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

Shadow and Act By Siobahn Benjamin | Shadow and Act November 14, 2013 at 12:55PM

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

This article is related to: Things That Make You Go Hmm...


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