The fight against racism in the UK entertainment industry

Read Time 5 mins | Thursday 15 July, 12:15

Ian Manborde, Equality & Diversity Organiser, Equity
This article is published by the author as a UWU Guest Blog and originally appeared in Trade Unions: Fighting racism and the far-right

At the time of drafting this article it was with great sadness that Equity learnt of the passing away of long-standing member, Earl Cameron. In recognition of his pioneering role as on the UK’s first black film starts Earl was awarded life membership of Equity.

In an interview with The Guardian in 2017 Earl acknowledged a key struggle in building his career.

Unless it was specified that this was a part for a black actor, they would never consider a black actor for the part. And they would never consider changing a white part to a black part. So that was my problem. I got mostly small parts, and that was extremely frustrating – not just for me but for other black actors. We had a very hard time getting worthwhile roles.

Tragically, this situation remains across the UK entertainment industry as a key barrier to black and minority ethnic (BME) members having the opportunity to build and maintain viable careers. The prevailing, chronic bias is reflected in a recent research exercise of Equity which evidenced the shockingly low levels of ethnic representation and portrayal across mainstream TV broadcasting.

The UK’s entertainment industry reflects one where historic struggles remain, and this is reflected in the union’s broad agenda in fighting systemic racism and oppression.

The discrimination experienced by the union’s BME membership manifests itself in a myriad of ways. As evidenced by Equity’s own research, and reflected in Earl’s quote, one key issue is that BME members are only considered for casting into a limited number of stereotypical roles e.g. criminal, cleaner, bus driver, dancer etc.

Within this wide, complex spectrum sits another form of discrimination, and one which is just as damaging and virulent; the racist review. Whilst the body of theatre, film and TV critics include many who are able to comment constructively and thoughtfully on the cultural and artistic integrity of a production, there are those who are openly hostile to the appearance of BME members in roles where they are deemed not fit.

As Equity embarks on a national campaign against racist reviews it is valuable to quote the union’s President Maureen Beattie to underline how grave a matter we face, and how seriously the union takes this work.

You can argue all you like about a simple lack of imagination. It’s true that watching and listening to drama in theatre, or on film or television or radio, requires a leap of faith: the famous ‘suspension of disbelief’. But this is much more serious than a lack of imagination. In my view this is racism – pure and simple. Sometimes unconscious, but sometimes not.

In a wide, political sense, and at its best, the entertainment industry has the capacity to challenge prevailing consensus, and at the very least establish fairness in the way that contemporary and historical society is portrayed across its various mediums. Equity applauds the bold decisions that are often made in the industry to push the boundaries of tradition and provide BME actors and performers with access to non-traditional roles.

What the union cannot, and will not accept, is the racist, belligerent cohort of critics who seek to fight this incremental transition towards fair, creative casting practices.

Our campaign will confront those who, quite literally, seek to push BME workers into what they consider their rightful, stereotypical place on stage and screen. At stake is not just the capacity of Equity members to have equal access to successful, sustainable careers, but the opportunity also for young BME people to see their lives and ambitions reflected accurately in what they view or listen to.

Our campaign will seek to establish a set of ethical standards for use by critics and reviewers which will allow for free reign in commenting on all measures of a production’s artistic merit, and that will establish clear, red lines on what constitutes racism and racist commentary.

The Equity campaign is being led by Emmanuel Kojo, an actor who has been subject to racist reviewing of his work. In leading this campaign Emmanuel states

I have yet to come across a review that mentions the colour of a white actors skin, so is that then to say that white is the default and everything else is a cause for constant mention and discussion and most times without interrogating the racism?

If an actor of colour plays a role that’s traditionally played by a white actor, the colour of their skin most of the time becomes the centre of the review, rather than their portrayal of a character. That is exhausting. We have to remember we create make believe, we create art and that art should reflect the world we’re living in.

The momentum of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, coupled with the challenges facing the entertainment industry as it moves out of the period of lockdown, both substantiate the acute need for this campaign, but also for it to be seen as a means to modernise a part of the UK economy which has a tradition of normalising racism, bias and discrimination.

Read more about Equity’s campaign against racist reviews