The under-representation of racial and ethnic diversity across the film industry has been a hotly debated topic this past year. This pressing issue is now set to take center stage at the 60th annual British Film Institute London Film Festival, which runs Oct. 5-16.
This year’s hot ticket will be the Black Star Diversity Symposium, led by actor David Oyelowo, which opens the festival’s industry program on Oct. 6. The symposium has a specific focus on on-screen representation of the black community. The event aims to bring together actors, filmmakers, and industry leaders to discuss why opportunities for blacks remain limited and what can be done to effect positive change.
“The festival program has wonderful films from BAME [black, Asian and minority ethnic] filmmakers, and, with issues surrounding diversity magnified by social media, I think this is a moment on which we can really capitalize,” says Ashley Clark, programmer of the BFI’s Black Star season, which celebrates black actors and follows the LFF. “But we have to recognize that the work is never done. It needs investment, mentoring and honest conversation.”
Clark highlights the fact that since Horace Ove made “Pressure” in 1976, widely regarded as the first black British film, only one black British filmmaker has made more than three theatrically released features: Noel Clarke, who will also take part in the symposium.
Many filmmakers and actors have spoken about the importance of people from all communities being able to see the world as they recognize it on screen.
“We live in a culturally diverse world, and that is not reflected in our work to the extent it should be,” says Ben Roberts, director of the BFI Film Fund. Roberts has recently been involved in the BFI’s extensive consultation with the industry and public to inform its future strategy for supporting and promoting film and television.
“Diversity and inclusion came up frequently as an imperative where the industry realizes it can be achieving more than it has,” he says.
“The next step is that everybody moves beyond just finding a single story with visible black actors and themes, so they can feel black audiences are being represented,” says Roberts. “We need to impact development of material over the longer term.”
“We have to engage with schools and colleges to ensure people know what opportunities there are,” says Jon Wardle, deputy director of the U.K.’s National Film and Television School. “We work with the BFI Film Academy where we can encourage a diverse range of young talent and then benefit on intake for the NFTS at post-graduation level.”
He points to positive trends seen in the intake of students for the BFI Film Academy, which is run by the NFTS and aimed at 16- to 19-year-olds.
Wardle believes social media movements such as #Oscarssowhite have been vital in waking up the industry.
“The media focus is helpful because it generates interest and engagement. Four years ago the NFTS had one scholarship specifically focused on BAME filmmakers; now we have five.” (Those total $130,000 in funds.)
“The biggest issue is one of living experience and the curatorial barrier that exists across the sector in terms of where decisions are made,” adds Roberts. “It’s a top-down issue not just a training issue. We have to come at it from both sides.”
Clark notes that raising the level of industry diversity is not simply a case of having an occasional black or brown face on screen.
“It runs deeper than that. It’s about considering diversity from the inside out. There needs to be a sense of continuity.”