Every Single Word: the Representation of Minorities On-Screen

In the media, there is a distinct lack of coverage of and appreciation for Black Minority Ethnic individuals who positively contribute to our society. The Gryphon explores the underrepresentation of BME individuals in the media today.

Each year, The Guardian put together the Media Guardian 100: a list designed to recognise the most influential people in media worldwide. The 2014 list was filled with white people with just a few BME individuals featuring on the list, including Lenny Henry, Shonda Rhimes, and Richard Ayoade. Henry’s Richard Ayoade poses for a portrait at The Collective and Gibson Lounge Powered by CEG, during the Sundance Film Festival, on Friday, Jan. 17, 2014 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Victoria Will/Invision/AP) place within the top ten – the only black person to have made it within the top fifty, let alone the top ten – was due to his call for new legislation to address the “lack of racial diversity (…) in the creative industries”, as reported in The Guardian. Rhimes is behind the award-winning drama Grey’s Anatomy, whilst Ayoade is best known for his role as Moss in the hit show The IT Crowd, but is also the director behind Submarine and numerous music videos, such as Vampire Weekend’s Oxford Comma.

In many ways, this list should represent the diverse nature of our global society globally but it fails to do so. Those of BME backgrounds who were on the list merit it; although their achievements should be celebrated regardless of their racial background. The Media Guardian 100 epitomises the view that white people dominate the media and it takes more of an effort for a BME actor, director, journalist, or broadcaster to break into the industry. Last year, the BBC announced their pledge to ensure that fifteen percent – an increase of five percent – of all on-air BBC staff will be of black or ethnic minority descent by 2017 alongside launching their Creative Diversity Development Fund, which aims to increase racial diversity on-air whilst focusing initially on the inclusion of BME presenters, actors, and writers. These two initiatives should inspire other organisations to make the necessary changes in order to achieve a better representation of ethnic minorities in the media.

The International Business Times created several thought-provoking infographics about the Oscars, an awards ceremony which features mainly white nominees; they also refer to a post on the blog section of Lee and Low Books, which offers a pictorial representation of the allocation of the awards, highlighting the racial divide across the awards throughout the history of the Oscars. This year, at the eighty-seventh ceremony, Latino nominees made up a small proportion of the overall collective, whilst Asian and Black nominees were also virtually non-existent. Viewers were quick to critique, specifically regarding the film Selma and David Oyelowo’s outstanding performance, which failed to even get him a nomination. Oyelowo has spoken out about the lack of leading roles for actors of ethnic minorities, emphasising the fact that the trend for white actors to be given leading roles could have problematic repercussions for society. Since its inception only thirty-one black actors have taken home an Oscar, although the number is rising each decade.

hpThe Tumblr site ‘Every Single Word’ neatly puts things into perspective, by clipping entire films and creating videos that include only the lines spoken by non-white people in films. Take the world-renowned Harry Potter series, for example: over twenty hours of film, across eight instalments, of which less than six minutes of speech is spoken by ethnic minority characters. Given that J.K. Rowling’s magical saga is loved by people around the world, it is disappointing to see such a lack of BME actors in the series. In many ways, this issue mirrors the statistics reported in The Guardian, which illustrated that “ethnic minority employment in television and film production has dropped by thirty percent in the last six years.” Consequently, Lenny Henry’s campaigning for better representation of BME producers and actors across the media is of great importance in today’s multicultural society.

This phenomenon needs to be addressed – and not just by the actors to whom it does a great disservice. Those who hold the power need to use it – in the right way – to achieve a goal which is mutually beneficial: more BME actors and actresses in films, television series, and other audio-visual forms can only serve as a crucial step towards making the media being more representative of our society. Likewise, fellow actors should support and encourage each other, unlike former Bond villain Yaphet Kotto, himself an African-American, who told The Big Issue that “James Bond cannot be black.” Incidentally, Idris Elba has been tipped as a potential candidate to play 007. Boundaries are made to be broken: consider Omar Sy’s accomplishment in being the first actor of African descent to win a César for Best Actor, for his role in the internationally-acclaimed French film Les Intouchables. It is surely high time that Black Minority Ethnic actors and actresses are given the credit, recognition and spotlight that they deserve.

Rosemary Maher

Images: northleedslifegroup, huffington post, youtube

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