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The British Blacklist – Caste As Black Part Two: Can Black be Perceived as British?

The British Blacklist - Caste As Black Part Two: Can Black be Perceived as British?

Read part one HERE.

The answer is, of course, YES. I mean, in the world of international film, TV and theatre, YES.  Just as the UK repeatedly honours ‘exotic’ or American black actors (see Miss Nyong’o & Mr Abdi’s awards records), UK black actors are honoured abroad; and you are getting really good at it – even the serious press are having their say. Back in January, Hugh Muir, of The Guardian, penned, Why do black actors like Idris Elba have to go to the US for success?[7] In March, The Japan Times ran, Black actors leaving for Hollywood worries British government[8].

Recognising your undeniable talent, the African-American Forum hosted the discussion, Black British are Taking Over Hollywood, way back in 2012[9], and during the 2014 pre-Oscars buzz, Madame Noire® hosted Charing Ball’s blog, Is Hollywood Replacing African American Actors with African Actors?[10]

This year, whilst the African-Americans were taking care of their business in the 45th NAACP Image Awards, the British were not completely denied. David Oyelowo took Supporting Actor forThe Butler (2013), whilst Mr Ejiofor and Mr Elbawere both nominated in the Lead Actor category (Mr Elba also received a Golden Globe Best Actor nom for Mandela), Naomie Harris was nominated in the Supporting Actress category, and both 12 Years A Slave (2013) and Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom (2013) were nominated in the Motion Picture category. 12 Years won.

In the Lead Actor in a TV series, Elba won forLuther (2010 – 2013), and Ejiofor was nominated for Dancing on The Edge (2013).

An interesting aside to these results is that both British TV serials are exported BBC productions with strong black male leads. But, as Lenny Henry pointed out in his Lecture[3], Luther is adrift in a ‘fictional’ London, in a sea of supportive white characters, a couple of white villains and one conniving black character. No black friends, family or worthy colleagues. Maybe that’s the source of his Luther-rage? Louis Lester is a jazz musician in Jazz Age London, surrounded by Bright Young Things, spending his time protecting white honour, seeking white help, whilst weighed down by his muddle-some black band mates.

Both leads seem to find themselves in situations which feel ever-so-slightly constructed to make the Target Audiencefeel comfortable – safe, even. Both screenwriters are white (Neil Cross and Stephen Poliakoff, respectively), and whilst I applaud these productions, I can’t see that either series was written to be inclusive of a black audience. This may have had some bearing on the MViSA (Movie Video and Screen Awards) public vote (with Messrs Ejiofor and Elba denied). Then again, as a community, we have historically been more than happy to have one major black character with speaking lines on our screens at a time. Consider George Harris as Wolcott (1981), Adrian Lester in Hustle (2004),Don Gilet in 55 Degrees North (2004), Freema Agyeman in Doctor Who (2006) and Law and Order: UK (2009), Mr Ejiofor in The Shadow Line (2011), Lennie James in Line of Duty (2012), Sophie Okonedo  in The Escape Artist(2013). Great performances all, with a bumper year in 2004! But, definitely produced from a certain point of view artistically, demographically and politically.

And then, there is the 2012 Daily Telegraph piece about Andy Akinwolere, Blue Peter’s first black male presenter, also complaining about the lack of black actors on TV. In response, the BBC’s then female controller of drama series and serials stated that she had, “…heard criticism that many of the black actors who come to auditions are “posh Africans” and not representative of all social classes.” [11].
Posh. Africans? Social. Classes?

“representative of the black British community” or even a ‘Buppie’ here would have shown that the BBC’s casting department at least acknowledged the possibility of the auditionees’ British citizenship, albeit with a dated term (1980s Black Urban Professional or Black Upwardly-mobile Professional). But, bearing in mind what she said next, I’m amazed any black actor gets hired at the Beeb or that she was hired in the first place. Or allowed to speak the words, “The bottom line is, are they good and are they convincing?”

Adjusting the Lens

There is no cover up. I love TV and film. There are great lessons to be learned from the written word turned into a meaningful shot. And there is absolutely no point in denying that Dame Judi, Emma Thompson, James McAvoy or Gary Oldman are any less talented than their deserved reputations profess them to be. I am a big fan of worthy work and they have produced some of the best.

But, Demographics Monitoring is almost universally applied these days and the data are freely available in hard or electronic copy. However, it is useless if left unused, unchallenged and unchanged. This data should be used by you (and browsers of TBB) to work with, to understand not just the role you may have won, but the unspoken meanings attached, so that you may ultimately change the perception with which you were hired. Certainly to change the perception with which you may have been rejected or worse, ignored.

Edmund Burke said ‘Evil flourishes when good men do nothing’, or words to that effect. So, do something.

In Hollywood, The Black List[12] is a collection of the hottest scripts from that year which have not been made into movies. In 2005, Franklin Leonard embarked on this huge undertaking by polling just 95 industry colleagues in film development (now around 500) to name their top 5 ‘most-liked’. This List has come to represent excellence within one of the hardest communities to impress. From within it, he embraced the current and massaged it into something new, and he called it black. He presented the film-making industry with a black that is like the colour itself – NOT just an absence of light, but all encompassing, absorbing all colours, maintaining a degree of mystery and inspiring a little fear. Matt or luminous, it reveals other minerals in all their fluorescent brilliance as the far-ultraviolet ‘black light’. And yes, black is regarded as one of the first colours of recordable communication (dye/ink) and, of course, it is the colour of elegant fashion. Franklin Leonard is African-American.

Media

Celebrating on-screen/on-stage talent is a great way to raise an actor’s profile. However, our two established awards events, whilst gaining in recognition, are ignoring the entire spectrum of behind-the-scenes talent. In fact, the Birmingham Black British International Film Festival is also guilty. The Arts are not just about ‘celebrity’, so where are the honours in writing, production, editing, costume, choreography, special effects? Film, TV and stage works, are also products of literary, financial and technical talent and these facets should also be celebrated. As a community, we might not have produced a ‘best’ yet. But by acknowledging at least an individual’s contribution to a major or critically acclaimed production, it won’t be long.

Theatre

Mr Joseph also wisely wrote [2], “We live in a majority white country, with a majority European literary tradition both in TV and theatre. For European, read ‘white’.”

I’m sure you have heard of Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, danced by a Corp de Ballet made up of men only? How about the Hecate Theatre Company, committed to ‘reinvent Classical and Modern theatre with an all-female cast’? These groups, and many more like them, re-shaped the classics to their liking.

Well, you can limit yourself to works by black writers, take black roles in ‘white’ productions. Or you can include works by all writers (even your own work), based not only on quality, but on what people will pay to see and what represents you as Artists. If not in an actual theatre, church halls can be rented for a reasonable hourly rate, school gyms, shop fronts, someone’s basement. Within a Collective (and with a little help from those supportive family and friends) you don’t have to be typecast!

In fact, David Harewood wrote of his views on just what he believes black actors can do [13]. Before him, Lindsay Johns, a ‘passionate devotee of black theatre’ had his say about the state of black theatre, ‘the overwhelming majority of black British theatre over the past decade — say, 92.3 FM (2006) or Random (2008) — can be categorised as being about guns, drugs and council estates. In 2010, the London theatre-going public is still being presented with the Theatre of the Ghetto. In short, it is cruelly blighted by the ghetto mentality which passes for the only acceptable face of black British culture.’ [14] Lindsay Johns is a black man.

A black actor can play Juliet – man or woman. Why not? White actors did it for centuries when women were banned from the stage. You can build your name or your brand from the community inward, by including the community at large – performances in aid of the local school/hospice/hospital/church, running workshops for adults and children, generating column inches for your work. William Morris (yes, that one) said, “Fellowship is life…” So, stick together, exchange ideas, build your reputation the way you wish it to be.

Film and Television

Here, there is an opportunity to get a head start on your white counterparts. Very few British actors run their own production companies! It is far more common in the US. Charlie Chaplin co-founded the distribution company United Artists in 1919, which gave him complete control over the films he wrote, directed, produced, scored, edited and starred in. Ever heard of Talkback?

It was founded in 1981 by the late Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones. In its various forms, it is responsible for developing Alas Smith and Jones/The Apprentice/Big Train/Celebrity Juice/Da Ali G Show/The Day Today/ Green Wing/House Doctor/I’m Alan Partridge/Keith Lemon’s LemonAid/Lemon La Vida Loca/ Murder Most Horrid/Never Mind the Buzzcocks/QI/Smack the Pony/Through the Keyhole/They Think It’s All Over/Your Face or Mine? That is an impressive list.

Noel Clarke, a shining light if ever there was one, founded Unstoppable Entertainment in 2007 with help from BAFTA, and has 9 producing credits to his name. He has been involved as producer, writer, director and cast member in many of the TV and film roles produced by his company, as have many other actors.

African-American Actors, Their Production Companies and Productions: 

  • Denzel Washington – 1990, Mundy Lane Entertainment (Devil in a Blue Dress 1995, The Preacher’s Wife 1996,  Antwone Fischer 2002).
  • Spike Lee – 1986, 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks (Do the Right Thing 1989, School Daze 1988, She’s Gotta Have It1986, Mo’ Better Blues 1990, He Got Game 1998, The Best Man 1999, The Original Kings of Comedy 2000, Bamboozled 2000, Love & Basketball 2000, Inside Man 2006)
  • Wesley Snipes – 1991, Amen-Ra Films (Blade trilogy 1998, 2002, 2004, and The Art of War 2000 amongst others) and subsidiary Black Dot Media.
  • Eddie Murphy – Eddie Murphy Television Inc. (Delirious 1983) and Eddie Murphy Productions (The Golden Child1986, Raw 1987, Coming to America 1988, Harlem Nights 1989, Another 48 Hours 1990, Boomerang 1992, Beverly Hills Cop franchise 1984, 1987, 1994 , Vampire in Brooklyn 1995, Holy Man 1998, plus some others). He also wrote and directed Harlem Nights.
  • Morgan Freeman – 1996, Revelations Entertainment (10 Items or Less 2006, Along Came a Spider 2001, Invictus2009).

Many of these movies may never have been made, because the actors wouldn’t have been ‘seen as’ the diverse collection of characters the stars wished to play. Eddie Murphy as a Buppie/company executive, African Prince, Vampire, Chosen One, Gangster, Senator? Not in a white production. Morgan Freeman was almost certainly too old to play the Alex Cross described in James Paterson’s books, but he did – twice! Wesley Snipes as a vampire, mercenary hero, martial arts master (even though his is a 5th Dan in reality)? I think not. Even Denzel as a 1940s detective, an Angel? Almost certainly not. The dates show that these companies were started in relatively quiet or early periods in their careers. These subsequently heavyweight stars may not have become so important had they not taken the plunge and started these companies, from which they also gained public exposure, as well as valuable managerial, financial, production and directorial experience.

Next week: Lens Change and Cultural Assimilation in Part Three.

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

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