how can we combat the systemic racism of the tv and film industry?
As a gay, second generation, gender queer, Iraqi-Egyptian growing up in the UK, it pretty much goes without saying that the number of times I've seen characters like myself in film and on TV is a grand total of zero. As a teenager going through one hell of an identity crisis in this country, the television was where I had hope. Aged 14 I would sneak downstairs once my parents were asleep, to flick through channels in search of a world I could fit into. I never quite found one, but shows like Queer as Folk, and films like Angels in America, offered alternatives to my conservative upbringing. Whilst I connected with these characters far more than with anything else out there, it was always disheartening that the vast majority of them were white.
Whilst watching the offerings of this country's TV and film industry has lead to feeling culturally isolated, my attempting to actually perform on screen presented a whole new world of institutional exclusion. As a Middle Eastern performer working in the UK, I have, since graduating, been called in to audition for around 20 terrorist roles (for characters inconspicuously named Suspicious Bearded Man on Tube, or Cold Blooded Arab Killer on scripts), and this is an experience shared by most Middle Eastern actors in the UK and America. So whilst the parallel world of televisual freedom was meant to be my alternative, it simply replicated the systemic racism I experience in the 'real world'.
Although my experience is very specific, it belongs to a much wider problem of media diversity in the UK. Heather Stewart, the Creative Director of the BFI, leads a remarkable team of researchers in scrutinising the representation of BAME (British, Asian and minority ethnic) actors in film. They have begun with a study of black actors in British film over the last ten years (2006-2016); this comes in tandem with the BFI's current celebration of black cinema as part of their Black Star Season. Here are some of the humbling statistics they've unearthed: out of the 1000 films the BFI have looked at, 59% of films have no black actors, and only 13% of films feature a black actor in any named role. Heather explained that many of the roles for BAME actors they've looked at "really tend to be race-related… and when TV shows like Underground come out, everyone makes a big shout out about diversity." And yet the hard facts show that these occasional 'spectacles' of diversity cloud the realities of BAME representation in the industry.
As the #oscarssowhite controversy so painfully demonstrated in 2015, the exclusively white nomination roster was intrinsically linked to the majority-white decision makers.
So why is the situation so dire? Well, one aspect relates to who exactly is in power, a question that Heather's team is keen to investigate. As the #oscarssowhite controversy so painfully demonstrated in 2015, the exclusively white nomination roster was intrinsically linked to the majority-white decision makers (the average age of whom was 62). Now here's the thing; perhaps conscious racism isn't what's occurring at the top, but the link between the lack of diversity on-screen and in positions of power off-screen suggests an unconscious bias from decision makers, i.e. feeling more inclined to commission and produce work in which they see themselves represented.
Actively bringing diverse voices to the influential insider roles is a necessary step in the fight. Take, for example, Ramy El-Bergamy, who's just been appointed to the newly created role of Diversity Executive at Channel 4. Ramy's position is new at the channel (it was set up just one year ago), and he claims to have witnessed "a fundamental problem in our industry." He explains how a lot of his job "is trying to get the people who make decisions to see things from a different perspective." Ramy works across the channel - with commissioners, producers and talent - to push for diversity and to challenge lazy assumptions in the works being created. He explained, "when I read a script and see that the architect is being cast as a straight white man, for instance, I push the creators to see that the part could just as feasibly be a black, queer woman."
But in order to move away from convincing people in power to diversify our screens to having the people in power be diverse, measures need to be taken to ensure a level playing field in decades to come. And we are seeing more of these measures everyday. Casting director Kharmel Cochrane is an example of someone fighting for change. She says that the priority given to white actors is so systemic that it starts with drama school fees isolating the underprivileged and thus restricting their access to the best agents. It's so bad, she suggest, that she often casts actors off the street to ensure equality.
Barry Jenkins' Moonlight, about gay black masculinity in the Miami ghetto took in $414,740 in it's opening weekend across just four theatres, a sure fire sign that our perspectives about what 'sells' need altering.
And this year the BFI solely invited BAME filmmakers for a place on their Net.Work scheme, intended to connect emerging talent to the wider industry. I was lucky enough to win a place on the programme, and when I announced the news on Twitter, was trolled with the comment that "this is racist to white filmmakers." After wanting to spontaneously combust, I tried to reassure the troll that "no white people were being excluded from the industry," but that schemes like this simply help to ensure that everyone has a chance. Drives for diversity should be a labour shared by everyone, not just the BAME individuals the issue directly affects.
This idea that 'white' audiences might not respond to 'diverse' work is what's most nonsensical. Kharmel likened the notion to a mere Chinese whisper, something that ignores the fact that films or TV shows with diverse casts make just as much money, and receive just as much acclaim, despite the odds being stacked against them. Take for instance: Barry Jenkins' Moonlight, the indie masterpiece about gay black masculinity in the Miami ghetto. It took in $414,740 in it's opening weekend across just four theatres. And the storming success of Orange Is The New Black -- achieved without the banker of the famous white actor -- is again a sure fire sign that our perspectives about what 'sells' need altering.
But any progress towards an industry of equality cannot be met with complacency. A vigilant effort on all our parts to ensure a level playing field in the years to come will enrich our screens with the complexity of the worlds we actually live in. Perhaps, then, future non-conformist teenagers, shaking nervously in their living rooms at night, might feel some comfort when they switch on the remote.
Text Amrou Al-Kadhi
Still taken from Moonlight