British actors of color may have it worse than Americans
There were plenty of black stars to be seen at last month’s awards show for the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.
Angela Bassett and Cuba Gooding Jr. were flown in as presenters. Acting legend Sidney Poitier was given a BAFTA Lifetime Achievement Award via video link. And Londoner John Boyega picked up the audience’s Rising Star award for his work in the new “Star Wars” film.
The lack of diversity among nominees at this year’s Oscars was the butt of jokes at the BAFTAs all night.
But is the situation in Britain any better? The answer, members of the local film and TV industries say, is most definitely no. It may actually be worse.
What masquerades as professional opportunity for minority actors in Britain is little more than a veneer, according to a growing number of black British actors who say they have had to travel to Hollywood to find more challenging roles.
“I call it ‘blacking up’ the screen and the language,” Paul Blake, director of Maroon Productions, one of a handful of successful black-owned production companies in Britain, said of the BAFTA ceremony. “But who are the winners? And more importantly, who are the producers behind the scenes? Who is calling the shots? Those are the real issues.”
Like this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, which drew widespread criticism for its all-white slate of nominees the 2015 BAFTAs were criticized for being “almost exclusively white.” This year, Idris Elba was the only black actor to be nominated for a BAFTA award in one of the four main acting categories for his performance as a warlord in “Beasts of No Nation” — a performance for which some say he was notably snubbed at the Oscars.
Elba ended up losing to “Bridge of Spies’” Mark Rylance in the Best Supporting Actor category. Instead, he got a bawdy shout-out from this year’s host, Rebel Wilson, who is white. “Sorry Idris Elba you’re making me a bit nervous,” Wilson flirted, in front of the packed theater and some 6 million more viewers watching at home. “I’m just sociologically programmed to want chocolate on Valentine’s Day.”
Outside London’s Royal Opera House, protesters held aloft banners calling the British entertainment industry “male, pale and stale.” And the chief executive of BAFTA agrees with them. “Not enough films are being made with diverse talent in front of the camera,” Amanda Berry said in an interview.
Granted, 3% of Britain’s population is black, compared with 13% of the U.S. population. But critics say nonwhite principal characters are still disproportionately rare in British film and television.
Elba appeared before the House of Commons last month to draw attention to the dire lack of diversity in British film and television. He pointed to his own experience being pigeonholed because of the color of his skin.
“My agent and I, we’d get scripts and we were always asked to read the ‘black male’ character. Or ‘the athletic type.’ And that was just ‘Crimewatch.’ But when a script called for a ‘black male,’ it wasn’t describing a character. It was describing a skin color. A white man — or a Caucasian — was described as ‘a man with a twinkle in his eye,’” he said. “My eyes may be dark, but they definitely twinkle! ... And I was like, ‘I wanna play the character with a twinkle in his eyes!’”
Elba said that he reached a “glass ceiling” in his career. “I was getting lots of work, but I realized I could only play so many ‘best friends’ or ‘gang leaders.’ I knew I wasn’t going to land a lead role. I knew there wasn’t enough imagination in the industry for me to be seen as a lead.”
“I didn’t go to America because I couldn’t get parts,” Elba added. “I went to America because I was running out of parts. They were all the same sort of parts.”
He’s hardly alone. “So many of my black performer friends have gone to L.A. and are more successful there than they ever could have been here,” British actress Nimmy March said. “There is an equivalent of a brain drain going on.
“Selma” star David Oyelowo said in September that he felt “pushed out of the U.K.” by the lack of roles. “Hotel Rwanda” actress Sophie Okonedo told the Guardian that she has to “go across the Atlantic to get work.”
“We sometimes find ourselves looking over to the U.S. and thinking maybe they are ahead of the game,” said Ed Vaizey, Britain’s culture minister.
One factor in the lack of diversity may be the role elite schools play as gateways to the industry. Nearly half of all BAFTA winners — along with 71% of the country’s military officers, almost two-thirds of its top doctors, and about half of its leading journalists — went to private secondary schools, according to a study by the charity Sutton Trust. Only 7% of the country has the privilege to attend such schools.
Tom Hiddleston, Eddie Redmayne, Benedict Cumberbatch, Damian Lewis and Dominic West — some of the most famous British actors of the moment — all attended private schools Eton or Harrow, with Hiddleston and Redmayne going on to study at Cambridge University. Only about 1% of all British undergraduates attend Oxford or Cambridge University. Only about 1% of that 1% are black.
“If you go to private school in the U.K., your chances of having a dedicated drama program with amazing teachers and a great theater space are high,” Edward Kemp, director of Britain’s preeminent drama school, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, explained. “And your chances of getting exposed to, and interested in, drama are much higher than if your school play was being staged in the hall and the lighting was being done by the physics teacher.” Eton, famously, has a professional-standard 400-seat theater and two studio theaters, capable of mounting 30 productions a year.
Students from lower-class backgrounds who fight the odds and graduate from the country’s best acting schools find many roles remain closed to them. “There is a predisposition here in the U.K. to casting ‘the real thing,’” says Kemp. “So if a central character is a member of the landed gentry or an Oxbridge don — which happens often — and you have two amazing actors … you are going to choose the one who went to private school.”
But even for British actors of color who come from upper-class backgrounds, breaking into the industry can be an uphill battle. Just ask March.
The biological daughter of a black South African father and a white English mother, March was adopted and brought up by the Duke and Duchess of Richmond. But having a title and a posh accent, graduating with a top education, and getting classical theater training still didn’t help her, she claims, when it came to getting good parts.
“There is a pecking order,” March said. “Nonwhites are considered of lower status and less desirable if you are trying to make a show that makes money — and who isn’t? So we are given less opportunity. That’s just how it is.” When she goes on set, there are not only precious few black characters, there are also no black producers or, for that matter, even technicians. “Black directors,” she says, “are as rare as hen’s teeth.”
“Sure, there are lots of white kids who don’t get great opportunities, but if you are white and you are in a suit and look smart, you can walk into an audition and try to get any job,” Blake said. When he was starting out in the industry and applied to a trainee program to be an assistant producer, the receptionist looked at him dressed up in his Armani suit and sunglasses and told him: “You look like a drug dealer.”
In Britain as in the U.S., the underlying problem goes beyond casting. “I think Britain and the U.S. have lessons for each other,” said Labor politician Oona King, the daughter of an African American father and a Jewish mother, who became the first mixed race woman to be elected as a member of Parliament. “We can learn from the U.S. about escaping stereotypes, and being more imaginative with casting. But in a way that’s just tinkering. You can’t deal with diversity if you don’t deal with those making the creative decisions.”
Harman is a special correspondent.
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