In June 2020, amid the global Black Lives Matter movement, a three-page open letter began circulating across the U.K. film and TV industry with four commands from its signatories: Banish your weak excuses, be more demanding, expand your vision and empower Black and brown independent producers.
Modeled after a letter to Hollywood issued by New York’s Black TV & Film Collective, the U.K. dispatch was bold and unapologetic, ultimately garnering 5,010 signatures from the likes of Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Michaela Coel, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Colin Firth, Florence Pugh and other top talent.
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It was, as Mbatha-Raw puts it, “so un-British.” In a good way.
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The U.K. had its own reckoning with race following the murder of George Floyd on May 25 in America, and the local film and TV industry was quick to make declarations of allyship and engage in untold commitments. The letter presented a framework for the missing link: accountability.
“The Morning Show” star Mbatha-Raw was among a group of signatories of the letter — including actors, writers, producers, agents and casting directors — approached by Variety to reflect on how the equality-focused agenda around the Black Lives Matter movement and the demands made in the letter have manifested in their careers. From their vantage point, has it been a movement or merely a moment?
“I remember thinking, ‘There’s nothing polite about this [letter],’” recalls Mbatha-Raw, who was filming in the U.S. when she was sent the document through her U.K. agent. “It was assertive and demanding, and articulated things that have been very easy to generalize.”
In the past year, Mbatha-Raw — who will soon relocate from Los Angeles back to her home of Oxfordshire in the U.K. — has unlocked a new chapter in her career by accepting invitations to serve as a producer, first on the thriller series “The Girl Before,” in which she stars alongside David Oyelowo, and Apple TV Plus’ thriller “Surface” from Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine. The timing of these offers isn’t lost on her, and she’s eager to take them on.
“There is an awareness now that if you’re telling a story about women of color, there will be nuances and details in the story and how it’s put together where it’s valuable to have those voices and points of view helping to assemble the project,” says Mbatha-Raw. “I’m trying to be the change myself. I don’t think I’ve worked with any producers of color in the U.K., and that’s shocking to me.”
That doesn’t shock Nisha Parti, the British producer who spearheaded the U.K. letter. Parti worked with the likes of “Harry Potter” and “Chernobyl” producers David Heyman and Jane Featherstone, respectively, early in her career, and produced the acclaimed drama “The Boy With the Topknot” in 2017.
The TV movie for the BBC, based on the eponymous memoir by journalist Sathnam Sanghera, was one of the best-received contemporary examinations of South Asian culture in British television. But Parti says there’s no chance she could have optioned the book and made it in the current climate.
“It has become almost impossible to get a hot ‘diverse’ book,” says Parti. “I would never get ‘The Boy With the Topknot’ if I bid for it now.”
In the 17 months since the letter went out, “really brilliant things have happened,” Parti observes, particularly for British actors and writers of color, many of whom are in high demand. But producers of color, she argues, feel cheated.
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“Many of us have been [trying] hard for many years to work with underrepresented writers and make authentic shows about our experience, but in the past 12 months, there’s been a gold rush on diverse talent,” says Parti.
There are projects in development now with new writers from diverse backgrounds that wouldn’t have been given the time of day two years ago, says Parti. “But the diverse companies are being outbid at every turn by the big guns, and priced out of the market by very aggressive agents.”
Some would say that’s a good problem to have — after all, didn’t the letter ask the industry to expand its vision and “think outside the box when looking for new talent”? Parti argues that, in fact, an increase in shows about diversity that doesn’t include enough diverse-led production companies does a disservice to the industry because producers of color would be more nurturing with diverse stories and would hire more inclusive crews.
“Diverse writers and new employees are all guns for hire who can easily be fired,” says Parti. “This is not going to change unless we change the people at the top and work with more diverse-led production companies.” U.K. producers of color are facing a double-edged sword, says Brooklyn-based producer-director Okema T. Moore, programming committee chair for the Black TV & Film Collective. Moore is among those leading the charge to support producers of color — “The gatekeepers don’t look like us, and they don’t look for us,” she quips — but she questions why her British counterparts aren’t being funded “the same way these white production companies are being funded.” “The issue is not ‘I’m being priced out because my own people cost too much.’ No! It’s ‘My people are getting what they’re worth,’” adds Moore. “The producers have to figure out how they are bolstered fiscally to support those fees.”
The U.S. and U.K. production sectors, however, are starkly different. People may assume successful British talent working overseas represents the power of the British industry, but that would be a mistake.
“They are two separate things,” says actor James Krishna Floyd, who is of British and Indian Tamil heritage. A keen observer of industry diversity on both sides of the pond, he devours the annual UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report. “[The U.K.] follows. We cannot lead: We don’t have the same amount of money [or] distribution.”
In television, only 9.3% of producers making programs for the main U.K. broadcasters between August 2019 and July 2020 (the most recent period with statistics available) were from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups, according to industry org Diamond.
Overall, off-screen contributions from BAME groups actually dropped from 12.3% in 2018-19 to 11.8% in 2019-20. Glaringly, the genre with the worst off-screen representation is drama, which is sorely lacking in BAME presence and that of the disabled workforce.
Meanwhile, the British Film Institute’s most recent diversity and inclusion statistics indicate that nonwhite producers received only 14% of BFI funding in 2019-20 — up from a paltry 5% in 2018-19.
“It’s not really a level playing field,” says Dhanny Joshi, managing director of Big Deal Films.
Joshi made his first trip to Cannes in October for global TV market Mipcom, where his seven-year-old company was up for a Diversify TV Excellence Award for representation of race and ethnicity in its BBC comedy, “Dreaming Whilst Black.” The flustered producer was adamant the show would lose out to Working Title’s Muslim punk rock comedy “We Are Lady Parts” for Channel 4 and Peacock. Pleasantly surprised, he turned out to be wrong.
Courtesy of Peacock
“The smaller companies will have closer access to stories and talent,” says Joshi, “but we’re not going to have the resources of the bigger companies that have millions of pounds of turnover.”
But as commissioning requirements grow and “diverse stories are at a premium,” the landscape will become 10 times more competitive, predicts Joshi. And if you don’t have a track record, how do you compete?
A number of producers, who chose to remain anonymous, have highlighted recent drama commissions that are telling diverse stories but are produced by largely white production companies.
The BBC’s “Wahala,” an adaptation of Nikki May’s highly anticipated forthcoming book, follows three Anglo-Nigerian female friends living in London, and is written by BAFTA-nominated “Rocks” screenwriter Theresa Ikoko. It’s being produced, however, by former BBC commissioner Elizabeth Kilgarriff, through her new production company Firebird Pictures.
Similarly, ITV’s “DI Ray,” which is headlined by “Bend It Like Beckham” star Parminder Nagra, is written by actor-writer Maya Sondhi but produced by HTM Television, the company formed by “Line of Duty” and “Bodyguard” creator Jed Mercurio.
Meanwhile, Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner’s Working Title is behind “We Are Lady Parts” as well as forthcoming Netflix movie “The Swimmers,” which tells the true story of Yusra and Sarah Mardini, Syrian refugees who became Olympic swimmers. The project is helmed by Welsh-Egyptian director Sally El Hosaini (“My Brother the Devil”) and penned by writer Jack Thorne.
“It’s not enough to be looking for diverse projects and just attaching a Black or Asian writer,” complains one white senior producer. “We need to give Black and Asian production companies opportunities to learn.”
But what’s the alternative, demands Floyd, who stars in “The Swimmers.” “If the rights for the stories of [Yusra and Sarah Mardini] were given to a company that was nonwhite, does ‘The Swimmers’ get the budget? Does it end up being at Netflix?” asks Floyd. “It’s unrealistic, isn’t it?”
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Actors accounted for almost half the signatories of the U.K. letter, and have been, in many respects, on the front lines of the tectonic shifts happening around representation in the industry.
Parsi-Irish casting director Mark Summers has always been a “revolutionary person,” he proudly declares. Born Mark Sumariwalla, he changed his last name as a child actor “because of how things were,” he says. But as he grew up in the industry and turned to casting, advocating for diversity has been at the heart of his business.
Says Summers with a laugh: “It’s come to the point where people are literally saying, ‘We want a diverse cast! We want a diverse cast!’ But a lot of the creatives aren’t diverse, and they sometimes don’t understand what they’re looking for and what the difference is between someone from Sri Lanka, South India and North India.”
He’s not there to shut them down. “Part of my job is to educate people,” says Summers, who describes a “massive, massive surge of talent from the U.K.”
Floyd, who recently starred in Hulu’s “No Man’s Land,” believes that, even more than the production side, on-screen representation — particularly for actors of South Asian heritage — is essential. For the past four years, there’s been a steady annual decline of people who identify as South Asian on British television, including a drop from 5.6% in 2018-19 to 4.9% in 2019-20, according to Diamond data.
But the right parts seldom materialize.
“Do you know how many brown female actors I know that are fucking brilliant — like, Marlon Brando-, Meryl Streep-level of talent?” says Floyd. “There’s enough of them to have this conversation, and they’re not getting a look in. We’re losing generational talents of brown actresses, and no one says shit.”
Mim Shaikh, an actor of Pakistani heritage, describes a sea change for acting offers in the past year. During lockdown, he was asked to audition for Working Title’s cross-cultural romantic comedy “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” which stars Lily James, Emma Thompson and Shazad Latif. The film, which is directed by Shekhar Kapur, is believed to be loosely informed by screenwriter Jemima Khan’s former marriage to Imran Khan, who’s now the prime minister of Pakistan.
Brent N. Clarke/Invision/AP
“I read the script and was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is a British Asian film,’” Shaikh exclaims. “There is something that’s slowly starting to happen, where there is positive change and where brown creatives like myself can feel like, ‘OK, yeah, there’s a place for me and I can have an opportunity to shine on the big screen.’”
But Shaikh, who has struggled as a screenwriter to get commissions, highlights a dearth of “really nuanced, detailed roles for ethnic minorities.”
Those who do manage to get a taste find it difficult to go back to playing one-dimensional characters. “We Are Lady Parts” star Anjana Vasan, who portrays a quirky, Don McLean-loving guitarist in an all-girl Muslim rock band, says she’s become more discerning after her positive experience on the show.
“There were things that came my way after that, which, before, I’d have considered to be good offers, but which I felt more empowered to say no to after ‘Lady Parts,’” she says. “Just purely from an acting and writing point of view, I felt like, ‘Oh, is this how we’re still going to write brown women?’ It felt like a missed opportunity.”
Says British-Sri Lankan actor Prasanna Puwanarajah: “We have to move beyond cosmetic representation.” One of the stars of Amazon’s keenly awaited British adaptation of “Call My Agent,” Puwanarajah points out that “stereotypical representation still forms the basis of representational shift, which suggests that the editorial lens hasn’t changed that much.”
For some actors, producing has presented a way to navigate that editorial lens. “The Irishman” actor Stephen Graham, who is of Jamaican heritage, is a longtime champion of diversity and social mobility in the U.K. In setting up Matriarch Prods. in 2020 with his wife, actor Hannah Walters, he tried to put his money where his mouth is.
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“The promise that I’ve made is ‘I will do my utmost to make a change,’” says Graham, a signatory of the letter who WhatsApped the document to his entire contacts list.
On one Matriarch project in development, Graham says the couple is looking specifically for a Black female producer and Black emerging writers, “because some of the content within our story is about being a Black man.” Elsewhere, Matriarch is negotiating a “really big production” and trying to get a budget line in the contract for an apprentice in every department.
Mbatha-Raw highlights an “illusion” that’s inherent around shows like “The Girl Before,” which has a predominantly Black cast in David Oyelowo and Jessica Plummer, who is half Jamaican.
“It’s very diverse in front of the camera, and people accept that and think that box is ticked in terms of the industry at large, but that’s very much not the case. When you look at camera operators, sound engineers and everyone behind the scenes, it’s a very different picture.”
Certainly, for Mbatha-Raw, making the move recently from actor to actor-producer on “The Girl Before” has amplified her voice on set.
“These are all things I’ve always thought about as an actor,” she says, “but there’s a difference when you have those opinions as an actor and people think, ‘Oh that actor is difficult,’ whereas when you have those thoughts as a producer, people have to listen to you. [Your thoughts] are validated by the role.”
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Nick Marston is the chairman of film, television and theater at powerful agency Curtis Brown Group, which began as a literary outfit and whose client roster includes the likes of Mbatha-Raw, Dev Patel, Robert Pattinson and Paul Mescal. A number of Curtis Brown agents, including Marston, signed the letter, but agencies like his have been accused by some producers of driving up fees for diverse talent.
Marston says higher fees being demanded by talent of color is a “healthy turnaround.” “As an agent, it’s hard to bemoan that,” he says. “I don’t think we’re quite at the stage where diverse talent is getting too well paid.”
He does agree, however, that there’s an unequal playing field for diverse producers. “There’s undoubtedly an inequality baked into the whole system, where a few producers do extremely well, and a lot of producers struggle,” Marston tells Variety.
Is Curtis Brown encouraging its clients to work more with diverse production outfits? “It’s a possibility, and that’s definitely something that came up in our [internal diversity report],” he notes. “As gatekeepers, to an extent, it is our responsibility to try and encourage new producers and companies.”
The report, which was commissioned in the past year, makes a commitment to “broad representation” across Curtis Brown clients. It’s still unclear, though, whether its findings will be published outside the agency.
Variety reached out to the main British broadcasters — BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Sky — to ask how many diverse-led production companies have been commissioned since summer 2020, when many of the channels set up schemes and specific funds to support this group, in comparison with their total commissions. None provided a specific answer.
A day after the U.K. letter was published, the BBC revealed its Creative Diversity Commitment — a plan to spend £100 million ($134 million) on diverse and inclusive TV content from April 2021 to March 2024. Asked how many shows from diverse-led production companies have been ordered since April, a BBC spokesperson says it’s still “identifying programs” that meet the criteria and will provide an update in April 2022.
Meanwhile, Sky says it doesn’t track the ownership diversity of its production partners, “but is investigating how this can be done so we can track going forward.”
Most telling is the case of Channel 4, which pioneered a bold “Black to Front” day of programming featuring on- and off-screen Black talent in September. But of the 14 companies producing the program’s 13 shows, only four Black-owned production firms took part, and only on new titles.
Nonetheless, the channel has reordered some of those new shows in the hopes, says Channel 4 director of programs Ian Katz, “that it would prompt a step change to representation on the channel and the wider industry.”
Ade Rawcliffe, group director of diversity at commercial broadcaster ITV, says, frankly, “I think people feel that we should have done more, more quickly.” ITV’s approach, she says, is being “honest about our achievements, but also talking about things that haven’t worked very well.” In the past 17 months, five diverse-led production companies have been commissioned, and a Diversity Acceleration Plan was introduced in July.
Similarly, ViacomCBS-backed Channel 5 has instated a “no diversity, no commission” policy, and tells Variety that a 2019 diverse indie initiative has since given rise to 16 shows.
Marcus Ryder, one of Britain’s leading campaigners for diversity, reckons it’s too early for any solid advancements in the industry. “You only have to look at how long production cycles work,” he says. “To be able to judge something in terms of one year is difficult.”
And yet most people in the British entertainment industry would agree that diversity and representation have been taken more seriously since 2020, and that structural changes are underway. But the fault lines of how the landscape is recalibrating, and who is really benefiting, clearly tell a more nuanced story than one of straight progress.
“There’s an awful lot of us who have been working for a really long time, and who are extremely able; we just need the opportunity — just get us in,” says “Vigil” actor Lolita Chakrabarti.
After years of acting, Chakrabarti’s first play as a writer, “Hymn,” was staged earlier this year at London’s Almeida Theatre. During a photo shoot, the two lead Black actors brought their own hair products but didn’t need to use them as their Black makeup artist knew exactly what she was doing.
“[They brought the products] from practiced behavior of turning up and being disappointed,” Chakrabarti says. “They were self-equipped. But they didn’t need to be. And that’s the difference now: They didn’t need to be.”
K.J. Yossman contributed to this story.
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