Following Theresa May’s illiterate/deeply disingenous intervention in the EU referendum debate, calling for Britain to stay in the EU but leave the European Court of Human Rights, it’s heartening to see this satirical video from Patrick Stewart.
So, it was the weekend of love. I had a weekend full of friendship and culture – including the movie Freeheld and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the National Theatre. Here are three things that gave me the warm and fuzzies:
One The reaction to Justice Scalia’s passing, in particular this response to the GOP’s rush to declare that the current, democratically elected POTUS is somehow ineligible to nominate his replacement:
Two Saturday Night Live, “The Day Beyonce Turned Black”.
“Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.” Maya Angelou.
No, not the richest among us.
That would be the 1.5% of UK television made by a Black director. I’m just going to leave that here.
This is actually a stat from research published last month by Directors UK (yes, still working that bookmark flex)
“We found that BAME directors are not only critically under-represented and under-employed in UK television as a whole, but that they are being given a far smaller proportion of directing opportunities in many key programming genres. Some of the most popular drama, comedy and entertainment shows had never been directed by a director who is of black, Asian or minority ethnic background – including all programmes within our sample from the following genres: period drama, chat show, game show, performance, reality, panel show, sketch comedy, and children’s comedy and entertainment.”- Directors UK
This matters. A lot. The entertainment industry is powerful; it’s where we tell our stories and have them told back to us, where issues are explored, mores challenged, issues aired. It’s not the only place, but it’s one of the most influential.
Our storytellers matter.
The report has recommendations too. It’s so easy to focus on on-screen talent, because it’s the most visible, but what goes on in the backroom is just as, if not more important because it shapes how these stories are told. It’s also a much less transparent process, merely by dint of the fact that these creatives are rarely seen.
Still partaking in the seemingly endless process of sorting through my bookmarks and came across this:
What the Hell is a Strong Woman Anyway? , a video reflection for the Guardian on the representation of women in film by director Chanya Button. It was timely, produced to coincide with this year’s BFI film festival.
The theme of this year’s festival was Strong Woman – prompting Button to probe what we mean by that. It’s an oft over-used term which can sometimes imply that strong women are the exception rather than the norm.
I like her video. I also feel a bit of ambivalence towards the term. I love films and TV shows with a strong female lead. I could write ode’s to Saga from the Bridge or Patti in Damages or Annalise Keating in How to Get Away with Murder.
I gravitate towards media with interesting images of women, in particular those who are allowed to be three dimensional. Perhaps that’s it – what so many of us are yearning for is complicated female characters, because we are all complex in real life. We use the phrase “strong” because so often women are the foil for male characters, caricatures and stereotypes; so often they were just objects to be desired or rescued. What’s great is that in TV especially, we are seeing a range of characters – the sort of roles that men have taken for granted for decades.
Just – women.
The internet has been great for flattening (up to a point) the inequalities in media access for marginalised groups – perhaps a better way of putting it is, platforms like Twitter allow a space to reply but also to champion different agendas. But it’s not all reactive.
The internet is also a site for creativity and audience building. I first got into Black web series with Issa Rae’s funny and witty series Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, charting the (mis) adventures of J, an awkward Black girl. It has a great cast of quirky characters and some sketches that are (too) true to life.
Then I discovered the British comedy Brothers With No Game. Better than Entourage and with a specific British flavour, it’s a comedy series about four guy friends who have no game. Everyone has *those* dates, and BWNG unpacks it all in snappy 12 minute episodes. It can also be unexpectedly touching, dealing with issues such as unemployment and heartbreak – all from a guy’s perspective. And unlike Entourage, it manages to do it without being sexist and the female characters are allowed to develop personalities, with the women on BWNG an essential part of the story.
One of the female characters who appeared in a couple of episodes, Venus, went on to star in an eponymous show on dating and London life, Venus vs Mars, picked up on Sky Living. I really enjoyed it; it has a similar humour to BWNG; warm and engaging, with plenty of in-jokes that you just don’t get on mainstream TV. There are other shows in the BWNG stable, it’s great to see the outfit championing strong content, particularly from women.
So, I suppose this post is in praise of BWNG in particular and Black-produced web series in general. My favourites:
One. Brothers With No Game:
Two. Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl:
Three. Venus vs Mars:
Would you recommend any more?
Stop press: There is a new Macgyver in the works (well, it’s news to me) and the show’s creator has confirmed that the lead will definitely be a woman. NPR speculates that it may even be a woman of colour.
I love the fact that the moment we’re having in TV at the moment means that a woman of colour fronting the show is a real possibility. Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, Sleepy Hollow are just a few of the shows paving the way.
But it also comes on the crest of a trend of remaking some old favourites with women. Like the all-female Ghostbusters that’s coming out soon.
I have just one heartfelt prayer*: let them be good. It’s one thing to have a woman front and centre, but the key is always good writing and believable characters, otherwise it’s an easy slide into arguments on tokenism.
Representation matters; make it good.
*I have another prayer: Gina Torres (Firefy, Suits) for Wonder Woman!
It’s not just the fact that I’ve chained myself to a laptop for a week to crunch out a draft of my dissertation and Phone Shop is my light relief. It’s hilarious. It’s also got a very clever script with a lot of zinging one-liners, but the real triumph is the cast, who are credited with improvising the script too. At turns slapstick and satirical, Phone Shop is a comedy on a many levels and I enjoy every single one, from the basement up. And if you don’t believe me, read the Guardian’s review of Season 3.
Just one example of the silly, self-referential style:
There is a flurry of activity around the issue of diversity in the media and creative industries in Britain. I wonder if it isn’t influenced a bit by Steve McQueen’s success with 12 Years A Slave in the USA, where it secured numerous awards nominations. For a few months now there have been articles about Black British actors achieving success across the pond, and coming back to a higher profile and better jobs here: Idris Elba, David Harewood, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, to name a few.
I am not sure how long it will be up, but Radio 4 hosted a spiky discussion on diversity in the creative industries with actor Gary Beadle and Simon Albury, former chairman of the Royal Television Society, in which Simon pointedly took the BBC to task for its own record on diversity.
Also worth checking out: The Runnymede Trust’s new Race Card site has some great posts, videos and debates on diversity in general.
The year is young, but there are already a few things I think I’ll be following or seeing this year.
Apart from 12 Years a Slave, I’ll be looking forward to watching Belle, the story of Dido Elizabeth Bell, the mixed-race daughter of a slave who was raised by her uncle the Earl of Mansfield, who was then Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales and who made a landmark ruling that paved the way for the abolition of slavery. I’ll also be following the blog of UCL’s project into the British legacy of slavery, which taps a rich seam of history that we don’t often look into in this country.
I usually despair of the lack of plays that I want to see in January, then find myself whisked away by a spoil of theatre across the city from February onwards.
Last year I was gutted to miss The Scottsboro Boys at the Young Vic. I heard it was fantastic and I can only hope it will return one day. I did have the pleasure of seeing A Season in the Congo and have just (literally, my credit card is still steaming) bought tickets to Sizwe Banzi is Dead, which starts on 6 February:
It’s 1972 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa and Sizwe Banzi’s passbook gives him just three days to find work. No work and he’ll be deported. That was four days ago.
So when Sizwe stumbles across a dead body with a passbook, he asks himself – does his identity card really define who he is? Could he give up his family and his name in order to survive?
I can’t wait to find out.