Britain is renowned for its ethnic diversity, yet its film and television industry fail to reflect such a multicultural richness. A study by the British Film Institute found that only 13% of films made in the past decade featured black actors in leading roles, whilst 60% had unnamed black characters. Subjects of films that represented a more ethnically diverse cast tended to be about slavery, racism, colonialism, crime and gang culture; story lines that present people of colour as a monolith used to reinforce negative stereotypes.
Actor David Oyelowo said that people of colour were ‘expunged from Britain's history’ because of the failure to represent their stories and experience in film and media. He said ‘If my history, my indisputable British history, has never been visited, where does that put me? If we are only going to look at things that need a revisit, you are wiping me out of this country’s history.’ Like other actors of ethnic backgrounds, he felt he had been forced to move to America because of the lack of roles for black actors. Oyelowo pleaded, ‘Please stop this talent drain. You have to change the demographics of the people who are making these decisions.’
A BFI study examining British film from 1911 to present day showed that only 4 black actors feature in the list of top 100 actors in British film: Noel Clarke features in the most films, followed by Ashley Walters, Naomi Harris and Thandie Newton. Another study of UK film industry showed that out of 1172 films, only 15 featured black actors in leading roles in the last decade, with only five being female. These figures epitomise the lack of diversity in British film and the imminent need to make a change.
In most cases, many actors move to America where casting opportunities are more diverse. Yet, such critique regarding a lack of diversity is not exclusive to British film. In February, the Academy Awards were criticised when no African Americans were nominated for awards in the male and female acting categories. The issue caused outrage and lead to the creation of the ‘OscarsSoWhite’ campaign across social media. Protests were successful, and the Academy promised to change the voting system. The BFI showed commitment to fair representation by introducing standards that require films that wish to receive lottery funding to demonstrate diversity.
The lack of colour blind casting in the film industry means that parts for ethnic actors often maintain archetypal stereotypes. Actor Riz Ahmed wrote of his experience as a Pakistani Muslim in the film industry and the direct impact of his skin colour on roles he was cast for. He discussed ‘negotiating’ with the labels attached to an individual based on ethnicity and religion. Ahmed went on to talk about the rise of fundamentalism post 9/11 and the impact it had upon typecasting based upon preconceptions of Muslims and Asians. Oyelowo and Ahmed’s comments reflect the views of many actors of colour who question the lack of roles in film and television for those of colour. Idris Elba addressed MP’s on the matter stating, ‘The Britain I come from is the most successful, diverse multicultural country on earth. But here’s my point: you wouldn’t know it if you turned on the TV.’ He continued to say, ‘TV hasn’t caught up with reality.’
The whitewashing of film and television and the reoccurring negative characters that represent people of colour excludes the reality of being of colour in Britain. The continually reinforced negative stereotypes fail to give positive depictions of diversity and most importantly, strengthens racism and social exclusion. It tells actors and people of ethnic origins that they are no more than a slave, a gang member, a terrorist, an abused wife in an arranged marriage. It misrepresents the versatility of POC in film and more importantly in reality, by projecting a misconstrued image of the role coloured people play in our diverse society. It is essential to make British film and television more inclusive, whether it means an onscreen representation of ethnic stories or creating more diverse roles for actors of colour that do not depend on negative stereotypes.