Racism in the UK film industry: what needs to change, and who needs to change it?

Following the Black Lives Matter protests, we surveyed a panel of professionals about racial inequality in the UK film industry.

20 August 2020

By Naomi Obeng

Black film matters © Kim Thompson for Sight & Sound
Sight and Sound

After the killing of George Floyd, the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, open letters backed by industry figures speaking out against systemic racism in the film and television industries – will things finally change in the UK film industry?

Featured here are interviews with individuals in production, directing, casting, academia, diversity and inclusion research, criticism and programming: the aim has been to broaden the discussion to include non-production areas of film and to go beyond surface-level engagement with notions of structural racism, in order to ask what changes really need to happen.

I can’t introduce this feature objectively. I am angry. Too often these issues become abstract intellectual discussions. We are talking about Black people and people of colour’s experiences working in film – having to fight to have their work commissioned, to be catered for in hair and make-up, promoted in jobs, allowed to tell their own stories, even when they’ve proved themselves more than enough. Racism in the film industry is alarming. It is ongoing. And it is not inevitable.

People of colour make up three per cent of the UK film workforce, despite being 17 per cent of the UK’s and 40 per cent of London’s population (where the majority of that workforce is based). We need more research into racial inequality in all areas of the industry. What if publications and film media with all-white editorial teams (like this one) investigated their commissioning and editorial processes, for instance? What commissions are given to Black writers? Why are there so few writers of colour?

I’m no stranger to being called upon not just for my skill set, but also for my Blackness, whatever that means, and I’m uncomfortable calling upon Black people and people of colour so that this survey can exist. It’s not our job to fix racism. It’s up to those who perpetuate and benefit from it. We considered talking to people in positions of power in companies and organisations, but it’s too easy to make statements about future change. Action is what matters.

This survey is not change itself but shows the depth of understanding of racism and anti-Blackness that is needed to truly bring about change. It is information, and individuals across the industry must take informed and meaningful action.

Six workers in and around UK film discuss racial inequality

Nadia Latif

Writer-director, White Girl

Nadia Latif

If you try and track down the films of seminal filmmakers of colour, loads of them are impossible to get hold of. There should be concerted efforts to properly restore and talk loudly and distribute all of these amazing films from the past. A really important part of any Black or Brown filmmaker’s confidence is seeing that people like you made amazing films a long time ago.

When I go back and watch the films of Isaac Julien, Horace Ové, John Akomfrah and Ousmane Sembène, amazing Black filmmakers from the 70s and 80s and before, I’m like, not only do we know how to do it, we’ve been doing it for most of the century of cinema.

So when I see a film now and it’s a bunch of white dudes, I think, this isn’t accidental, it’s an extension of white supremacy – you convincing yourself that because I don’t look like you, that I’m not good enough. But actually, I’m probably better than you. There should be no passes for all-white creative teams. It’s not good enough.

And I don’t believe in quotas. That makes diversity feel like a mathematical necessity, rather than something that is good for the health of the organisation.

Instead of companies turning around and being like, “We’ve got a three-tweet message about how much we’re sorry and we’re going to move forward,” I’m like, “Shut up right now and actually do some research.”

As a freelancer, nobody has asked me what my experience of working for them was like. This is about our responsibility to [public sector] funders, and reporting back. It should matter whether the script supervisor or the costume assistant felt bullied or taken advantage of. More empathy, and more formality and structure would help a lot of people, not just Black people. The statistic that everyone should be looking at is how many people get to make second films and third films – without being utterly destroyed by the experience.

And who is doing your anti-racism work for you? Don’t just dump it on the desk of some poor Black woman who suddenly has to answer for this entire company’s historical institutional racism. It’s up to organisations to find ways to empower white people to confront their own racism, and then ask for the things that they feel they’re missing. And be prepared to hear some really unpleasant truths about yourselves. That’s cool. Don’t get defensive.

We’ve got loads of amazing, amazing Black female filmmakers in this country. I would like to see them lifted up. Black Lives Matter was started by three Black women. Black women have long held the answer for systemic change because we are affected by misogyny and racism equally. We need to make sure that cinema is a safe space for Black women. When we make it safer for one group, by having paths of communication, then lots of groups of people can feel safe.

Melanie Hoyes

BFI researcher, Inclusion and Diversity

Melanie Hoyes

Data and research can focus policy and make us understand what needs to happen. I came to the BFI on a project around diversity data, looking at the representation of blackness in British cinema, tied to the Black Star season. If you dig deep it’s not just about numbers – it’s about the type of representation, about the longevity of that representation, how much people speak, if they’re in a lead role or not, what genres they’re allowed to play in. I now work with the Inclusion team, bringing across knowledge of how research and data can help us to hold the industry accountable. What I hear a lot is “Anecdotally, I think it’s getting better.” Actually, what the data has shown is that it gets better for a little while, and then it comes back down and averages out at the same.

For some people, even if we talk about diversity and inclusion that’s a threat. The idea that we can be choosy is kind of mad. We have a massive skills deficit in the film industry. We’ve got Netflix coming [to set up a production base] here, maybe Amazon. There are so many jobs and so many opportunities for people to work, and we are struggling to fill our demand.

One of the biggest problems is that people just don’t stay, they don’t get promoted or they get stuck, because it’s about who you know. In terms of the research, I think a piece that’s missing is people’s personal experience – that it’s wearing and tiring for people to exist in a space that isn’t built for them. Time’s Up are doing work around micro-aggressions, surveying people. So I think people are starting to understand.

We come around to the diversity conversation every ten years or so, in various ways. So I’m simultaneously optimistic and pessimistic. When you talk about racism, sometimes people freak out or they’re defensive. What is different about this moment, or this movement, I would like it to be a movement, is that the conversation has gone from defensiveness to talking about power and behaviour. People who’ve been lower down the chain, and have had the opportunity to rise understand that [power] dynamic.

You can’t make change without data, but data is not the answer. It’s about resource. Everybody from top to bottom has to get on board. There’s been a lot of reacting in this moment, but I’m interested in what we look like in a year, in five years. It’s not about hiring one person over here and thinking you’re done.

For me, power is key. Who is empowered to give their opinion and make decisions? You have to get a diversity of voices around that table for anything to change genuinely, not just in a tokenistic way. Changing up meaningful representation in your workforce and on screen has to be sustained, resourced and focused.

Clive James Nwonka

Academic, LSE

Clive James Nwonka

I’ve been writing academically around diversity, or as I like to call it racial inequality, working alongside the BFI looking at their Diversity Standards. The research was funded by the LSE, to conduct a longitudinal study in the data, which looked at every film made under the Diversity Standards from 2016 to 2019 – that’s 235 films.

Everything I’d predicted came true very quickly. From a number of protected characteristics from the Equalities Act, the productions would simply pick other white people, ie, white women – white male industry people, simply selecting other white, predominantly middle-class, women to work on their productions, and that’s their [version of] diversity. We have a landscape where racial inequality is never really addressed, even within a conversation about diversity.

I wish we had an anti-racist policy in the film industry but we don’t at present. The Diversity Standards isn’t an anti-racist policy. It doesn’t affect how Black people are treated on sets or how they progress through the industry.

I spent probably eight years, from being a PhD student to the present, as the only Black person at conferences, the only Black person presenting on film in a particular way. In all the prestigious film studies departments in the country, and even in the ones that aren’t, you don’t see Black faces at all.

When I went to a symposium at King’s [College London] in February this year about the film Girlhood, where the politics of race was central, there were no Black academics on any of the speaking panels for the whole day; one of the speakers, who was white, used the N-word twice without challenge by either the chair or the organisers who were on stage as well. We received no public apology. It was horrific and it points to the need of film studies to try and defend its canons, which are vulnerable and defensive to questions of identity and race entering into the field.

Resourcing is a big thing and that’s a question for government. Diversity work is always the least funded thing in any organisation. In the film industry there’s a very tangible way resources can be used, in monitoring and in the creation of roles that help film productions recruit Black and Brown faces on sets.

I’m not convinced that we have done the introspective work to unthink diversity and now to start thinking around race. That takes a generation. George Floyd changes things slightly. But not much. I haven’t got faith in the ability of the BFI, or the BBC or anyone, to move from not recognising racism to recognising racism in the space of a week. You have to do the work first. Explain to us how racism manifests, why it manifests, who’s guilty, where it sustains itself, then you can have a conversation about how you recognise and see structural racism.

I think in a month’s time – it’s already happening now – we’ll have gone back to our natural language, which is ‘“Let’s do more diversity as a response.” Because it’s the only language we have, socially, institutionally, to deal with questions of race within cultural settings.

Kambole Campbell

Film critic

Kambole Campbell

In film criticism particularly I don’t think things will ever properly change until there are Black editors hiring Black writers, or beyond. I have to rack my brains to think of a time where I haven’t been edited by a white editor in the UK.

It’s not often enough that writers other than those from cis-het white backgrounds are considered for pieces that aren’t immediately related to their personal identity. I like writing about animation, and being given the space to do that is what I’ve enjoyed most. I don’t want to be writing about the importance of Spike Lee films every single time police brutality rears its head in America.

Some editors will say ‘My DMs are open you can pitch me’, or ‘We’re looking for someone to review something by this filmmaker, and we want to make sure that our representation is right.’ But you need to be looking for these people all the time, for different things. And there needs to be more precise consideration. I’m light-skinned, from a fairly middle-class background: there’ll be things that are lost on me as much as anyone else.

I’m also interested in how the industry tackles representation not just by betting on existing writers but by amplifying new voices – seeking out and facilitating the growth of writers from minority backgrounds. People from working class backgrounds are less likely to go into writing because it’s something you can’t really get started in unless you have a support system around you.

Publications like gal-dem are doing amazing work in creating spaces for underrepresented demographics of writers. Magazines feel much easier to break into. Newspapers more often than not feel prohibitive, and in a lot of cases, perpetuate racism and transphobia through the writers they choose to support and the editorials they commission.

A lot of the onus is put on Black people to push for change, rather than institutions willingly reconfiguring and self-examining. I’ve been so worn down by the repetition of seeing people speaking out and then things relatively calming down. Things remain static because people refuse to believe that they are culpable.

I’d love to see people actually consider what their part is in perpetuating this. Only then will they be able to actually do something new to make things better for writers and people working in film as a whole.

Leo Davis

Casting director

Leo Davis

Trying to cast anybody of colour even 12 years ago – certainly before that, when I first started casting – was always hard work. Now it’s pretty amazing, a wall broke down. Obviously it needs to keep changing but in my mind it already has changed – it’s how it should have been 20 years ago. I feel so sorry for all the actors who are 70, 75, 80, who had such a shit time. Earl Cameron died a couple of days ago. He was such a mighty presence, and such a man of dignity, but he never got the roles he should have got.

It’s in other areas, like directors and writers, that really need to catch up with the actors, because there’s a huge market of incredibly versatile, very talented, phenomenal actors of colour. If we [want to] cast [actors] over 70, then there is indeed quite a big problem. Very few of them stayed in the business because it just was too exhausting.

For a long time there were only two Black casting directors [in the UK], and my job was always to say, Yes, there were Black people around in Tudor times; Yes, there were Black people in Victorian times. Whereas a lot of white casting directors just had no idea that there were. That’s something I’ve done forever and I think now it’s fully been taken on board. So you see Mary Queen of Scots or the wonderful David Copperfield. The great thing now is the un-hiding of history.

Certainly, casting on films, if we had to cast a Black role it used to be the old list of Americans, because they were names. Producers are obsessed about names, which is a system I really do not believe in. The public like good acting and to be drawn into stories. One was always having to fight against that, and try and develop one’s own talent here.

Now we do have names that can actually finance a film, if only a handful. The next stage is really, on every single film, for the various producers not to say, “Can we cast Idris?” It’s like, can we have somebody else now? It’s very easy to make stars if you give them the right part. But now we’ve got Idris, Chiwetel [Ejiofor], David [Oyelowo] and all these people, that makes life easier, because you go, “No, none of those are available, but could we cast…”

One of my observations, as a very old casting director, is that a lot of drama school students over the years have already, at their end shows, put themselves into a small box. Either doing an American Southern piece on slavery, or a London hoodlum… When I speak to them afterwards I say, You have to stop doing that. You have to do what the white ones do, and do varied roles.

It really is now up to casting directors and producers and directors to push even more. In terms of film, we need diverse stories and writers. And I think possibly the bigger world might be ready to make them, hear them and watch them.

Fiona Lamptey


Fiona Lamptey

My issue has always been with the range of stories, and the people who tell those stories. A lot of people have gone into meetings with commissioners and been told a mainstream audience won’t understand this: “You’ve written a story about a wealthy Black family, who are these people, do they exist?” A white man or white woman in charge of saying what a mainstream audience wants to see, and should see.

There has to be some boldness on the part of commissioners where they think to themselves, ‘This story is not for me, I don’t understand this world, because it’s not a world that I’m a part of.’ Akua [Gyamfi], who runs the British Blacklist [an online platform celebrating African and Caribbean creative professionals], says we’re really doing people a disservice; you’re treating the audience like children, like they can’t figure it out.

Then it’s about how we make sure, once a project is greenlit and has a Black writer, that it’s told in the intention that it was meant to be told. I understand why people say they don’t want to come on these initiatives for people of colour, because [we’re treated like] that’s the only thing that we can offer, which is not true. The moment I disagree in another aspect of the story, [my input] is not valid. We are producers, we are DOPs: we have a skill set that you should use. 

My purpose with my company Fruit Tree was always to increase representation in front of and behind the camera. That’s the thing I will continue to focus on, with even more hunger for it, post-George Floyd.

People always use this excuse of ‘Where are these [new Black talents]? Who are they?’ You have to do a bit of work. Find out who are the new entrants coming in from film schools, watch short films, find out who works with who. Representation behind the camera is so important because it allows you to not feel alone and allows you to have different voices in that [filmmaking] discussion, so that I don’t feel I’m being asked to be a representative for every one who is Black. I’m not that.

I’ve been a producer for hire as well, but company culture in production companies is toxic. I think that will be the hardest thing to change. There has to be a time when you stop appealing to people’s human nature. What speaks louder is actions.

I will always give a space for other people, whether it’s people I’m working with, people I admire that are just doing something a bit different: [producer] Dominic Buchanan did The End of the F***ing World [2017-19] and has done quite a few film projects; [writer-director] Shola Amoo, who did The Last Tree; Samira Musa, my right hand person at Fruit Tree, is brilliant; Corrina Antrobus, who started Bechdel Test Festival.

Nadia Latif, Abraham Adeyemi, an amazing writer who’ll do amazing things (her No More Wings won Best Narrative Short at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival), debbie tucker green (writer-director of Second Coming), Courttia Newland (one of the writers for Steve McQueen’s forthcoming BBC anthology series Small Axe) and Adeyemi Michael (writer-director of Entitled) are also great. I’m not going to bring that range that I’m harping on about, all of us are going to bring it.

Film programmers’ roundtable

Rabz Lansiquot

Filmmaker, programmer and curator

I work mainly with artists’ moving image, with a specific focus on Black film and Black radical politics. Currently I’m part of the selection committee at Sheffield Doc/Fest and am undertaking the Cubitt Curatorial Fellowship as part of the collective Languid Hands.

Jemma Desai

Programmer, film writer and researcher

I have worked in the film industry for about 11 years, mostly in film programming, but also in development and production and have also done some film writing and in the film department at the British Council. As a programmer I’ve worked for arthouse cinemas at the Independent Cinema Office, but mostly as a festival programmer, for the BFI London Film Festival for eight years, before I resigned in May from both my BFI and BC roles.

I have recently released a research paper, This Work Isn’t for Us, that looks at the impacts of empty gestures of diversity policy on individual arts workers, and most of the auto-ethnographic material in that paper comes from my experience of working in film programming at places like the BFI, BC and ICO.

Elhum Shakerifar

Documentary producer, curator and programmer

My work over the past decade has sought to reframe the quieter voices that stand counter to the dominant mainstream, to think about questions of agency and ethics in what is seen, and what isn’t seen, on screen. I am also a programmer– historically for Birds Eye View, Reel Iraq and Shubbak (festival of contemporary Arab culture); currently for the BFI London Film Festival.

Naomi Obeng: With the risk of this being a moment when meaningful action doesn’t happen, what should change in film programming? Who should change it?

Elhum Shakerifar

Elhum Shakerifar: Two specific reflections have emerged as the most pressing to me.

One: robust, safe, meaningful grievance procedures must be in place so that anti-racist structural changes take shape without the notion of past and future accountability being lost (eg, the film industry is still patting itself on the back for speaking out about Weinstein and for the #MeToo movement existing – as if this were something to be proud of after years of actively enabling a predator to roam free. There are also many more predators safely out there).

Two: the creative industries must be understood as a space of vulnerability and complexity – particularly around representation. I am amazed that during a pandemic and a reckoning with our society and our industry’s racist blueprint, the notion of duty of care has barely been referenced. If risk is only understood in financial terms, then we are not engaging with the full meaning of risk, and inequities will persist – and become more insidious and damaging still. Case in point: how tired are we BIPOC all right now?

Momtaza Mehri’s recent writing about anti-racism anticipates the biggest hurdle of our work in the creative/cultural space, and articulates the urgent need for solidarity in a meaningful way. The film industry – through its visibility, money machine, power structures, etc – props up white privilege more visibly than any other.

Rabz Lansiquot

Rabz Lansiquot: I wouldn’t consider myself an industry person, I’ve been a programmer at festivals for two years but most of my work has been in art and DIY spaces. I find the film industry and festival format racist, of course, and profoundly flawed. But I love the medium and we all have to make a living. So I answer these questions as what James Baldwin would call “a flesh-and-blood-person”, as a Black, gender non-conforming person who has to live in this world as such.

Our world is quite literally built on racism – and more specifically on anti-Blackness. There needs to be an absolute breaking down of oppressive systems. If the so-called film industry truly believes that Black Lives Matter, then it has to be backed up by a commitment to that. That involves those in power relinquishing their power, dissolving existing systems of sponsorship by companies that profit from oppression and the carceral system, reimagining what we value aesthetically, and completely doing away with institutions that perpetuate anti-Blackness.

On the most basic level, the aspirations of representation and diversity have to be disposed of. Seeing more black stories and hiring more Black people in existing systems won’t stop us dying.

Jemma Desai

Jemma Desai: I spent a long time thinking through this question this year, especially in the ways Rabz has outlined. Film programming sits in a flawed and harmful industry which replicates the flaws and harms of wider society. I have moved between being distracted by writing detailed tangible recommendations to address the industry in a silo, as Rabz describes, and thinking through how we must all in our different bodies change how we live so others in Black bodies don’t have to die.

What Elhum says about past harm is on my mind, as the word accountability gets used a lot. Mia Mingus has described accountability as being comprised of four parts: Self-Reflection, Apologising, Repair, Behaviour Change.

I don’t think most people in the film industry are very self-reflective. I think there are a lot of narcissists who are in repair mode.

It’s making me think about what it means to be a “flesh and blood person”, as Rabz describes here, but also through their work on opacity and refusal. How can we as ‘programmers’, in the different bodies we have, thrive, not just survive? I am grateful for Elhum’s and Rabz’s work both as programmers and makers and thinkers as their work gives me part of the answer. Their programming and filmmaking which refuses to centre whiteness has often helped me to reconnect with my instincts, but Rabz and Elhum and I have to earn a living.

After having done this research and seen how deep-seated white supremacy is in so many programming spaces, I am left with a huge conflict. How to participate? What does it mean to refuse? And I wonder about pleasure. Where can I reconnect with the love of film and film programming that led me to the industry?

Naomi Obeng: Are there problems that are unique to how film programming and curation work that affect what films get seen, where and by whom?

Jemma Desai: There are many assumptions about what is a festival film / what is a cinema film; what is commercial / what is niche. It usually falls to the most precarious (freelance) and lowest-paid programmers, who are also usually the festival’s concession to ‘diversity’, to interrupt this laziness by bringing forth different choices. Often it feels as if our views are only selectively taken – ie, only to confirm, not to challenge, perceived wisdom.

Unless we move consciously and meaningfully from the location of those we say we want to ‘reach out’ to, then films that centre whiteness will always be most likely to be selected, viewed and distributed. What if festivals cultivated a spectatorship based on those populations in which they were located? At the London Film Festival, that would be to root the programme in the spectatorship of the most diverse boroughs in London. What would the programme look like? Which would be the highest-profile films? How could that change the entire ecosystem?

The most radical space that LFF has opened up in the last ten years were the two Experimenta debates curated by Tendai John Mutambu, Qila Gill, Taylor Le Melle and most recently Rabz Lansiquot [in 2018]. The industry programmer and the Artistic Director did not attend. No one from the BFI Film Fund was there. These are the British artists / filmmakers who will carry on a radical screen tradition, but it’s doubtful they will get their money from the same [range of] places people like John Akomfrah did.

Rabz Lansiquot: I’ve found the idea of what is ‘good’ work and what is not really frustrating when working on festivals. Clyde Taylor’s The Mask of Art (1998) is a great text that explores the problem of aesthetics and its relation to whiteness and anti-Blackness.

It’s not just an issue in the mainstream industry. The experimental/artists’ film world perpetuates the very same issue, a foregrounding of an aesthetic that centres the white gaze, and only considers the canon of the European avant-garde. It’s also profoundly, and intentionally, classed in order to maintain its supposed proximity to intellectualism and rejection of mass culture (a rejection which in itself is classist and racist).

What Jemma mentioned about the location of festivals and their engagement with the communities of the space they occupy is really important. Festivals are essentially just a group of the same people travelling to different countries to encounter the same films. They could quite literally be located anywhere and it would hardly change a thing. Programming decisions aren’t made on the basis of what is the most interesting or groundbreaking work; they’re made to bolster cultural capital (through big names or celebrated ‘up and comers’) and appease investors.

What if film festivals were actually places to share ideas with the wider public and each other? I think if they were really focused on the work, and not just reinforcing the status quo for money, we would see far more work from Black and Brown makers who truly push the boundaries of the medium.

There’s also really a problem if filmmakers are required to showcase their work without screening or Q&A fees, whilst millions are spent on VIP dinners, chauffeurs and marketing around cities where the majority of people are unable to afford extortionate prices for tickets. The industrialisation of any field means the foregrounding of money over the work and the people that do it, or want to do it and can’t even find a way in.

Elhum Shakerifar: I can only amplify Jemma and Rabz’s reflections, really, and underline that it all comes back to the transactional nature of the film industry, which harms the creative potential of spaces that should be driven by a different range of prerogatives: creativity, curiosity, interrogation and discovery. As a producer, I have had no choice but to distribute my own work. Being seen on your own terms is as much of a challenge as being able to make on your own terms…

Originally published: 20 August 2020

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