Chiwetel Ejioforin, 2014 (Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images)
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Diversity at the BAFTAs

The BAFTA film awards have seen plenty of diversity in recent years, but have gone down in film history as the least diverse film awards ever. Why?

“The Baftas’ diversity push has been brilliantly vindicated,” said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. The Independent was just as thrilled: “This year’s nominations cleared out some of the messier biases that made the Baftas so dubious,” wrote Adam White. “This is the most exciting list in years,” agreed Robbie Collin in The Telegraph. Since you ask, all three journalists are white men.

The TV news channels were also thrilled by this new diversity. Baroness Beeban Kidron (director of the all-white Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason and the even whiter, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit) couldn’t have been more excited.

Someone had a dig at the un-diverse ancien regime of Scorsese and Tarantino, forgetting that Pulp Fiction launched Samuel L. Jackson, Pam Grier’s superb performance in the title role of Jackie Brown or the performances of Jamie Foxx and Samuel L. Jackson in Django Unchained. And perhaps also forgetting that Scorsese and Tarantino are two of the greatest directors in the last fifty years.

And how un-diverse were the much-vilified 2020 BAFTAs? JoJo Rabbit (Adapted Screenplay) was about Nazism and was written and directed by Taika Waititi whose father was of Te Whānau-ā-Apanui descent and whose mother’s family were Russian Jews. Waititi describes himself as a “Polynesian Jew”. Apparently not diverse enough for Peter Bradshaw or Beeban Kidron. As David Baddiel has pointed out, in the land of the woke Jews don’t count. Ever. Not even Polynesian Jews.

Television has led the way in opportunities for Black actors and actresses

How about Andy Serkis, the son of an Iraqi-Armenian doctor, who was awarded Outstanding Contribution to British Cinema last year? Or Sam Mendes, who won a bucketload of awards and nominations for 1917, and happens to be the son of Valerie Mendes (née Barnett), an English Jew, and Jameson Peter Mendes, a university professor from Trinidad and Tobago and a Roman Catholic of Portuguese descent? His grandfather was the Trinidadian writer Alfred Hubert Mendes. The young Black actor, Micheal Ward, born in Jamaica, who won the EE Rising Star Award or the South Korean film, Parasite, which won Original Screenplay and Film Not in the English Language?

And how un-diverse were the 2019 BAFTAs? Best supporting actress went to Rachel Weisz, daughter of two Jewish refugees from central Europe, but as we know Jews don’t count as diverse or even as an ethnic minority according to the BBC’s Daily Politics. The EE Rising Star Award went to the young Black actress, Letitia Wright and Best Supporting Actor went to Mahershala Ali (a Black American Muslim) for Green Book. Roma, a superb black-and-white Mexican film, won a number of key awards, including Best Film and Best Director, and Rami Malek (son of Egyptian immigrant parents) won Best Actor for his portrayal as Freddie Mercury. Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman was nominated for four awards, winning one and Black Panther won two awards. Look at the shortlist for Best Film which included BlacKkKlansman, Green Book and Roma (the winner).

In short, the BAFTA film awards over the last two years have seen plenty of diversity but have gone down in film history as the least diverse film awards ever. This is not to make light of ethnic diversity. It is wonderful to see more opportunities for all kinds of people. We shouldn’t single out only one kind of ethnic group over others.

It is also worth pointing out that television has led the way in opportunities for Black actors and actresses. This is a recent development. Think of David Harewood as CIA Counterterrorism Director David Estes in Homeland; Idris Elba’s breakthrough performance as Russell “Stringer” Bell in The Wire and here in the title role of Luther; Delroy Lindo (as Adrian Boseman) and Cush Jumbo (as Lucca Quinn) in the American legal series, The Good Fight; Viola Davis prize-winning performance in How to Get Away with Murder; Thandie Newton as Maeve Millay in Westworld.

It has been the same in the UK: Chiwetel Ejiofor in Hugo Blick’s The Shadow Line and Stephen Poliakoff’s Dancing on the Edge which led the way to big film parts in 12 Years a Slave; breakthrough performances in Black Earth Rising by Michaela Cole and Lucian Msamati, who recently appeared in the remake of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads and played Salieri in Amadeus at the National Theatre; David Oyelowo as Danny Hunter in Spooks which led to big film parts as Martin Luther King in Selma and Peter Snowden in Nightingale; Line of Duty gave big parts to Lennie James (series one) and Thandie Newton (series five).

The biggest absence has been for women directors

It’s worth noting a number of things about these actors. First, that many of these TV drama series were on the BBC. Second, that TV has often opened the way for film parts. Third, the range of parts they have played – from senior figures at the CIA and drug dealers to police detectives, composers, lawyers and politicians. Fourth, how many of these actors have appeared in top drama series – not soaps or middlebrow nonsense – shows like Homeland and The Wire, Spooks and The Good Fight, great TV drama by Alan Bennett, Hugo Blick and Stephen Poliakoff. These have been good years for Black actors and actresses; not yet good enough, but it is a positive trend on both sides of the Atlantic.

This has coincided with growing recognition at the Academy Awards. Fourteen Black actors and actresses have won Oscars in the history of these awards. 10 of these have been in the last 25 years, five actors and five actresses, and a good number have gone on to have distinguished careers, including Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman, Jamie Foxx, Forrest Whitaker and Halle Berry. You see the same pattern in Oscar nominations. For Best Actor, five were nominated pre-1990, 14 since 1990. No Black director has ever won an Academy Award for Best Director, though six have been nominated; five since 2009.

As for BAFTAs, the first Black actor to win a BAFTA was Sidney Poitier in 1958. None won again until 2004. Since then, three have won: Jamie Foxx (2004), Forest Whitaker (2006) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (2013). No Black actress has ever won a Best Actress BAFTA though six have been nominated; four since 2002.

All the figures point to greater recognition for Black actors, actresses and directors: bigger and better roles; more prestigious TV drama series; more nominations and awards since the 1990s; more nominations for directors.

The biggest absence has been women directors. Even this year, in this annus mirabilis for diversity, four out of the nine nominations are women. In 2020 it was zero. The same in 2019. In fact, only one woman has ever won the Best Director award at the BAFTAS (Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker) and only five have ever been nominated (all since 1993). Curiously, it’s exactly the same number for Best Director at the Academy Awards: one winner (Kathryn Bigelow), five nominations; four since 1993.

The worrying question is whether 2021 is a one-off. None of the films directed by women directors have big budgets or have made much money at the box office. What happens when the big budgets and the big box office returns are back? The trend already points to more women directors and more receiving recognition but it may be a while until the numbers really increase and more are given big budget films with big names. Until then, the BBC and The Guardian may want to keep the champagne on ice.

Finally, there is one key question that no one is asking. While BAFTA and the Oscars are patting themselves on the back for being so diverse, and while they are basking in the love of the woke broadsheets, what will the audiences in the suburban malls and high street multiplexes decide? Will they flock to small independent movies with young Black actors, directed by little-known women, or will they go back to big action movies and famous male directors? No one is asking that, not even the white male critics in the broadsheets.

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