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More Must be Done to Ensure the Ongoing Success of Black British Actors

Tina Charisma

The British Film and TV industry has produced globally acclaimed Black actors who've not only dominated international screens, but have won and been nominated for coveted awards such as the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards.

Several Black British actors who started out their careers in the UK have gone on to achieve success, often performing stories that have been marginalized and forgotten.

Yet we still have some way to go before inequality in the industry is properly addressed and more actors can follow the trail-blazing of Britain's most successful and celebrated Black actors.

Idris Elba is one example. A London-born actor, he gained his first acting role in Crimewatch in 1994 before going on to command roles in Family Affairs and later Luther.

John Boyega followed a similar path through theatre, where he was noticed by an artistic director in Peckham – and went on to feature in films such as Half of a Yellow Sun and the latest Star Wars trilogy.

Black female actors have carved a particularly brave path in an industry that has not only suffered from race issues but gender biases. Letitia Wright, Michaela Coel, Cynthia Erivo, Golda Rosheuval and others are among the leading Black British female actors dominating the industry.

Drama schools and performance spaces have been key in the early careers of Black British actors. Michaela Coel started off performing at open mic nights at Guildhall School of Music & Drama in 2009. She was the first black woman in the program. She has since written and starred in Chewing Gum and I May Destroy You, earning herself a BAFTA in 2021.

Limited Access

Despite the successes of Black British actors, several hurdles still exist when it comes to equal access and opportunities in the film industry. Establishing diversity is still a major problem in the UK.

According to a report from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) titled "Race and Ethnicity in the UK Film Industry: An Analysis of the BFI Diversity Standards", Black and ethnic minority groups remain the most excluded group in the film industry.

The report stated that “film productions were twice as likely to represent gender difference than Race/Ethnicity and other underrepresented groups across a vast number of on-screen roles and off-screen positions.”

Some of the reasons behind this inequality were linked to recruitment practices which contribute to structural discrimination, hindering the progression of black and ethnic minority actors in the industry.

Prominent black individuals in the industry such as Steve McQueen, director of 12 Years of Slave and Small Axe, have weighed in on film and TV's inequalities.

McQueen mentioned in a Guardian article that, after a visit to a TV film set in London, “it felt like I had walked out of one environment, the London I was surrounded by, into another, a place that was alien to me. I could not believe the whiteness of the set. I made three films in the States, and it seems like nothing has really changed in the interim in Britain. The UK is so far behind in terms of representation, it’s shameful.”

Addressing Inequalities

Attempts to address inequalities in British TV and film have been developed by bodies such as OFCOM. Such attempts emphasise that recruiting and commissioning projects by Black and ethnic minority actors and writers, collaborating on "diverse production", and accessing diverse talent are all key to addressing the industry's representation problem.

The Diversity Standards, devised by the BFI, have also proposed interventions to redress the exclusion of BAME identities in the sector. Their focus is on helping broadcasters and independent production companies develop their diversity policies so they recruit as widely as possible both in terms of their staff and production teams.

While initiatives continue to tackle the inequities within the industry, there remain significant hurdles that have long maintained unequal access for Black and ethnic minority actors. We urgently need to address the longstanding issues of diversity and inclusion in the British film and TV industry.

Tina Charisma is a culture and entertainment writer, journalist, and commentator. You can check out her latest pieces here.

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