With one-third of Oscar nominees being of colour this year, it seems that the call for more diversity in light of the #OscarsSoWhite debate seems to have been answered. In the UK, however, the 2017 BAFTA nominations have been slammed for not including a single BAME actor for any of the leading-role categories – why is this still an issue in a country with one of the world’s most diverse capitals?, writes Fatima Ojeerally.
“It’s only through self-deprecation that one assimilates into America!”
Three American women are in the midst of a frenzied laughing fit as an animated woman with a distinctive Nigerian accent introduces herself to the group. The actress, who is sporting a goldenrod yellow head wrap and a navy blue gown tessellated with white flowers, is making a guest appearance on an episode of the American comedy series Survivor’s Remorse.
Three years ago, that actress, Anniwaa Buachie never imagined that she would be given an opportunity to expand her artistic talent and land roles in larger productions in the UK; and that’s when she decided to make a move.
The south London-bred actress of Ghanaian descent and youngest of four children explains that overt racism in 1970s Britain disillusioned her father. Despite studying civil engineering at university, out of fear and intimidation, he refrained from pursing his dream of becoming a civil engineer and instead alternated between being a train conductor and a mini cab driver.
At the age of 12, Anniwaa found herself experiencing the same “bitter” disillusionment when her ballet teacher told her that she would “never be a successful dancer” because she was black. Anniwaa left the Royal Academy of Dance at 18, but still remains connected to her former hobby by working as a part-time ballet teacher alongside pursing her acting career since moving to Los Angeles in 2014.
In addition to her passion for dancing, Anniwaa later found that she enjoyed writing practice scripts and plays. It wasn’t until she landed her first acting job in an adaptation of Dilemma of a Ghost by Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo that she realised that acting was the career path she ardently wanted to pursue.
Anniwaa believes that not only racism, but elitism is deeply ingrained in British society and as a result, it has impacted on her opportunities as a black female actress in the UK, which was a propelling factor in encouraging her to move to the United States for better opportunities: “In the three years I have been living here, I have landed leading roles in sitcoms and have almost made it to large-scale TV shows but in all my years of acting in London, I always felt that the rare opportunities were slipping from my fingertips.” She explains that because of the elitist approach, directors in the UK are always fixated on the qualifications a person holds. “In America, they just ask you if you look the part and if you are convincing and that’s it.”
“In London, I felt that the rare opportunities were slipping from my fingertips”
Albeit a well-discussed issue, the diversity debate reignited in early 2016 when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced their nominees for the year, which turned out to consist only of white actors and actresses; the social media hashtag #OscarsSoWhite consequently gained momentum as it began trending on Twitter. In the UK, renowned Nigerian actor David Oyelowo drew attention to the debate in regards to the British film industry at the British Film Institute (BFI) festival in October.
He described the phenomenon as a “talent drain” and pleaded for change. Just like Anniwaa, David Oyelowo and other black stars such as Idris Elba have shared her struggle of not being able to find success in the UK and have consequently relocated to the United States in an attempt to break through the ‘glass ceiling’ that encapsulates the British film industry. The 2012 Creative Skillset Employment Census revealed that the proportion of BAME actors in film productions fell from 12 per cent in 2009 to just five per cent in 2012. A BFI research project revealed that only 13 per cent of UK films had a black actor in a leading role in 2016, suggesting that the topic of representation is indeed a continuous issue.
During her transition into her acting career, Anniwaa still experienced what she described as “institutionalised racism” when she enrolled in drama school. “I was one of two black students in the entire class and at the end of it, my teacher said I had ‘come a long way’ but she didn’t understand why black people ‘lacked articulation’ and I was shocked.”
On the subject of BAME (Black, Asian, Ethnic and Minority) casting calls, Anniwaa believes they are publicity stunts: “The same person who told me to sound more ‘street’ to be black is probably the same person who will be applying for Arts Council funding because she’s managed to secure one black and one Asian person in her production,” she says. After relocating to the United States, Anniwaa also sees BAME casting calls as sometimes politically motivated: “There will be talks of diversity when a story about police brutality emerges because they don’t want to lose their black viewers.”
“My teacher said she didn’t understand why black people ‘lacked articulation’ and I was shocked”
Although in agreement that there are hurdles that we need to overcome in terms of achieving diversity in the British film industry and on theatre stages, theatre practitioner Elizabeth Mary Williams takes a much more optimistic approach and recently led a BAME casting entitled #CASTE. She believes that such initiatives can shed light on the issue in the media and consequently promote diversity. “#CASTE came from a manifestation of trends I was seeing – I would walk into a room full of people and see the same faces over and over again and I wanted to change that.” #CASTE is a research and development project currently taking place at the Arcola Lab in Dalston’s Arcola Theatre, offering 28 weeks of free rehearsal space for BAME artists per year; the project seeks to explore the way BAME actors are portrayed through TV and on-stage in comparison to the 1920s.
Elizabeth, who is of Irish and Jamaican descent, believes that discrimination in the British film industry is inherent, yet she says that we have already come a long way as a society, especially over the last five years and thinks that BAME models are becoming increasingly more prominent in adverts: “Yes, you may mostly see them in Hackney or Stoke Newington, but it’s a step forward,” says the actress and practitioner.
Antony Fitzgerald believes that the dynamics of misrepresentation are “massive”, with a large part of the problem revolving around aesthetics: “I think a lot of black people are seen as quirky but not beautiful according to the archetypal idea of it.” The mature black actor and model of Caribbean, Jamaican and Antiguan descent believes that there aren’t enough male black models in the industry. Antony is often praised for his distinct facial features and will be the main inspiration behind one of the characters in a new video game being released later this year.
Solomon Taiwo Justified, who has been acting for the past nine years, believes that solving the issue is about your mindset: “It seems like people are letting me in and I would say it’s down to your mentality – maybe there is a diversity issue but if you keep repeating it, you are giving the other person the upper hand.” Solomon got introduced to acting when he met Noel Clarke who is described by the BFI as the most ‘prolific black actor in UK film’. Solomon had a minor role in the final film of the Hood trilogy that Noel Clarke directed, which is an exploration into British gang culture.
In the UK, there are several diversity strategies that seek to break the mould of ethnic diversity in film: Black Star is a current scheme run by the BFI to promote and celebrate black talent. The National Theatre is currently running a Diversity and Inclusion Strategy and one of the aims is to ensure that by 2021, at least a quarter of actors on stage are of colour. The National Theatre was asked to reveal figures on how many black actors were present in plays over the last 10 years but were not available for comment. The theatre was previously accused of not promoting diversity, as well running a racist play in 2009 entitled England People Very Nice, written by Richard Bean. Playwright Hussain Ismail described the play as “prejudiced and crass” in the way it represented migrants: “The Irish are all incestuous alcoholics whilst the Bangladeshi Muslims are either muggers or jihadis.”
In a survey I conducted, I found that 53 per cent of respondents didn’t believe that black actors were represented well enough in the industry. When asked to provide a reason for why they believed this was the case, a quarter of the overall respondents referred to roles as being the root of the issue of representation; several mentioned that black actors often take up the role of the antagonist in films or that they are put into racially stereotypical roles.
For Devika Shallivan, an Indian-born actress and model who has been in the industry for over a decade, a serious issue is indeed the stereotypical representation of BAME actors in film. “Yes, they may be in films but how are they being portrayed? Citizen Khan is a very stereotypical representation of Asian culture.” She believes that more BAME screenwriters should be encouraged to come forward and create stories that people can relate to from a non-Western viewpoint.
Anniwaa also believes that the stereotypical representation of people of colour in film is an issue that we cannot simply skim over in a bid to promote equality and diversity: “There are too many stories about the plight of a black slave or an Indian girl’s arranged marriage – I want to see stories about a second-generation migrant’s experience.”
Despite having found success in the United States, Anniwaa believes that minority groups are still treated as second-class citizens there: “I’d never raise my kids here; I have opportunities but it breaks my heart being away from London.” Ongoing diversity strategies in London are perhaps glimmers of hope that show initiative is being taken on a wide scale to address the issue of black actors being underrepresented in the film industry. As one of the most multicultural cities in the world and the unyielding heartbeat of the UK film industry; it would be a shame to imagine that we weren’t uncovering our full potential.