When it comes to people of mixed heritage pitching movies in the Anglosphere, the question posed by the gatekeeper class is sometimes not worded as concisely as “but where are you really from?” Instead, if one dares to present projects that don’t play up one’s ethnicity, the question becomes, “why don’t you make this more you?”

The same question is repeated to whichever disempowered group that upper-class liberals have decided will be the flavour of the month for their noblesse oblige. And it’s a losing proposition, because if I tell you the story I want to tell and the response is “why don’t you tell us your story?”, then you have decided that I am not already doing so and the subtext of your question is really “why don’t you be what I want you to be?” Minorities have to specialise in being authentic while the ruling class gets to decide what authentic is and – Zap! That’s cultural hegemony baby(!!) – you’d better either be very blessed in going your own way or figure out the magic words to unlock that sweet diversity money.

No big news here, and you turn fewer people off by finding a way to joke about it instead of ranting, so you’d think this frustration itself would be fertile ground for filmmakers to turn into comedy. Which it has been, and considerably more so in American cinema than British.

Robert Townsend’s groundbreaking 1987 satire Hollywood Shuffle was a hilarious spin on the same themes as Donald Bogle’s book Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks, portraying an entertainment landscape where Townsend played a black American actor who wanted to make art but found himself in movies with lines like “What you say, honky sucker pig-head jive-turkey fool?”, and being directed with instructions such as “Can you make it a little more black?”

The 40-Year-Old Version (2020)

Popular tastes have moderated a bit since then, but similar imbalances of who calls the shots remain. In 2020 Radha Blank brought out the winningly bittersweet The 40-Year-Old Version, playing a frustrated, flailing black New York playwright of once-great promise who, if she were to write something truly autobiographical, would write a play about a tired, cranky, middle-aged self-sabotager with a newfound, woeful propensity to rap. Instead, her character cranks out a hokey, flava-ful passion play about gentrification, mixing Harlem clichés with “southern mystical charm” – because that’s what her benefactors wanted to see.

These are not examples of making movies where your heritage doesn’t define you, but rather examples of making movies about how the dominant culture won’t let your heritage not define you… which is sometimes the next best option. In UK cinema, this has largely been more the provenance of hard-hitting social realism rather than comedy. The first British film released by a black director, Horace Ové’s Pressure (1976), remains a knockout in showing a young British-Trinidadian man so determined to just get on that he asks: “What’s wrong with bacon and eggs, fish and chips and Gary Glitter?” His natural desire for assimilation is radically unpicked when he faces coming of age into the indignities of the job market and dealing with the cops.

East Is East (1999)

There were some British comedy-dramas from the 90s that dealt with the transitional dilemmas of children of first-generation immigrants, such as Peggy Su! (1998) and East Is East (1999). However, the 2014 short film Two Dosas, directed by Sarmad Masud and co-written by Nikesh Shkula, who adapted his own short story, depicts a fresher and in some ways more pressing depiction of double-consciousness for settled mixed-heritage people in 21st-century Britain. The lead character in Two Dosas is neither stifled by lingering expectations of tradition nor inhibited by a culture that is unaccustomed to his race, but rather left adrift in a country whose mainstream mannerisms he has absorbed fully. He’s unwittingly untethered from the culture of his ancestry, and without as much multicultural cachet as he’d complacently assumed he had in the face of cultural-tourist whites.

Pavan, a British-Indian guy played by Himesh Patel, goes on a date with Chloe, an English-rose office hottie played by Eleanor Wyld and, thinking he’s “playing the brown card early”, takes her to an underground Indian restaurant. Gooning with a cod Desi accent and saying this is “very important in our culture, very important”, Pavan is one step away from wiggling his head and saying “horn OK please” – which is pretty much all he’s got, being to his cultural core a quintessential English nerd. His date, meanwhile, orders off-menu in fluent Hindi and explains “I’m more interested in the authentic Indian experience rather than the British Asian one.” Bereft, Pavan narrates that “She’d knocked the brown right out of me – I wanted to be the first guy to take her there on a cultural odyssey!”, before choking on paan that Chloe guzzles without effort.

There will be many people of South Asian descent who grew up culturally British, for want of a better term, who will recognise this feeling: the combination of zoning out, being vaguely impressed, resenting the Orientalism and making a mental note to reconnect with one’s roots, while a trustafarian named Harry or Ben waxes lyrical about the difference between north and south Indian foods and their deeply spiritual backpacking trip around Uttar Pradesh.

In Pavan’s case, this is combined with the deep shame of thinking he was going to score but instead being utterly clowned by his white colleague. “Measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity,” as W.E.B. Du Bois had it. The irony that Two Dosas captures is the one whereby immigrants face castigation for being too foreign and not fluently speaking the language of their adoptive homeland, and their descendants face yawns for not sufficiently flowing in ethnic wisdom and not speaking the language of their ancestors.

Again, you’d hope there’d be more comedy movies with such awareness, but the cheques for big screen films are largely written by people like Chloe who think they can seamlessly occupy both spaces. What one wants, I’d hazard to say, are more works that are not colour-blind but also don’t have to wear heritage on their sleeves. Movies that embody the weight, sometimes confusion, even ignorance, of having a complex and splintered background, but don’t expect their characters or creators to have branded themselves as walking lecture tours. Movies that aren’t not about race, but are also more about the full spectrum of human emotion. 

Work Experience (1989)

Another British short film, the Oscar-winning 1989 comedy Work Experience, featured Lenny Henry as a young man who, constantly rebuffed for work, pretends he has a job in a department store until people start to take notice at his initiative. It’s a nifty, fake-it-til-you-make-it premise, one in which Henry’s blackness is never mentioned but is there to take into account should you be inclined to, or otherwise view as a more universal story.

Henry’s BBC sitcom Chef! (1993-96) was similarly obviously centred around a black British chef, but it was his perfection, irascibility and human relationships that were the driving subject of the show, and race an implicit undertone. Sadly, Henry is another example of a performer who had to go to the States to get a leading role in a feature film, and even then it was in True Identity (1991), a goofy gangster farce with a gimmicky whiteface premise.

Television, while by no means a bastion of diverse executives, is moving at a somewhat swifter pace, grinding out more product and populated slightly more by commercial innovators than aristocratic legacy hires. It has historically been and continues to be a more promising space for commissioning work that showcases a panoply of ethnic experience and how this has adapted and evolved in the years since mass migration to Britain began.

The heady aspirational mirage of the 90s was particularly fruitful for some of the iconic ones – Desmond’s, Goodness Gracious Me, The Real McCoy, The Richard Blackwood Show and others were true to the fractured dilemmas of the mixed-heritage experience while making clear their players were participants, not optional extras, in the mainstream of the culture. Chewing Gum, Man like Mobeen, Stath Lets Flats have championed the same position recently, being of characters with diverse backgrounds, but being about their personalities.

If only cinema would catch up.

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