“There’s nothing like the smell of diversity in the morning.”
David Oyelowo opened the Black Star Symposium at the BFI South Bank in London last week with a joke – actually a comedy routine, during which he suggested that talking about diversity, for him, was akin to Idris Elbe being asked yet again about James Bond.
But this was simply a softening up of his audience of actors, filmmakers and industry movers and shakers. Oyelowo really could have been wearing Colonel Kilgore’s army fatigues (rather than a dapper white suit), because hereafter he was in fighting mood, at the heart of a discussion about the limited opportunities for black actors on screen in the US and the UK – and what more can be done to effect “positive change.”
The gathering was the headline industry event of this year’s London Film Festival, which opened with a screening of Amma Asante’s “A United Kingdom” – starring Oyelowo, alongside Rosamund Pike.
Immediately after the LFF concludes, the BFI will launch into its Black Star season of films celebrating the achievements of black actors from the earliest years of cinema through to the present day.
The point of the symposium was that, as terrific as these contributions have been, there could have been so many more – not just roles for black actors, but opportunities to play characters at the centre of their own stories. Oyelowo, who has been vocal on the topic for some time, was close to tears when he recalled leaving the UK for the US, as the only way he saw to secure such roles. And he begged film executives in the UK to “please stop the talent drain.”
His argument was that individuals could not be faulted for their “bias” in thinking first and foremost of their own perspectives in commissioning stories, selecting directors, or casting actors. This was not racism, he insisted. But the remedy was to “change the demographic of the people making these decisions.”
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Oyelowo’s commitment to diversity includes a spirited championing of women directors – among them “Selma’s” Ava DuVernay, of course, Asante and Mira Nair, whose “Queen of Katwe” also plays at the LFF.
And to the “captains of industry,” he suggested that the same solution to the problems faced by black actors should be applied to the lack of opportunity for women directors.“If you look at your companies, and half of your staff are not female and a decent percentage are not people of colour, then you are part of the problem,” he said.
“You need people working for you and in positions of leadership who can exercise their bias, their perspective. That is the only way this is going to change,” Oyelowo said. “Giving us the odd bone is not going to do it. Don’t pat yourself on the back because you made that black drama. Bully for you, that’s not diversity my friend. It’s got to be baked into the foundation of where the ideas flow from.”
“The reason that ‘Queen of Katwe’ exists is because of an executive at Disney called Tendo Nagenda who is of Ugandan parentage and walked this story up and down the halls of Disney for years before it got made,” he continued. “It would not exist without him having a power position in that company. The version of ‘Selma’ that you see would not exist without Oprah Winfrey being one of the producers on that movie.”
The BFI’s creative director Heather Stewart backed Oyelowo by revealing some of the institute’s new research into the representation of black actors in UK films made and released over the last 10 years. Out of 1,172 films, only 13% credited at least one black actor in a lead role. Perhaps even more startling, half of all lead roles played by black actors were clustered in just 47 films.
“The data supports our feeling that most UK films do not cast black actors, and that black actors are playing the same types of roles over and again,” said Stewart. “Diversity is one of the biggest issues facing film – audiences want to see the world in which we live reflected back at them.”
Trevante Rhodes, the American star of Barry Jenkins’s “Moonlight”, said that the response to the film – about a young African American struggling to deal with his homosexuality on the macho Miami streets – made him “incredibly hopeful” that audiences were open to the kind of stories that black directors and actors wanted to tell.
“It’s a very specific story that you don’t normally get to see on screen, but people are really receiving it in the States, and all over the world, with open hearts and open eyes. It’s an amazing thing,” he said.
And in explaining the 10-year-gap between her debut feature “A Way of Life” and her sophomore “Belle,” director Amma Asante also noted a positive shift.
“I was not short of ideas in that time,” she said. “It was definitely about financing, and getting to a place where there were more people put in [funding] positions who recognised that the people I wanted to tell my stories about did not necessarily have to fall into the default experience and the default character – often white, male, of a certain age.
“They could recognise that my stories had value to a wider public and were not niche,” Asante added.