The Grass is Always Greener
Earlier this month, black British actor David Harewood published an essay in the Guardian lamenting the lack of media attention for the “Black BAFTAS” and the lack of black actors on British television.
…in Britain, TV and film producers and directors are still nervous about black actors in leading roles. Ask anyone in the street to name five American black actors and they can do it; but ask them to name five British counterparts and they will be stuck. That is not because the talent does not exist, but because we just don’t get that exposure here.
It is only when they go to the US that actors such as [Thandie] Newton and [Chiwetel] Ejiofor get the parts, and therefore the acclaim, they deserve. […] black Britons seem to get better parts over there, even on the small screen.
Americans simply seem to be more comfortable with black actors in leading roles, and with the whole concept of “generic” parts in which race is not an issue. Dennis Haysbert and Morgan Freeman have both played the American president, while Haysbert is now the leader of a special operations unit in the new David Mamet drama The Unit.
I find it incredibly interesting to see the view of us from the outside. Considering the issues we have with representation, it was hard for me to imagine anyone looking at the roles for black actors with envy.
And as much as I want to say that Harewood has a skewed view, so do I. I watch some British TV, but most of the shows I watch are either produced by the same guy or written by a guy who works on projects with that producer. So even if I’m seeing a fair amount of PoC, I just may be in the hands of the half dozen people at the BBC who care about such things.
I have been very fortunate in my career in Britain, in that I have managed to play plenty of parts that were not conceived specifically for a black actor. I am not entirely alone in this – think of Freema Agyeman as Doctor Who’s sidekick Martha Jones, for example, or first Adrian Lester and now Ashley Walters in Hustle – but many of my peers have struggled in this respect. To get roles with authority and weight still seems to be extremely difficult. All too often, black actors are only seen fit to be secondary characters: “the best friend”, say, or “the good cop”. I think I have played more black policemen than there are black policemen. And these are not the kind of roles that get you noticed.
By contrast, when I was in America last year for the premiere of Blood Diamond, I was amazed at the variety and scope of some of the castings I was going into. Casting directors told me openly that no new American television series gets the green light without at least two or three leading ethnic minority roles. If nothing else, in that melting pot of a country it makes business sense to have a cast in which the audience can recognise itself.
Hmm…. I wonder if maybe Harewood isn’t being a bit lied to. Just looking at the new SF television shows on this season (which I had to watch for an article… which is going up tomorrow!) I saw a LOT of white people in lead/recurring roles–Journeyman, Moonlight, Chuck, Flash Gordon, Reaper–and the two shows that include CoC in their recurring slots are still helmed by white people–Bionic Woman, Pushing Daisies.
Without events such as Screen Nation, much of the work done by black British people in film and television would go unnoticed. Do awards like these ghettoise black actors, or somehow relegate them? Of course not. If I win a prize on Monday evening, I will accept it with just as much pride as if I had been given a Bafta or an Oscar.
Good question. It looks like Britain is suffering from the same kind of problems regarding race and representation that our media has. But perhaps from different angles and for different reasons. Though I was really pleased with the representations I saw in, say, Doctor Who, others see that show and its spinoff as problematic. There’s still a lot of work to do.
Fortunately, folks like Harewood are paying attention and speaking out. But he’s an actor, not someone who creates shows for the BBC. Those are the people who need to be paying attention.
Neil Gaiman has said he will soon make fantasy television shows for the BBC.
“I’ve been in talks with the BBC for about two years about doing an original fantasy series for them, which I keep putting off because my plate is so full.
“I think it’s time to clear some plate for them.
One option he is looking at is a television version of his novel Anansi Boys which has just been made for radio by BBC World Service.
“I thought this would be so cool if we could do it as four 42-minute episodes for the BBC or even ITV,” he explained. “I don’t think anybody has actually done a drama, the cast of which was almost completely black, in which the point of it was not that the cast was completely black.”
Maybe Gaiman will be a good influence on the BBC. And then he can come back over here and be a good influence on us.
When Anansi Boys first came out, we got a number of very big [Hollywood] directors going after it and all of them basically ended up saying the same thing, which was they had real problems with a story as black people as leads in a fantasy movie. […] It’s one of those strange moments when you go “I don’t know if it’s racist or if it’s just stupid…”