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The British Blacklist: Caste as Black – Awarded a Lesson in Perception (Part One)

The British Blacklist: Caste as Black - Awarded a Lesson in Perception (Part One)

The ‘Caste as Black’ series was originally published on The British Blacklist, the UK’s only database of black British talent.

As a proud black actor, you should strive to be an informed professional. Possession of a little situational awareness can enable you to own your social and professional circumstances, to make conscious, conscientious decisions about your own destiny, and travel that road with serenity and authority. The British Blacklist is here to help.

A Lens to Perceive Through

The 2013-14 Movie Awards Season is just about over. Through it, I came to realise that the results could be used as an interesting lens to focus on the fortunes of our awards hopefuls. November’s 7th annual MViSAs were hosted during the Birmingham Black International Film Festival (BBIFF). The Movie Video and Screen Awards tend to concentrate on TV performances across 14 categories with 2 special awards. Wil Johnson beat Idris ElbaChiwetel EjioforAshley Walters and Paterson Joseph to take UK Actor for his performance in ‘Emmerdale’ (ITV/Various).

The Awards Season thus began in earnest, and our three Major Awards hopefuls were variously recognised and honoured internationally. ’12 Years a Slave’ (2013) emerged with a strong international showing, collecting a decent haul of nominations and trophies, whilst ‘Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom’ (2013) received mainly positive reviews, that were universally positive for the central performances. However, the film was generally overlooked for honours.

With a British director and two British leads, selected for the Royal Film Premiere in London and on the day the ‘Last Great Statesman’ died, Long Walk to Freedom received a standing ovation at the end credits before the news of Mr. Mandela’s death was broken. Yet, with the exception of the NAACP Image Awards, internationally, it ‘failed to find its audience’. Though there were high hopes for restitution in the pending, uniquely British awards, the central performances were, again, all but completely ignored, the actors failing even to be nominated in most.

The ALFs

The London Critics’ Circle[1], a prestigious and influential British media institution, is a professional association of artistic critics, proud of its accrued media influence. ALFs are awarded across 15 categories and one Special Award for Excellence in Film. At the announcement of this year’s nominees (the 34th), the Film Section Chair enthused, “The London critics have yet again voted for a brilliant mix of films that reflects London’s position as a hub of world cinema culture, both in production and appreciation.”
Of the four black actors and one black director nominated, three were British and only one triumphed. Now, forgive me, as I respectfully put the luminous and gifted Kenyan-Mexican, Lupita Nyong’o (awarded Supporting Actress), and the talented Somali-American, Barkhad Abdi (awarded Supporting Actor), to one side. They truly represent world cinema, but this is The British Blacklist.

Naomie Harris, nominated in the Supporting Actress and British Actress of the Year categories, lost out to Miss Nyong’o and Dame Judi Dench, respectively. Chiwetel Ejiofor was named Actor of the Year, but lost British Actor of the Year to James McAvoy. 12 Years a Slave was named Film of the Year, as Steve McQueen lost out to Alfonso Cuarón in the Directing category.

The BAFTAs

Of the 67 annual opportunities to date, there was no better occasion for the British Academy of Film and Television Arts to confirm AfriCarib British talent since 2009, when Noel Clarke was awarded the Orange Rising Star Award, and Steve McQueen was awarded the Carl Foreman Award for Special Achievement in a Feature Film as debuting screenwriter and director for ‘Hunger’ (the Bobby Sands story) (2008). ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ (2008) won big that year – with a completely ethnic cast – including Best Film, Music (A.R. Rahman) and Dev Patel’s nomination for Best Actor. Since then, and with the exception of Steve McQueen’s nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay – ‘Shame’ in 2012, only African-American actresses have triumphed. Mo’Nique took Supporting Actress for ‘Precious’ in 2010, and Octavia Spencer took Supporting Actress for ‘The Help’ in 2012 (Viola Davis was nominated for Best Actress).

BAFTA has been accused of racial bias which does not favour ethnic minorities. Paterson Joseph, a past BAFTA juror, awards presenter (and a rather talented actor), wrote a short piece for The Guardian online[2] last May. He feels that the dearth of nominations for black actors is due to there being too few on TV. He goes on to explain that BAFTA jurors have no say in the Eligibles, but are given a list and accompanying DVD of performances from which to choose the nominees and winner. The conclusion we are, presumably, to draw from this is that the volume of ethnic-related material actually available for BAFTA to consider does not amount to much. The existence of the MViSAs would seem to contradict that theory. In TV alone, the jury were able to find 22 nominees across 5 individual categories – Actress (5), Actor (5), Emerging Talent (4), Comedy Performance (5) and Presenter (3).

However, legendary Lenny Henry agrees with Mr Joseph. He has been vocal since 2008 (almost by accident, as it turns out), but has subsequently become a much more committed voice. Indeed, he delivered the 2014 BAFTA Television Lecture on diversity in the British film and television industry (watch the debate here)[3]. He feels that the talent is out there, but the opportunities are poor and do not translate to film releases or TV broadcasts. He quotes Initiatives, Training Programmes, Mentoring Schemes and Demographics Monitoring, all instigated in the UK in recent years to improve such opportunities. Sadly, he feels they have largely failed, but suggested that money is the answer – ring-fencing budgetary expenditure specifically for ethnic-related projects. It worked for regional projects – representing regions of the UK outside of the M25.

Hold that thought.

This year, Mr Ejiofor was awarded the BAFTA for Lead Actor and Mr Abdi, Supporting Actor. Mr McQueen was nominated for Directing and Miss Nyong’o, nominated for Supporting Actress, almost mirroring the ALFs, but not quite.

The SNaFTAs

The 9th Screen Nation Film and TV Awards ‘for professionals of African heritage’ followed, as voted by the public (11 categories) and the Screen Nation executive jury (6 awards). It also celebrated Nigeria’s centenary. Mr Ejiofor won best male performance in film, and Miss Harris, best female. Idris Elba won best male performance in TV and was nominated in the film category. Miss Nyong’o won favourite female African International Rising Screen Talent and the late, great Mr Felix Dexter, RIP, received a praiseworthy posthumous Inspiration Award. The presumed quantity of nominees across the individual categories might, again, seem to contradict this impression of insufficient numbers of black actors from which to choose.

The JEMAs

Empire Magazine, possibly the biggest monthly movie magazine in the world, organise the annual Jameson Empire Movie Awards across 13 categories . Mr Ejiofor was the only black British nominee across the 6 individual categories. He lost out in the Lead Actor category to Mr McAvoy. (FYI, Mr McQueen lost again to Mr Cuarón, Miss Nyong’o and Mr Abdi were nominated, but also lost out in Female Newcomer, Supporting Actress and Supporting Actor categories, respectively).

Launched in 1989, Empire Magazine has a readership of 873,000 across all platforms (Jul-Dec 2012) and circulation figures of 145,117 (Jul-Dec 2013) in the United Kingdom, United States, Australia, Turkey, Russia, and Portugal. The editor oversees and maintains writing that is passionate, authoritative and of an extremely high quality. The annual movie award ceremony is the last of the Season, and major stars always attend. This year, the 18th, Tom Cruise, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Emma Thompson, Michael Fassbender and Mr McAvoy were just a few of the nominees who attended the ceremony to claim their awards in person. After all, it is the biggest movie magazine in the world (probably) and it’s an utterly awesome party. But, more meaningfully, the readership generates the nominees, which is where the importance of the JEMAs really lies.

Officially (Jul-Dec 2012), Empire magazine’s readers are 77% male, 23% female, 82.9% 15-44 years old and 72.8% , ABC1 NRS readership classification [4]. This is staggering when you realise that, based on the head of the household, the UK National Readership Survey (NRS) of readers classifies A as upper middle class (higher managerial, administrative or professional), B as middle class (intermediate managerial, administrative or professional) and C1 as lower middle class (supervisory or clerical and junior managerial, administrative or professional). Countless studies and government reports confirm that white males in positions of authority notoriously cast their vote for the candidate that most reflects them and what they recognise as similar. Check out any demographic in appointments to government, the boardroom, senior management, prestigious hospital consultant, senior nursing, head teacher or the brilliant summary paper by Sealy and colleagues[5]. The generation before chooses the generation to come in order to perpetuate what has always been (See ‘habitus’ and ‘doxa’ in sociology).

Facing Facts whilst Recognising Truths…

Since JEMA results can be almost directly traced to who the voting, movie-going, British public actually are, this is quite possibly the lens through which you may be perceived – un-assimilated, not British and not considered representative of Britain: ‘Other’ to the white, professional, British male, through an undemanding, well-worn lens that really has little place in modern society. However, this is no reason to boycott Empire – it really is an excellent magazine, which I have personally enjoyed for much of its lifetime, and still do. There is also no point in demanding they ‘do something’ about their NRS demographics. It is what it is.

The UK is a democracy, built on autonomy of the individual. What these figures do give you, is something tangible to work with. It is valuable information that you should acknowledge and carry with you into every audition, every performance. Because, and here you must face facts, ask yourself, do you or your friends and colleagues buy or subscribe to Empire? According to the demographics, you don’t. And that is something entirely under your control – no-one else’s. Me? I cast my votes every year.

It may also mean that Mr Henry’s ring-fencing plan might have a fatal flaw. Even if ethnic-related projects come to fruition in abundance, that White Professional British Male may not spend his upper middle class salary going to or tuning in to see it! (See the track record so far). Further, Catherine Shoard of The Guardian recently wrote of the British Film Institute’s box office figures[6]. Year-on-year, UK-based films are losing $1bn in earnings, despite high-profile productions, inclusive of movies showcasing UK settings, cast and crew, wholly or partly US-backed. Such films account for only 9.8% of the global box office. UK-independent films account for just 1.8%, which I think we can agree, is the category in which ethnic-related material would likely fall into.

Tomorrow: Part Two – Perception and the means to adjust the lens

‘Caste as Black’ was originally published on The British Blacklist, the UK’s only database of black British talent.

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