Performing Arts has been part of my life for as long as I can remember, and arts in general is something I’m passionate about, more specifically: literature, theatre and film / television. However, the recent awards scandal with BAFTA is really just one more example of how institutional violence is something Britain refuses to come to terms with. Whether we’re talking the education sector, or policing (Macpherson 1999), criminal justice (Lammy 2017), or in government (Windrush Crisis), or Britain’s film and television industry.
There’s twelve and half years between me and my brother. Yet, ever since he was born he has shown an aptitude for the arts and great promise in both stage and screen, having done work with Screen Northants and Royal & Derngate, as well as with the Royal Shakespeare Company (The RSC).
He really is very good, but how the UK treats Black actors is atrocious. I know from discussions that he wants to be a serious actor and I wonder if he will have to fight the same racism and implicit bias that David Oyelowo and Idris Elba did. When will Black British actors stop having to prove themselves abroad before they are taken seriously in their own country?
“BAFTA stands for ‘Black actors fuck off to America'” joked comedian Gina Yashere in docuseries Black is the New Black
It’s funny because it’s true. And Britain’s close-minded attitudes towards race and diversity does not help the cause. Over the years, Black British actors, and even Black and brown Brits from other non-UK backgrounds have gone to America in hoards and made it. Whilst America is not famous for its racial harmony, it is at least thirty years ahead when it comes to race. And when it comes to diversity within acting and the performing arts industry, they are better off. If Ashton decided he wanted to jump ship and move to Los Angeles, or NYC (for theatre), I would help him pack!
We are losing talent because of Britain’s inability to change: Nathalie Emmanuel, Freeman Agyeman, Dev Patel, John Boyega, Riz Ahmed, Henry Golding, Gemma Chan, Daniel Kaluuya and Gugu Mbatha-Raw are just a handful of our great actors that followed the likes of Idris Elba, David Oyelowo, and Naomi Harris to the United States, a country that we criticise for its racism. But what of racism at home? Is Britain racist? “Definitely, 100%” said Stormzy. And I would argue his misquote was also true.
Idris Elba made it as Stringer Bell in The Wire before the BBC picked him up for Luther and David Oyelowo has been in a number of high profile Hollywood films, including Last King of Scotland and Selma. Don’t misunderstand me, America is not perfect but at least it doesn’t put a blue plaster on a tumour and call it progress. Our diversity, the thing we boast about is leaving, meanwhile BAFTA celebrated its seventh consecutive year of no women in the Best Directors race, let alone nods to women of colour.
Black Americans make 13% of the US population (est. 48.4m), but Black Britons only make up 3% of the UK population (est. 1.9m), so I guess this shows why there’s more visibility for Black actors in the United States.
However, I’m by no means saying America is a utopia, I just believe America is better put-together where diversity is concerned. Hamilton, one of the biggest musicals ever is a global phenomenon made up of almost entirely Black and brown actors, as will be the new adaptation of In the Heights directed by American director Jon. M Chu (Crazy Rich Asians), with songs written by Lin Manuel-Miranda, the mastermind behind Hamilton.
And America’s many sub-genres; from Spike Lee creating the Blaxploitation genre from the mid-80s to the world of Tyler Perry with Madea, and “Black” comedies like Girls’ Trip and Little, Black cinema is massive in the States. Whilst I don’t believe you can allot race to film and call it a genre, I do believe you can make films about Black lives and celebrate it. Whilst there is Black cinema in the UK, it’s a drop in the ocean and not mainstream.
My father named me for Tre from the classic 1991 film Boyz n the Hood, out of this film the world was shown a plethora of Black characters, including the mild-mannered Tre, but also his father played by an early career Laurence Fishburne. Black-led Rom-Coms like Girls’ Trip, most recently but even historically, such as Love and Basketball or even something more serious like Juice, or Poetic Justice, with musician-actor Janet Jackson.
If my brother at seventeen or eighteen years old decided to try his luck in Los Angeles or New York, I wouldn’t blame him. Black British actors are making waves in America. Black Britain has faced criticism from the likes of Samuel. L Jackson, where he suggested Jordan Peele’s Get Out would have been better with a Black American lead. Yet, what both countries share is Black actors fighting for roles whilst their White colleagues (i.e Cumberbatch, Streep, Blunt, Fassbender) don’t have to, nor are their White colleagues under the same criticism from their peers and the establishment.
In the essay collection, The Good Immigrant, in his essay ‘Airports and Auditions’, actor-poet Riz Ahmed states “the reality of Britain is vibrant multiculturalism, but the myth we export is an all-white world of lords and ladies.” The period drama genre for example has been under scrutiny for being too white. The Britain we sell overseas is Jane Austen novels, The Crown and Middlemarch. It’s the stuff in canon literature, not Hollyoaks or our close to two thousand-year history of Black people in the British Isles.
The Britain we sell overseas is not the Britain my brother is growing up in. My generation, the Harry Potter Generation; we grew up with Hogwarts Tamagochis and Beyblade. I grew up with Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh. And even in Harry Potter, in this diverse Britain we celebrate, the lack of Black characters or characters who weren’t White is blinding. And even the Dean Thomases and Cho Changs of that world have few lines between them.
And Ashton is growing up with more knowledge (and pride) around being a Black Briton, in the tint of great influences, incl. Stormzy, Afua Hirsch, Santan Dave, David Olusoga, and Reni Eddo-Lodge, all of whom speak truth to the power.
I don’t want him to feel low, but you must wonder if it was designed against people like him from the start? If #DecoloniseHE in the education sector is anything to go by, the answer is yes. Will he find roles for him, or will he be one of those Black British actors that effs off to America? Will he have to do what Noel Clarke (Kidulthood) did and write, direct and produce his own films because Britain’s film industry does not cater for its diverse talent?
And that is a sad state of affairs indeed. Tyler Perry being the first Black American to own a film production studio is a testament to what is possible in America. It’s not uncommon to see a Black professor in an American university. There are only 85 Black British professors in UK universities. It’s not rare to see Black lawyers or Black teachers in the US but there’s an over-representation of White British teachers in UK secondary schools and in HE.
As a writer in Northamptonshire, a county wrapped in classism, you also have to think about race’s impact on class. To enjoy theatre, but only on occasion seeing people and stories that reflect Britain’s diversity. Whilst my vocation is not reliant on looks, the struggle for Black actors is really a struggle. It was never meant to be easy. To live in a Britain that pushes images of us that can only succeed in entertainment and sports, but seem nonexistent when it comes to discussing Black intellect and political ideas.
And it’s really a solemn thought that this happy boy might one day be forced to go to America because in British style, like all our structures, it caters for the few, not the many.
Works of Note
Adegoke, Y and Uviebinené, E. (2019). Slay in Your Lane. London: 4th Estate
Advance HE (2018). ‘Equality in higher education: statistical report 2018,’ ecu.ac.uk, [online]. Available from: https://www.ecu.ac.uk/publications/equality-higher-education-statistical-report-2018/ [Last accessed 30 December 2019]
Ahmed, S. (2018). Rocking the Boat: Women of Colour as Diversity Workers. In: Arday, J., Mirza, S. (eds). Dismantling Race in Higher Education: Racism, Whiteness and Decolonising the Academy. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 331 –348
Home Office. (1999). The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. (Chairperson: William Macpherson). London: TSO
Ministry of Justice (2017). The Lammy Review. (Chairperson: David Lammy MP). London: TSO