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  • Writer's pictureJerridah Akena

The Stories We Tell: Representation Matters

There has long been a debate about the content that is commissioned and given the biggest budgets, when it pertains to portrayals of black lived experiences in UK film and TV. We’ve heard the sentiment that “representation matters”, but what is true representation and how can we do a better job of telling the stories that matter?

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Why does representation matter?

In a GalDem article, it was stated that “representation forms the basis of many minorities’ self perception and value. It allows us to be architects of our own narratives, connects us to stories and histories of those like us. It helps us feel joy, power, and free in the face of a joint struggle.”

From the people we see on screen, to the people who write, direct, secure the budgets, market and promote projects, there is a knock on effect when there isn’t effective representation at all these critical levels. It can affect the authenticity and ultimately the success of a project.

I May Destroy You is the perfect example of a series that saw great success and depicted a plethora of black experiences representing both black joy and trauma in a nuanced and authentic way. The benefit of having black talent behind and in front of the camera can’t be ignored. The series won the 2021 Emmy for "Outstanding Writing For A Limited Or Anthology Series Or Movie." Michaela Coel, who wrote the series and was its main lead, also made history as the first Black woman to win the award. In a BBC Culture article, Black-British screenwriter Camilla Blackett said that, "the thing that stood out to me was just how intrinsically black-British the show was," she continued to say, "It was our slang, our vernacular, our lived racial experience in what it is to live in this densely-populated multicultural postage stamp of land. It was specific. Intentionally specific. And all the richer for it."

What are the current issues?

We can look to Damson Idris, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright and John Boyega to name a few household names that received mainstream success with big breaks in US Film & TV roles. When we see how many of the UK’s black talent have to make it in the US before truly being considered here, it begs the question; why does there appear to be a lack of opportunities for black talent in the U.K?

In an annual report on inclusivity in the UK TV industry, Creative Diversity Network found that diversity off-screen contributions from Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups increased from 9.7% in 2016-17 to 12.9% in 2020-21 and on-screen representation stronger at 20.9% 2020-21. However, representation remains low in the roles of director (9%), writer (9.6%), producer (10%), executive producer (7.3%) and head of production (9.3%).

Representation goes beyond seeing black actors in roles, there has been an ongoing debate about the type of content that is commissioned. When it was announced that TopBoy was coming to Netflix, there was some backlash around portrayals of black people in the UK centring around gang violence (particularly in London) and its glamorisation. The debate is nuanced because it also taps into respectability politics and the sentiment that any negative perceptions of black people (even if they may be based on some people’s lived experiences) showing us in a bad light are damaging in some capacity. While I may not agree with this statement, it is important that we can see ourselves in a plethora of ways, not just focusing on black trauma but also black joy and the many ways that manifests in reality and fiction.

Oftentimes, black content may not get the effective investment it deserves. Even if a project is commissioned there is often more pressure and expectation to prove its success with audiences before being given a fair opportunity or significant budget. When Channel 4 launched their “Black to Front” Campaign, which saw the entire programming schedule fronted by black talent; there was some critique that this was seen as a performative act and some hesitation about how effective a 24 hour window spotlight lighting black content would be in making lasting change. This Stylist article shares some valid critiques about this kind of initiative. It is important that there is long lasting investment in order to see real changes.

We can look at positive examples in the US, with trail blazers who are creating several opportunities and have achieved great success such as Issa Rae with Emmy award winning Insecure and Quinta Brunson with 3x Emmy Award winning, Abbot Elementary. In an article on The Atlantic, the writer states how “viewers were unaccustomed to seeing the mundanities of Black life depicted on television; with some notable exceptions, many Black people on TV at the time were either minor characters on white-led series or reality-TV personalities. By filling that void, Insecure became a Black popular-culture phenomenon.”

In conclusion: what can we do?

As a team, we understand the importance of platforming black talent and black-led projects. This is not just from a moral perspective, but there are proven benefits for the commercial success of a project.

Girls Trip (2017) was an example of the importance of representations on screen, off screen and within publicity and marketing efforts. During our PR campaign, we understood that this was a big opportunity to champion content that was black-led and capitalise on the moment with a special influencer screening that produced more than 2 million+ impressions and within a week of release, we managed to achieve over 11 million Twitter and 3 million Instagram impressions. The coverage was widely viewed online, and this alongside the press activity we secured contributed to the film doubling its UK box office target during the first weekend, and the film grossed over $7 million in the UK. This is a successful example of great representation on screen, off screen and within the promotion of a project.

With results like this and a plethora of great up and coming black talent in the UK, representation and opportunity should continue to be at the forefront in the industry in order to see and enjoy more ground-breaking cinema.

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