For a long time, the film and TV industry has relied on stereotypes to portray Black people. In Britain, a lack of authentic stories both about Black people, and by Black people, meant that generations of audiences turned to US exports like the films of Spike Lee, and TV programs like “My Wife and Kids.” They may not have reflected everyday Black British experiences, but they were as close as viewers could get.
Things are starting to change. In the UK, more Black creatives are getting a chance to tell their stories, both in front of and behind the camera. Black actors, directors, writers and producers are making new films and TV shows featuring nuanced and authentic Black characters that go beyond the cliché.
The awards world is also making a concerted effort to become more inclusive. After years of widespread criticism about nominee lists and winners being dominated by White people, organizers of the Oscars, and its British equivalent, the BAFTAs, have taken steps to increase diversity.
While the academy behind the Oscars is working towards diversity quotas by 2024, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) has focused on overhauling its internal and nomination processes. But progress has been slow. In 2020, not a single person of color was nominating in the BAFTAs’ acting categories.
To celebrate Black History Month in the UK, CNN spoke to four people trying to change the industry from the inside.
In what might have been one of the most confronting scenes on television this year, Kwame, a character in the TV drama “I May Destroy You,” is pinned down and sexually assaulted by a Grindr date in London, just moments after having consensual sex with him. There are so many elements to the scene that are rarely depicted on television — Black sex, gay sex, and the sexual assault of a man.
Paapa Essiedu, the actor who portrays Kwame, said the scene was about challenging what people expected sexual assault to look like. It was important to him to convey just how common it is, in all sorts of contexts.
“It happens a lot more than certain people think,” Essidieu, 30, told CNN.
“It’s important to connect with the truth of the world that’s around us and what the world is like for not just you, but for that person that you might not know but your friend knows, or that your friend’s friend knows, or that person that might be sitting next to you on the bus or the tube.”
“I May Destroy You” is the brainchild of Michaela Coel, an actor and comedian who Essiedu went to drama school with. The show boldly explores the realities of consent and rape culture, while racial undertones also influence the experiences of its characters in the same subtle way that racism is often practiced today.
Essiedu says that there wasn’t a conscious or concerted effort to make the characters in “I May Destroy You” explicitly Black. “It was never like we were trying to be on brand, trying to be diverse — we just did what was true.”
Essiedu made a name for himself as a theater actor, joining the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theater in London. In his latest TV role, he plays Alexander Dumani in the drama “Gangs of London,” which follows the story of vengeful high-crime gangsters. The way in which the show “teased out” the unruly nature of high-crime, coupled with the diverse types of families involved in the story, appealed to Essiedu.
Like his entire generation, and several before him, Essiedu grew up with few authentic TV shows and movies telling Black British stories, so he consumed a vast diet of American cultural exports like “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” which he is now re-watching on Netflix.
“There’s something intrinsically political and defiant and radical about that show, and about Will Smith in that show, and just being unapologetically Black, or unapologetically African-American,” he said.
“I think we are now starting to create those shows for ourselves. To be Black … there’s a whole multiplicity of different things that it means, and it’s our responsibility to explore that in all of it.”
David Harewood has played a superhero, a warlord and a prince, but one of his best-known characters is David Estes, the ambitious CIA deputy-director of counter-terrorism in the hit TV show “Homeland.”
It wasn’t exactly Harewood’s dream role. He has complained that the character was emotionally flat and he was disappointed Estes was killed off at the end of Season 2. But it was, at least, one that portrayed a successful Black man with authority. To find that, and enough acting opportunities generally, he had to go to the US.
“Black actors have to go. They have to go if they want to extend their careers,” said Harewood, 54. “I think we in Britain really struggle envisaging Blacks in positions of power and authority.”
Harewood entered the world of acting in the late 1980s, when the industry was even less inclusive of Black actors than it is today. Like Essiedu, Harewood dreamed of playing leading theater roles and had a particular passion for Shakespeare upon graduating from drama school. But he soon learned those parts weren’t going to be easily available to him, a realization he said was “incredibly sobering.”
“I just assumed naively that I was just an actor. But the world very quickly reminded me that I was a Black actor.”
It was at this point that he suffered a mental breakdown, one so serious that he was admitted into a clinic for care. He remembered walking all night around London’s West End in 1989, looking for a single movie poster featuring a Black actor on it, such was his disillusionment.
But Harewood made it through this difficult period, and in 1997, one of his dreams came true — he scored a leading role in a Shakespeare play. He also made history: Harewood became the first Black actor to play Othello in Britain’s world-renowned National Theater. Remarkably, the role of Othello — who is Black in the play — was portrayed by White actors in blackface as recently as the late 1990s.
While Harewood has become one of the most vocal actors advocating for more diversity in British film and television, he says he is optimistic that things are going in the right direction.
“I think there’s no doubt that the world and the industry has opened up to Black stories, and I think that’s hugely encouraging. We should keep pushing for that and keep pushing for more Black creatives to create these stories, and for Black actors and actresses to play the roles,” he said.
While she was rising through the ranks as a TV producer, Carissa Jumu grew tired of seeing less-experienced White colleagues progress ahead of her Black peers.
In an effort to defy the “expectation” that her career would stagnate under a glass ceiling, she co-founded the B Inclusive Task Force, which seeks to improve opportunities for Black people and other minorities in the creative sector.
It wasn’t easy being confrontational in an industry she wanted to succeed in, Jumu said. But it paid off.
Since the collective sent out letters to both broadcasters and streaming services to highlight their concerns, they’ve managed to get a seat at the table, holding discussions on diversity with the BBC, Channel 4 and Netflix, among others.
“I can proudly say that since our letter, a lot of people have been having those uncomfortable conversations about the toxic culture in the TV industry,” Jumu said.
For Jumu, this yearning for representation came at a young age. Growing up, she said she barely saw anyone that looked like her on British screens. It was the short-lived sitcom “Comin’ Atcha!” about English girl group Cleopatra that got her excited about Black representation on TV.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh! This girl looks like me and has braids in. And she’s dark-skinned. And like, there’s three of them. Oh, my gosh — I can’t believe this,'” she recalls.
Her main gripe, however, is the lack of diversity behind the camera. Through friends in the industry and the task force, she has spoken to many Black assistant and associate producers who found that once they had broken into the industry, they would watch their White colleagues get promoted ahead of them, time and time again.
“It doesn’t mean that they’re less or more skilled than us. It’s just the opportunity because the TV industry thrives off nepotism. It’s really who you know,” she said.
“It just feels like sometimes Black people are taken as a risk. We’re not a risk — we know what we’re doing.”
Patrick Younge has worked in the industry for nearly three decades, including four years as the BBC’s chief creative officer, overseeing some of the biggest TV shows in the world. “Doctor Who” and “Top Gear” are among them.
Younge says television today is a “universe away” from the industry of old, in that diversity has improved dramatically — at least in terms of numbers.
“That said, I now look at the quality of the representation. And in my mind, with very few exceptions, we are still telling White-people stories. Yeah, we have Black characters, but they are not living authentic black lives,” said Younge, 56, who is now the managing director of the Wales-based Cardiff Productions.
“There are very few Black people who are empowered to write for television. Therefore, everything becomes an interpretation of somebody else who has not lived that life or lived that experience.”
Unlike the major broadcasters, who publish yearly breakdowns of workforce diversity via regulator Ofcom, the independent production companies who provide much of their content often do not release such statistics, Younge says, adding that their record on the issue was “woeful.”
“We have to not just focus on the three or four big players, but also focus on the people that supply them and ask them difficult questions,” Younge said.
“I’m more hopeful now than I was a year ago, but I still think the pressure has to be relentless because I’ve seen so many false dawns on this.”