Friday, 17 January 2014

Harris, Idris, Chiwetel and the great UK talent drain

Idris, Chiwetel and the great UK talent drain…

Matthew Hemley

Chiwetel Ejiofor in The Shadow Line.
Chiwetel Ejiofor in The Shadow Line.

In the last couple of weeks I’ve seen two films featuring excellent leading performances from British actors – Idris Elba (in Mandela – The Long Walk to Freedom, which also stars the wonderful Naomie Harris) and Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave.
If you’ve seen these already, you’ll know how great the performances in both of these films are. If you’ve yet to see them then you’re in for a treat. As I say, they show off the excellent acting talent the UK has to offer.
I just hope that we don’t lose performers like Elba and Ejiofor to the US all together now following their acclaimed performances.
If we want to stop the drain of talent looking to other countries for work, changes are needed behind the scenes, as well as in front of the camera
I say this because it’s been a long-held complaint about the UK that it does not provide enough roles for its black, Asian and minority ethic performers. And with Elba and Ejiofor currently wowing audiences in cinemas, Hollywood will be keen to hold on to them. Great for them – bad for us.
Because surely we want home-grown talent such as this appearing in our home-grown content? We should be rushing to give them parts in our TV shows, films and in the theatre. Sadly, it seems black actors look outside of the UK for roles.
The Stage has written about this issue before, back in 2011. Paterson Joseph, at the time, said black actors face challenges because they work in a country that is “a majority white country”, where dramas are mainly written by white people.
And he seems to be right. Last year, a report by Creative Skillset revealed a large drop in the number of black, Asian and ethnic minority people working in the creative industries.
It found that in television alone, only 7.5% of the workforce is made up of people from a black, Asian or ethnic minority group, down from 9% in 2009 and 9.9% in 2006.
It also showed that black, Asian and minority ethnic [BAME] people now make up just 5.4% of the total workforce across all the creative media sectors compared with 6.7% in 2009.
That would suggest we are moving in the wrong direction – and if we want to stop the drain of talent looking to other countries for work, changes are needed behind the scenes, as well as in front of the camera.
And when black actors are in front of a camera, they should be in roles that are complex and real. Last year, Labour politician Chuka Umunna waded into the debate, and lamented the number of black performers quitting the UK for the US, because any roles that they do land here tend to be stereotyped.
Umunna added:
If I am wrong about this, then why do so many black British actors have to leave the UK for the US to get decent film and television roles that fall outside the stereotypes?
As far as Elba is concerned, you might say that we lost him a long time ago. From what I can see, he left the UK for the US quite early on in his career – and he has since made huge waves there, not least in The Wire. He has of course been seen on the UK in Luther – a part that earned him huge critical acclaim. But the simple truth is, the parts he has taken here in the UK are fewer compared with those he has had in the US. Similarly, Ejiofor, while enjoying stints here in Dancing on the Edge and The Shadow Line, looks likely to be focusing now on his film career in the US.
Let’s just hope that UK producers and writers are able to appeal to them with parts that give them, and others like them, the chance to demonstrate the full scope of their talent, in complex and interesting roles.
Only last year, for example, Zawe Ashton, star of Fresh Meat on Channel 4, complained:
You want to show your range, but the complexity of roles isn’t there for black actors.
Which is, quite frankly, ridiculous.
The message is clear: give our finest talent – irrespective of their skin colour – the roles they deserve, or lose them to other countries. It’s as simple as that.

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