A Lack of Diversity, Not A Lack of Talent. Why Are the BAFTAs Not Recognizing Diverse Talent?

by: Safiya Ahmed

Awards season is upon us. Once again, glaring omissions of talent from minority backgrounds has brought on a predictable backlash from the media. This year, all twenty acting nominations were given to white performers. Not one person of colour was nominated in any of the male or female acting categories. No women appeared in the best director category, and none of the year’s best film nominees were directed by women.

The Daily Beast headline “BAFTAs So White’ Further Exposes the Deep Racism, Misogyny and Classism at the Heart of U.K Cinema” sums up the consensus of the mainstream media reaction to the lack of diversity among the nominees. Critics point to the fact that both Margot Robbie and Scarlett Johansson were nominated twice—even when there is a plethora of other, including non-white actors, to choose from. Keep in mind that the British Academy of Film and Television Art never once nominated Denzel Washington for any of the awards. It also failed to nominate Black British Actors such as Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith for Queen and Slim and Cynthia Erivo for Harriet. Like many of their peers, they were forced to look to Hollywood because their talents went unrecognised in Britain. What makes this years’ BAFTAs omissions particularly problematic is that unlike the last few years when the industry argued as James Paterson did in a 2013 Guardian comment piece that voting BAFTA members had too few projects featuring talent from diverse backgrounds or films up for consideration, this year there was a record number great contenders that should have been considered.

It is important to recognise these films because it frames so many of our real world conversations. Audiences make sense of real world issues such as the economy, climate, gender—even history for that matter—through film and television programmes. We saw this just last week when actor Laurence Fox called out an audience member on BBC Question Time for being “racist” because she described him as a white privileged male. It wasn’t his first offence, either. On a recent podcast he criticised the casting of a Sikh soldier in the 1917 Sam Mendes film, which happens to be up for Best Film at the BAFTAS and 10 Oscar nominations as very odd.

“It’s very heightened awareness of the colour of someone’s skin because of the oddness in the casting,” he said. “Even in 1917 they’ve done it with a Sikh soldier, which is great, it’s brilliant, but you’re suddenly aware there were Sikhs fighting in this war. And you’re like ‘OK, you’re now diverting me away from what the story is.”

But the dialogue that happened next was about the often forgotten 75,000 Sikh soldiers who died in World War one. When actor Shobna Gulati pointed out that “the incongruous anomaly was the inclusion of only one Sikh character in the film,” Fox apologised in a tweet saying “ Fellow humans who are #Sikhs I am as moved by the sacrifices your relatives made as I am by the loss of all those who die in war, whatever creed or colour. Please accept my apology for being clumsy in the way I have expressed myself over this matter in recent days”.

It is interesting to note that although the media has been critical about awards bodies like the BAFTAs and OSCARS, British journalism itself fares no better on diversity. A survey conducted by City of London found that the British journalism industry is 94 percent white, 86 percent university-educated and 55 percent male. The researchers reported that just 0.4 percent of British journalists are Muslim and only 0.2 percent are black. Nearly 5 percent of the UK population is Muslim and 3 percent is black—making journalists not representative at all.

It also found that women were paid significantly less than their male counterparts. Nearly 50% of female journalists earn £2,400 or less a month compared with just a third of men. Further that female journalists became stuck in junior management positions, while more men filled senior posts. Nearly half of women who had worked in the industry between six and 10 years were still “rank and file journalists”, while 64% of men with equivalent time in the industry had been promoted into junior or senior management positions. By all appearances the rhetoric on diversity appears to lack real conviction and seems to only fulfil the purpose of generating content for debate on social media.

Check our our video on why this matters.