The Oscars ‘diversity drive’ is well-meaning. But ethnic minority actors like me have doubts

Article published in the Telegraph – 03 July 2018.

Three years have passed since the #OscarsSoWhite backlash erupted on Twitter, after not a single actor of colour was nominated for an Academy Award for the second year running, in 2016. Pressure on Hollywood to change is gathering momentum. Indeed, the group that decides who wins Oscars has made its biggest ever diversity push.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (AMPAS) last week announced it had invited 928 actors and filmmakers to join. Over a third of the new intake are ethnic minorities. They include West London-born Daniel Kaluuya of Oscar-winning Get Out, who is of Ugandan parentage, and Ethiopian-Irish actress Ruth Negga. The strategy is to double the number of women and ethnic minorities in AMPAS by 2020.

But will this well-meaning diversity drive end up disappointing?

It would be really nice to be able to say that the views you are reading are coming to you from a working actor. Unfortunately, they are not. Despite top-end training and some BAFTAs under my belt, I’ve not actually worked as an actor for a good long while now. There simply aren’t the roles available to me and those on offer lack appeal, to say the least.

On one hand, the Oscars diversity drive could well create a groundswell of opportunity and of self-belief. Minority actors will not only have something to aspire to, but will hopefully start to see a more established career pathway, which allows them to earn enough.

This move also seeks to address criticisms from some quarters that the reason black and Asian actors aren’t being nominated for Oscars is that the majority of voters are elderly white males. This might lead to an unrealistic expectation among the public that inviting more ethnic minority members will mean more votes for BAME actors and films.

But changing the makeup of the voters won’t necessarily affect the outcome, when voting time comes around. Those in a position to vote may just as well be swayed by who they know, how involved they are with people in any given project, and by the campaigns rolled out every year by individual studios and production houses, rather than their racial background. However, if it means that more BAME projects get funded and therefore nominated, this has to be a good thing.

Instead of focusing on who votes for the product, we need to shift our attention to the product itself. We need to have more frank conversations about why ethnic minority actors are not fulfilling their potential in the world of film.

It is harder for black and Asian people to overcome stereotypes and pigeonholing in acting, compared with other careers like medicine and law. But why? The first rule of writing is to ‘write what you know’.  Of Course, screenwriters coming from a very narrow demographic are going to explore stories rooted in their own life experience, historically meaning with white actors in mind. They are also more likely to then generalize when it comes to storylines or characters outside their sphere of knowledge, which can lead to ethnic minorities being written as caricatures, their stories sidelined.

This is compounded by the fact that the film industry, governed as it is by celebrity, money and power, attracts a particularly narcissistic brand of person, famously self-centred, bullish and often dishonest. Broad-mindedness and a diversity-welcoming disposition, sadly, is not the culture; promoting oneself and facsimiles of oneself is commonplace.  

Instead of addressing these issues, we remain in danger of moving into the territory of tokenism and automatically judging ethnic minority films more favourably for politically correct reasons. So although it might be easy to be boundlessly enthusiastic about the rising number of films with ethnic minority leads like ‘Black Panther’, ‘Wrinkle In Time’ and ‘Hidden Figures’. Such films are long overdue (although where are the equivalents for Asian and Latino audiences..?).

Nobody can argue with the stellar takings of ‘Black Panther’. Nor with the importance of young black children having positive – even superhero – role models to look up to. That a black superhero movie could also do alright at the Box Office, raking in more than $1.3bn (£990 million), sends a big message within the industry.

But it’s as though even the reviewers themselves are afraid to state on record that it’s actually a mediocre film, giving it a whopping 97 per cent hit rate on Rotten Tomatoes.  When you make blockbuster superhero movies, you can expect some reviews to be good, some bad. It’s slightly suspect that one with a black storyline that ticks all the PC boxes has achieved such little robust criticism – but thank goodness it made enough money to warrant more!

When people talk, with good intentions, about diversifying film, often their visions of diversity remain ironically narrow. With all this talk of a ‘black’ James Bond, why has an Asian one never been up for discussion? What, after all, would be the difference? Perhaps a quiet assumption that an Asian James Bond would not be masculine, intelligent, or suave enough. But this perception has only come about through decades of stereotyped and plain negative Asian roles.

On 12 July 2013, the body of actor Paul Battacharjee, best known for his cameo in ‘Casino Royale’ was found at the bottom of Seaford cliffs in East Sussex. He was 53 and had just been declared bankrupt. Such stories are, of course, also sadly familiar among financially struggling white actors. But it’s my belief that Paul Battacharjee’s heart was broken by poor pay and racial stereotyping within the industry.

I met Paul in audition waiting rooms. We actually never worked together, but at our age there were only seven Asian actors going up for the same roles and, sadly, the UK industry even now can’t seem to support all of us.

The battle as a minority actor is to be seen purely as an actor, not merely as a black or Asian one. We also need the films we star in to be judged on whether they are good, not on whether they tick boxes. And we need roles that are complex, interesting and fully rounded, with themes that aren’t just dictated by skin colour, or what sort of society are we perpetuating?


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