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- This article first appeared in the December 2021 issue of Sight and Sound.
At a time when British talents in front of and behind the camera have arguably become some of the most powerful people in Hollywood, just how invested in each other are the creative forces from our tiny little island?
At the age of eight I was cast in my first gig as a child actor, in Desmond’s, and instantly knew film would be a part of my life forever. The Anna Scher Theatre was the community drama group offering training and casting for kids like me. Winning roles and regularly appearing on screen felt less important than finally finding my tribe.
The buzz of being on set or in drama class was a hard contrast to the world I went home to. As a child of Ghanaian immigrants on a council estate in north London, understanding and encouragement of my passion was in short supply. Uncle George took great pleasure in referring to me as ‘The Thespian’, said with a strong lisp, I might add. Mum refused to get excited about any of my achievements on camera in an effort to keep me humble.
So how did that eight-year-old keep going? How did that kid with the terrible haircut and ears too big for his head end up on the set of his first feature film as writer-director 30 years later?
As a child, I believed film was my personal portal to another world. An opportunity to be someone else in another time, on another planet. Film was my friend. Real life offered less excitement and understanding. My sister didn’t care about how Marty McFly’s hoverboard worked, but when I was at drama class, my best friend Danny and I were obsessed with finding out.
The relationships I’d built with strangers equally committed to celluloid formed a reverence for the artform. A love for the characters I’d watch over and over began a need to create my own. Writing would become the answer, but believing that was an option for someone like me didn’t happen until I found my mentors. Mentorship holds a great power and continues to redefine its role in my life and career. Recently, I’ve gone from mentee to mentor, but I still seek advice from the community. Peers have kept me sane, but mentors have kept me going. Encouragement and a career-changing introduction from Idris Elba led me to the team behind my growth in the business.
British film is a community and the investment of time and belief I’ve experienced has given me no choice but to do the same for others. My point behind this memory lane ramble is that I can’t help but feel incredibly lucky given the people I’ve encountered and their desire to help. That being said, I’m fully aware of my privilege, as the three decades I’ve spent on screen have undoubtedly opened doors.
But just how welcomed would I have been if no one knew my name?
Back in 2009, I was in Los Angeles doing the water-bottle tour as a TV presenter seeking the big American gig. A chance meeting with Edgar Wright in a Starbucks on Sunset led to him sharing his email and me sending a screenplay I was convinced would get me off camera, and behind it. He had no idea who I was, and why would he, but he read my script and gave me notes. It was a crap piece of work, but he did it anyway.
Lynne Ramsay sat with me and a friend after a screening for nearly an hour talking budgets and distribution and sharing her experiences. She wasn’t told to, she just did it. See, I believe that there’s way more people in film desperate to invest in others than one might believe. For anyone who’s found any success, they’re the product of an army.
Filmmaking is not an individual pursuit. It’s a shared endeavour where hundreds of people pull together to deliver on the vision. As a writer-director, that vision will always be mine and getting here isn’t something that’s happened without help. We’re the weirdos at the prom who find each other at the punch bowl, and therefore we must invest in the freshman class. Investing in people has changed my life and having others invest in me professionally has changed my career. My first feature film, Pirates, is led by an unknown cast. New names hold the top spots on the call sheet and that is not an accident. Casting director Shaheen Baig and I decided early on to find new faces and give them the opportunity to lead. Having spent years as an actor myself, my understanding of the importance of our relationship on set and beyond the film’s release was crystal clear.
There’s a responsibility I feel to pay it forward and I know I’m not alone in that sentiment. Regardless of your role in film, I encourage anyone reading this to reach out to new talent and invest in them. If British film really is a community, what might it look like if support and sharing knowledge is a given?
Podcaster/former rapper Joe Budden recently spoke to issues in the music industry saying, “Everybody’s not looking to feed the soil, some are just looking to take the fruit.” If we don’t want that to be the case for film, what are you gonna do about it?