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  • Writer's pictureYazmin Mckenzie

The Pressures of Black Excellence on Screen

As Black people raised in Western society, we’ve all experienced first hand or heard the grating refrain from our parents, elders, mentors…

“You have to be twice as good to get half of what they have.”

This phrase rings true for many, but over time it has created a culture of anxiety and burnout with excellence being the lowest (or only) unit of measurement for anything we do, create or produce that’s seen as worthy by society. There are multiple think-pieces that already exist on Beyonce’s internet about the pressures of Black Excellence on the individual, but can we please have a moment of silence for all the ideas, scripts, plays, novels, films, TV shows and general content born from the minds of talented Black British creatives, that will never see the light of day simply because a gatekeeper didn’t deem it excellent enough?

As Entertainment Publicists at VAMP our day-to-days involve promoting film, TV and digital programming that impact Black culture, and I can’t help but scream internally each time I’ve met with studio execs to discuss a great Black-led project that they haven’t bothered to put a marketing/PR budget behind, or when season two of a series with an all-Black cast gets left by the wayside because season one didn’t top the Overnights TV Ratings Chart - completely disregarding the vast majority of their audience who binged the entire series online.

Fun fact: TV ratings in the UK are determined by BARB (Broadcasters Audience Research Board), who closely monitor a sample of roughly 5,300 homes to represent the viewing habits of the entire country. Why we’re still using this as a measurement of success, I’ll never understand.

The criteria for non-Black content being both green-lit and successfully promoted has widened over the years, benefitting from decades of trial and error without the fear of financial risk. Whereas the goalposts for Black programming have remained rigid over the last few decades, with mainstream networks still in the early stages of figuring out how best to sell Black art to a mass audience. If it’s not already clear, let me make it plain…

  • Yes, it is possible to have more than one Black family-centred show on air at any one time.

  • No, Black content doesn’t have to be racially/socially/politically charged to be successful.

  • And for the love of God, you don’t have to wait until Black History Month to TX your Black programming!

As diverse hires in key decision-making roles become a staple, we're beginning to see more of a change. But a few old-school executives remain stuck in their ways, unable to see that the perceived financial risk has already been disproven…over and over again.

The Fosters (LWT) broke ground in the late 70s as the first British series to feature an all Black cast. Despite only receiving a two-season run, it set a strong precedent, paving the way for the huge successes that made it past the powers that be and dominated in the 80s and 90s - The Lenny Henry Show, The Real McCoy and the Channel 4 classic Desmond’s (RIP Norman Beaton). By the noughties, the success of Black TV programming of the previous two decades had been largely forgotten and blackface became commonplace. One step forward, two steps back.

If not for Black creatives financing, producing and distributing their own content (Brothers with no Game, Mandem on the Wall, Venus vs. Mars) and studios witnessing the financial successes they were missing out on, I don’t believe this current boom of Black British stories would be taking place. Take Channel 4’s Black to Front Project, the incredible talent featured were already well known within the Black community, but only now being given a platform to share their art with a wider audience.

Fun fact: The Black to Front Project isn’t the first time Channel 4 have championed cultural diversity. The network’s main objective when it launched in 1982 was to serve underrepresented communities.

Despite the pressures of Black Excellence on screen proving incredibly toxic, Black creatives have found a way to power through - relying on community and safe spaces to help them face the inevitable obstacles this industry will throw their way. Platforms like The British Blacklist and Black Ballad are lifelines that we must continue to champion for the sake of all Black British art, everywhere.

And while we’re at it, as we continue to strive for excellence in all we do, let’s demand excellence from everyone else too.

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