At the Baftas, white actors are the winners

#BaftasSoWhite: Renee Zellweger and Joaquin Phoenix won the two leading actor categories. © Getty

Is the film industry too interested in stories about white people? Despite years of debate about representation, there was a remarkable lack of diversity at last night’s Bafta film awards.

For film lovers, last night was a thriller. The Baftas — the British equivalent of the Oscars — gave out its annual prizes at a glitzy event in London.

World War One film 1917 won the most awards while Joaquin Phoenix and Renee Zellweger won the best actor gongs.

However, the occasion was not without controversy. Diversity is a hot topic in the film industry but progress is slow, if not non-existent.

All 20 actors nominated for major awards at this year’s Baftas were white. Both Scarlett Johansson and Margot Robbie were nominated for two awards each. For the seventh year in a row, there was not a single female nominee for the Best Director prize.

Many experts say that, of course, films should be primarily judged on their quality – not the colour of their actors’ skin.

But critics point out that when the same thing happens every year, it does not look good.

Even some of the event’s organisers, including Bafta president Prince William, expressed their disappointment.

Today in 2020, several years after the #OscarsSoWhite scandal, commentators expected this sort of controversy to belong in the past.

Although there have been notable performances from actors and directors of all backgrounds, insiders argue that it is not simply a question of Bafta members being racist.

They say the issues facing the film industry go deeper than that – those who nominate award winners are necessarily limited by films being produced.

Diversity behind the screen – among producers and directors – is just as important as a more diverse awards list. Film studios have to be bolder.

For example, 13% of the UK population comes from a BAME background. Despite this and a big proportion of arts-related jobs being in London, only 5% of those working in film production are not white.

Representation on screen matters because it allows viewers, especially young ones, to feel like they have a place in the most important stories we tell ourselves. Who and what we honour has an impact on the rest of society.

The future-gazing, afro-centric, best-selling success of Black Panther showed that audiences are hungry for something different.

So, is the film industry too interested in stories about white people?

White-wash

Yes, of course, say some. The lack of diversity reflects a total lack of originality. Whether adaptations of existing stories (Joker, Little Women) or new takes on well-known genres (The Irishman, 1917), most of this year’s major films do not leave room for fresh or diverse talent. Attitudes need to change across the industry for progress to take place.

No, say others, the broader film industry is already moving with the times. There is already plenty of BAME talent out there. That it is not reflected on the big shortlists is more about the narrow clique of pals that controls the Baftas and the Oscars. It is time to consign them to the dustbin of history and invent some better awards.

You Decide

  1. What does diversity mean to you?
  2. Which film would you say has influenced you the most? Think back to the cast, does your favourite character look or sound like you or do you relate to them because of something else?

Activities

  1. In groups of four, come up with a new system for the Baftas to nominate films and actors for their awards ceremony.
  2. Research all the steps involved in producing a major new film. Identify the stages where the most difference could be made to the diversity of the cast. Compare your findings with the rest of the class.

Some People Say...

“Totus mundus agit histrionem” – in other words, “All the world’s a stage”

Motto of William Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre (founded 1599) and its acting company, the King’s Men

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Bafta stands for the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. It describes itself as a “world-leading independent arts charity”. Last year, the Baftas announced it would be making changes to the nomination process in order to recognise more diversity in the awards.
What do we not know?
The most difficult thing to figure out is how conscious people are of the decisions they are making. It is unlikely that the Bafta members are willingly ignoring non-white films. But we do not know where the critical decisions are being made. Is it in the training of actors? The funding of new films?

Word Watch

Glitzy
Fancy, special.
Gongs
Awards, prizes.
Diversity
Having a range of people from different backgrounds and identities.
Non-existent
Not there; doesn’t exist.
BAME
Black, Asian and minority ethnic.
Afro-centric
Based on the look and culture of Africa.

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