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British Actor Lenny Henry Calls For Legislative Mandate To Boost Industry Diversity In BAFTA Speech. Watch It In Full

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by Tambay A. Obenson
March 18, 2014 12:40 PM
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Lenny Henry
Lenny Henry

Speaking of the Bechdel Test which I've mentioned on this site previously, most recently in THIS post...

Across the pond, British actor Lenny Henry delivered BAFTA's annual Television Lecture for 2014, focusing his discussion on the opportunities for black and minority ethnic groups in the TV industry today. 

During his hour-long speech, Henry argued that funds should be set aside to boost the presence of black, Asian and minority ethnic people in the British broadcasting industry, describing the situation as "appalling" because "the majority of our industry is based around London where the black and Asian population is 40%," compared to the 5.4% representation in the industry that the black and Asian population currently sees.

Further, Henry, a veteran of industry (film, TV and stage) added that the "situation has deteriorated badly" in recent years.

Henry, who won the best actor prize at the Critics' Circle Awards earlier this year for his role in stage play Fences, also expressed concern that "our most talented actors are getting increasingly frustrated and having to go to America to succeed," echoing a *problem* that's been in conversation in recent years, and certainly continues to be.

You might recall that, last year, Henry 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 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."

He cited the case of the BBC which, in 2003, made structural changes to address a lack of representation in the nations, with budgets and quotas to match the populations of each one.

"The result is spectacular. There's been a massive increase in programme-making outside the M25. By 2016, half of the BBC's network spend will be made outside of London. But what about the communities, more precisely the BAME communities?" he asked. BAME being black, Asian, minority ethnic.

In a statement in response, the BBC said: "Danny Cohen (the director of BBC Television) has made it clear that BBC Television is committed to diversity both on and off screen but we're always looking at how we can improve, including the recent launch of apprenticeship schemes with both the Mama Youth project and Stephen Lawrence Trust for example".

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, said, 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.  

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.  

I can only imagine what how a similar call for racial quotas, or some kind of legislative mandate in film and TV would be generally received in the United States.

Watch Henry's full speech from last night below:

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1 Comment

  • Jay | March 23, 2014 10:00 PMReply

    A veteran. Still provocative using humour.

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