs to be addressed.
Lazy ideas, such as Black stars don’t garner box-office, which have been disproven by the audience need to be challenged and kicked into touch. One of the reasons that the streamers found it so easy to displace cinema, was that they offered more diverse product and recognised that one size doesn’t fit all.
Basically, I would like to see a fundamental shake up of workplace practices and a closer look at finances rather than pure numbers, with institutions making major corrections such as the one done by the American Academy to right decades of malpractice, and then systems brought in to remove bias. The bias in the workplace has continually failed to be addressed by institutions and that needs to change quickly. Funnily, I think the organizations that do this quickest, will make the most money.
Our final interview is with a young BAFTA-winning Black film and TV producer who didn’t want to be named. Whether you are the star of the world’s biggest movie franchise or a early-career producer unsure where the next pay cheque is coming from, speaking out is hard. We are grateful to this producer for sharing their experience and putting into sharp relief the challenges faced on an uneven playing field.
DEADLINE: How difficult is this industry to navigate as a person of color?
PRODUCER X: The industry is difficult full stop, no matter what race you are. On top of that if you have something that is deemed ‘other’, it is even more difficult. I think it’s getting better in certain areas. I’m not sure if it’s a genuine push or whether it is down to financial incentives.
There is certainly more diversity on screen than ten years ago. In terms of behind the camera, I think there are more directors of color coming through. But if you look closer, some are African American, which can be a bone of contention here. Not with me, but for some. It’s the other side of the coin to British actors taking parts from U.S. actors in America.
There have been a lot of blows in this industry. Again, that is not isolated to being Black, but being Black magnifies the challenge.
The single biggest blow was being told by someone at a funding organization that I was the perfect candidate for a funding award, getting an interview, but then not getting a response to my email asking for feedback as to why I wasn’t successful. When the awards were announced as ‘the future of the industry’, that was hard to take.
Four months after that, I was nominated for a BAFTA, which I later won. That didn’t solve the financial challenge but it proved something to myself.
The other thing that many people in the industry don’t understand is how culturally difficult it is for a Black person to say to their family they want to work in the entertainment industry. I had to keep it a secret for many years. My family thought I worked in property.
So you have two forces, the industry that won’t answer the door when you knock and your cultural ties telling you not to knock on the door in the first place because there won’t be an answer. The entertainment industry is not something that is seen as viable, so already you’re defying your parents when you make that leap. It’s got better in the last few years but my family would all prefer it if I were a lawyer, doctor or accountant.
So when you leap and the industry sidesteps you, or allows you to fall, it’s heartbreaking because it’s as if your parents were right.
DEADLINE: Is TV easier to penetrate than film?
PRODUCER X: I think because TV is more of a producer-led sphere, maybe there’s more diversity. Film is more director-led. When it comes to film executives, there are so few of color. People are rarely promoted. A lot of people will do paid internships then leave because they can’t afford to stay.
DEADLINE: What would you like to see change?
PRODUCER X: It would be interesting to see the big companies like Fremantle and Endemol to take opportunities on diverse producers to make diverse slates.
Roles at funders shouldn’t be permanent. They should be four-year terms, so that there is always someone bringing in a fresh set of interests.
What I would say is, there’s a lot of talk about wanting to change things and that’s where it always stays. I think there’s always an appetite because on the whole we’re supposedly a liberal industry. But no one really has the stomach for it. The appetite comes and goes when a Moonlight comes in or a Black talent is discovered, then it’s gone again. People get excited for a moment, put their chips in one hand, then they are spent.
A lot of people want to be seen to be doing the right thing but people will care when it impacts them financially. This is about people making room. If you want it to work, you need to make room. Those in power need to elevate and empower a number of good people. Not just one ‘flavor of the year’ producer.
The answers are on the entire industry, not one company or a handful of companies. If you need to overhaul a system, you don’t just change one cog and if you want to add diversity, you don’t just add one cog. It needs to be far and wide and at every aspect of the industry.