There are terms and phrases that immediately conjure up certain images; period drama, western, sitcom, road trip movie, rom-com, these are all terms and genres that are easily identifiable and which one can think of fare that falls into each category.
Here in the United Kingdom, there is a rich history in film, television, theatre and music. In comedy, drama and serials, there has been a vast output of memorable films and television programmes. The likes of Doctor Who, Downton Abbey and even the comedy, Keeping Up Appearances, are worldwide successes. For such a small island and one that is somewhat set in its way, – more on that later – the United Kingdom manages to hold its own in the highly competitive visual media arena.
The English language being the dominant language of film is a big factor in that, with the top ten highest grossing films of all time all English language films. In the British media landscape, the same country that vocally defends its animal rights record, its lax border approach to immigration, its law enforcement without guns (a good thing) and the general fairness for which the British are famed for throughout the world, things are not as fair as one would like.
For a nation that prides itself on fairness, the image of the British around the world still is of an overwhelmingly white nation. Whereas in the States, a country that is routinely targeted for its lack of diversity and racial inequality, the programming reflects not only the country’s racial complexity but also the many stories and struggles that have faced the various communities, here in the U. K. one would never know that there was a diverse population by watching its television output.
As a British born, black person the scarcity of programmes with black people in them was always noticeable but never an issue as, like anybody, one gets use to what is normal, in this case, very few non-white television shows. The fact that most of the black programmes that were shown were American – The Cosby Show, Fresh Prince Of Bel Air, Different Strokes – one could not help but notice they were all comedies, perpetuating the long-held image of black people as grinning, jigging, entertainment. Alex Haley’s slave drama, Roots, was a big deal in the eighties amongst black people, a programme that showed a history, albeit an unsavoury one, and black people as more than caricatures. Of course, it was an American show.
Here, the paucity of black shows remains. There was a brief spate in the nineties – Desmond’s the standout amongst them – still, all were comedies. With the explosion of social media and every person able to venture an opinion and speak their mind – welcome to my blog! – issues of every ism – sex, race, gender – can be aired and debated. Any social issue can quickly become a cause, careers blighted by foolish utterances or proclamations in the social media world.
Such is the dearth of black shows in the U. K. many a black actor, much to the consternation of Samuel L. Jackson, moved to the States for work. With its rich history in television, featuring black ensemble shows since the seventies, as well as having black actors in a lot of their other shows. As well as television shows, there are also many black films of every genre, going back as far as the early nineteen hundreds, a truly rich history of black filmmaking.
Here in the U. K. even though black people have lived here since the seventeen hundreds, there has been very little television reflecting that with black British films so rare one could be forgiven for believing none were ever made. The few that have been made have not only been poorly marketed, a problem for a lot of British films but are so little known they even struggle to find a cult audience.
It was disappointing that Steve McQueen, the black British director, that when deciding to make a black film, starring the black British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, he elected to make an American story instead of a British one. The production money for 12 Years A Slave was predominantly American, so that may have been a factor, but if a respected director such as McQueen cannot get a British black story made, what Hope is there? The like of Amma Asante’s Belle got so little traction even as a historical, costumed drama, that one despairs of trying to get authentic black, British stories out. Still, I will keep writing until I find the right story to put out there. That’s what a writer does.