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Black British Actors Call For Racial Quotas To Increase Diversity On UK Screens

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by Siobahn Benjamin
November 14, 2013 12:55 PM
6 Comments
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Lenny Henry

Speaking of the Bechdel Test which Tambay brought up yesterday in THIS post...

Yesterday, across the pond, during the Broadcast and Screen International Diversify conference panel titled "Flight of the Black Actor," black actors including Lenny Henry and Kwame Kwei-Armah called for broadcasters to implement quotas to increase racial diversity on UK screens.

Specifically, they called for an initiative similar to The Rooney Rule - a racial quota system implemented by the NFL in the USA, which requires that football clubs interview ethnic minority coaches for vacant jobs.

“In high-end drama, there’s no faces that look like me. We need to lobby the government. Maybe quotas isn’t the right language, maybe we should call them shared targets,” said star of stage and screen Lenny Henry.

Kwei-Armah, now artistic director of theatre company Center Stage in Baltimore, added, “The US set quotas. They did that thing that we’re so scared to do here [...[ In the UK, there’s very little diversity of the roles for men or women of color, but in the US there’s a diversity of opportunity [...] I’m in a permanent state of maudlin that one has to go to the States,” referring to actors like Idris Elba, David Harewood and others who had to move to the USA to work consistently.

Asked by session chair Lorraine Heggessey, executive of Boom Pictures, why the situation had gone backwards for non-white talent on both sides of the screen, Henry replied: “We had a good 1970s. That was because of patronage… Whatever minority you come from there’s often a bloke, generally white, male, middle-class and Oxbridge-educated who says, ‘I like you, I’m going to take you under my wing and look after you. The problem is when they go, you go too – or you have to realign or find another mentor."

Asian actor Sudha Bhuchar, who once starred in EastEnders, highlighted the problem that middle-aged female actors like her experience in getting TV parts.

She said, “People say to me, ‘You’re really successful,’ but as an actor I find every day a struggle. I haven’t had a single audition all year.”

Asked by Heggessey if it was true that minority talent had to cross the Atlantic to find work, Bhuchar said she knew a lot of young actors who had headed west, but they were still a minority.

Kwame Kwei-Armah, who moved to Baltimore two and a half years ago following a celebrated career in the UK  as an actor, writer and director, told the Diversify conference that, while there has been a rise in roles for young black actors in "underclass" narratives, such as Channel 4’s Top Boy, the depiction of adult, middle-class non-whites on UK screens is virtually non-existent.

Kwei-Armah said: “While we’re all doing so well in America, here we’re punching the glass ceiling that is possibly lower than it used to be.”   

He agreed with Henry that quotas need to be introduced in the UK to address the problem of a lack of diversity in roles for non-white talent in British TV.  

The final member of the panel, casting director Des Hamilton (who worked on Top Boy), said a more diverse range of writers was needed in the UK in order to ensure a greater diversity of parts for ethnic minority actors.

An issue S&A previously addressed, a lack of roles for black talent in British TV and film is increasingly forcing black actors to seek work in the US, increasing competition for roles that are already limited in volume and variety.

I can only imagine what how a similar call for racial quotas in film and TV would be generally received in the United States.

"Flight of the Black Actor" was produced for the RTS by Marcus Ryder, editor, current affairs BBC Scotland.

The Diversify conference was organised by Broadcast and Screen International.

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6 Comments

  • Alex | December 11, 2013 6:26 AMReply

    So here we are again, begging for the handout. You can pretty it up all you want and hide it in law and legislation but at the end of the day, if the request is that "They" put more of "You" in THEIR productions, then it's nothing more than you begging for the positions. Well heres a reality check."

    IF THEY WANTED YOU IN THEIR PRODUCTIONS YOU WOULDN'T HAVE TO ASK FOR IT"

    Ok, now that you know that its time to get your own productions. You're all acting like great big individuals and its exhausting watching. POOL YOUR RESOURCES and work together if you want to see more black products.
    If your goal is owning a house you have to save to achieve that. Its a goal visually attainable if you just gave your money that direction. If your goal is to see more black people on television, I suggest you delve into the purpose and the end game of that goal. How many black people do you want to see on television? Is the number finite? Can you put a number on it? Or do you want to see nothing but black faces on screen? At this point I need to remind you that if we are still begging for roles on their productions and they are not giving us those roles, then it is clear that they do not want us n those roles, so we have to make our own. So when I ask, what is the purpose and end game of your desire, it is a question you need to be able to answer.

    Get your own production. Hell get your own television stations, then you can decide who you want to appear on it.

    Or you could keep begging and hope change will come... Oh yeah, begging is much easier than putting in the work that would see you own such products. Sigh!

  • Dawn Queva | November 19, 2013 8:31 AMReply

    As one who has worked in the broadcast industry for over 20 years I can honestly say that the UK broadcasting industry only recruit 1 or 2 token black people to work in their offices to prove they're doing the absolute minimum to make up the numbers when it comes to diversity, the rest are recruited to clean the toilets. Go to any TV company in the UK & you will see NO black Senior Management, maybe 1 in middle management & probably 2 or 3 minions. It's an F'n disgrace. Even the jobs where black people should be employed, working on channels such as BET go to white counterparts. Channels that broadcast from the UK to sub Saharan African countries are no better either, they're all run by white people! No black Commissioning Editors, No Black Acquisitions people, No Black Senior Schedululers - I have been a Presentation Scheduler for longer than I care to remember and I am so sick of head-butting the glass ceiling that seems to get lower and lower every year, that I now have a permanent headache.
    On another note, ITV's I'm A Celebrity couldn't find one UK born black celeb to appear in the show, Not one? They had to go all the way to the US to get Carlton bloody Banks - We are being represented less and less and this is tantamount to a TV BLACK-OUT!

  • ann | June 6, 2014 1:15 AM

    I am sure black American feel the same way you do but, in reverse.

  • Alex | November 14, 2013 3:13 PMReply

    More writers and more producers and more casting directors of colour. Also just more of an open mind from all who are in those roles now to see beyond their tiny world and be brave enough to bring that talent from other backgrounds in. Having said that, I work for a major broadcasting house in the UK and I know first hand that there is little to choose from. Sometimes it's just not worth it to tick a box if the actor is sub par; we once went on a hunt for a specific character of a specific background but there were no actors from that background who read the part well enough. That's when the argument came of just "any person would do as long as they're ------". In the end we changed the role to someone of caucasian appearance because there was more to choose from in comparison. Sad but true. So there needs to be more talent on all scales.

  • Carl | November 14, 2013 6:11 PM

    That's because the ones who are not subpar are coming here to America.

  • Alias | November 14, 2013 2:48 PMReply

    Kwei-Armah, now artistic director of theatre company Center Stage in Baltimore, added, “The US set quotas. They did that thing that we’re so scared to do here..."

    Um, what "qu0tas" is Mr. Kwei-Armah referring to? I know of know such "quotas" in place for blacks working in the entertainment industry. ...Is he referring to Affirmative Action?

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