The Great British Diversity Problem


American filmmaker and director of Selma Ava DuVernay recently lamented the lack of opportunities for female and non-white directors in Hollywood, saying “here is an antagonistic context toward images of women by women, images by black people, brown people, indigenous people, that are outside of dominant culture. And the way that things are – they’re run by men, there’s a comfort level there. They are the first that come to each other’s’ minds. … I’m saying this very matter-of-factly, with no passion. It’s just the way it is.”  The maleness – and whiteness – of the film industry behind the camera is as obvious as it is appalling: no woman has ever won the Oscar for best director, and had DuVernay been nominated in 2015 she would have been the first black woman to even receive a nomination for the category.

As it was, she was passed over for a nomination by the judges. Hollywood’s lack of filmmaking roles for women and people of colour is well documented, but we wondered if the British film industry suffered the same problems, or if the smaller budgets smaller production companies, and altogether different nature of British film might allow for a wider range of voices to be heard.

To be honest, it doesn’t look good at first glance. There are a few award winners, directors of big films getting mentions around awards seasons or making huge gains at the box office; Phyllidia Lloyd (The Iron Lady), Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin), Sarah Gavron (Sufragette) and Sam Taylor-Johnson (Fifty Shades of Grey) but these examples are few in number in a sea of white, male, award-winners, and none have the same status or acclaim of directors such as Danny Boyle, Ridley Scott or Christopher Nolan.

Many of our most interesting female film directors – Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank), Sally Potter (Orlando), Amma Asante (Belle) – work in lower budget, indie circles, with their films getting relatively small circulation. This is not a negative judgement on them – some of the best, most fascinating films ever have been made on low budgets, and all three directors make films that are as challenging as they are vital. But simply put, smaller films are seen by fewer people, and for whatever reason, the work of female directors seems to reach a smaller audience.

Directors of colour fared, if anything, even worse: Google couldn’t even provide me with a list of the most popular directors as it did for women. Searching around, the names I could come up with were Richard Ayoade (Submarine), Gurinder Chadha (Bend it Like Beckham), Amma Asante again and Steve McQueen (Shame, 12 Years a Slave).

Further searching led me to Horace Ove (Pressure) the first black British filmmaker to direct a feature film in 1975, and Bim Bandele (Half of a Yellow Sun), but it’s hardly a glut. I admit this may reveal my ignorance more than it does a lack of filmmakers of colour, but the lack of well-known directors in the public sphere is a poor reflection on the kind of films being funded by British studios. Arguably the most successful of these directors, Steve McQueen with an Oscar win for 12 Years a Slave was originally an artist and began his film career in Hollywood, not the UK. Interestingly, when you google “British film directors” the first woman or person of colour to appear in the list of most popular directors is at number sixteen – behind fifteen white men.

Clearly, as much as the British film industry prides itself on smaller, more unusual, new productions, there is something it is getting wrong. I’ve no doubt that the problem is not a lack of female and BME directors – look hard enough and you will be able to find them – but a lack of funding, platforms, and opportunities from British film companies. Hopefully the success and/or acclaim of films like 12 Years a Slave, Belle, and Suffragette will show that audiences are not put off by characters who are not white and male, but are crying out for them: for different narratives and a different perspective.

A male-dominated film industry means that most of the time, we only hear stories told by half the population; the lack of racial diversity amongst prominent film-makers means that we hear from even fewer.  Stories such as the fight of the suffragettes for the right to vote, or different perspectives on the Biafran war, or Punjabi Sikh teenage girl footballers, rather than what we’ve been getting from top British directors in recent years, some of whom show a horrendous lack of understanding of racial politics (see Ridley Scott’s all white ‘Egyptian’ cast in Exodus: Gods and Kings). The lack of diversity in our home grown films is a loss not only to those unable to get ahead due to their gender or race, but to our film industry at large; we need to make room for a wider variety of people, for a wider variety of narratives.

[Clare Patterson – @clurrpatterson]

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