Characters Wanted: The Lack of Roles for Black Actors in British Television
Britain’s black community is a multifaceted and diverse society. Though the community is still plagued by racial inequality, black British men and women have nevertheless been able to penetrate all levels of British society. Today, there are black Britons who are solicitors, politicians, entrepreneurs and members of the peerage; men and women have become laureates, doctors and directors. Though they may be a minority, they still represent the varied achievements of the Britain’s black community.
Unfortunately, a browse of a television guide would give no indication of this hard work. Instead, television continues to represent black Britain as stagnant and socially immobile. According to British television, the black community is working class, has a plethora of single mothers and an absence of fathers, is always sporty or musically inclined and has a knack for comedic timing (and that’s only when we are portrayed). I’m not trying to say that these aspects of the black community don’t exist in Britain, but that these are not the only aspects of the black community. So far, our achievements and our capacity for greatness, have been mostly voided from British television.
In America, with August and September, came several new and returning shows on major television networks that not only feature black actors in leading roles, but demonstrate the variety and the emotional and social complexity of the black community. ABCs Black-ish, though receiving mixed reviews, portrays a black middle class family. New medical drama, Red Band Society, stars Octavia Spencer, a black actress in leading role as a nurse. Sleepy Hollow, a mystery adventure series, features another black actress, Nicole Beharie, in a leading role as a police detective protecting her town from evil other worldly forces. Arguably, the most outstanding of these shows is Scandal, a political thriller starring Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope, who heads a crisis management firm that protects the public image of often high profile clients. Scandal’s success with a black female playing the lead, has made networks less weary of placing black and ethnic minorities in lead roles and giving them more three dimensional characters to play.
Don’t get me wrong, America is not some kind of promised land for black talent, there is still an overwhelming absence of BAME talent in front of and behind the camera, and the same old racial stereotypes continue to be played out onscreen. But at least there is a continuous dialogue about black society.
Of late, there has been an exodus of black British talent – writers, directors and actors – to the United States for the variety and depth of roles available. Nowadays, you are more likely to find black British actors in prominent roles overseas than on television in the UK.
This absence could suggest the inability of British writers, directors and producers to take risks; a lack of understanding about the texture of British society and about the black community’s contribution to British history and society. There is a wealth of stories to be written about the lives of blacks, and other ethnic minorities, in the UK. Perhaps it’s the desire to maintain an audience who feel comfortable with the representation of a community as stagnant and socially immobile; who are already paranoid about the ‘immigrants stealing our jobs’ and ‘Britain disappearing’ (obviously not evolving), that creates the overwhelming absence.
There are exceptions (there are always exceptions) Idris Elba as Luther for example. Shows like Youngers and Top Boy have featured young black actors in lead roles) playing stereotypical characters, but still as leads. Yes, there are exceptions, but far too little.
As a black British woman, having grown up with the dearth of black talent on TV, I am aware of how much more can be said and done on this issue. Don’t even get me started on film.