‘BAFTA should look at ACTAs to recognise ethnic minority talent’

(Photo: Quintina Valero/Getty Images).
(Photo: Quintina Valero/Getty Images).


By Barnie Choudhury
Former BBC journalist

 IN FEBRUARY, the main broadcasters will be waiting to see who has won the Royal Television Society journalism awards.

I have had the privilege of being one of the judges for almost a decade. Like any competition, the shortlists will be analysed, and like any competition, some of us will be looking to see the diverse makeup of nominees. As a person of colour, I admit that I am silently praying that black and Asian minority ethnics are well-represented and, above all, are shortlisted and win on merit.

In the jury room we are lucky enough to have an excellent chair who encourages debate, and we go back and forth explaining our choices. The discussions are in a spirit of fairness and forensic detail, and no one is made to feel that his or her view is not important.

This year, around the table of voting judges in my category were four men and five women. Of these, four were BAME, and at least one has a disability. Although we will not know the winner until the night, but I have every confidence to say that we will have chosen a worthy champion.

I write this because no one should be in any doubt about how seriously judges take their role. So, I felt for BAFTA, which announced its shortlist and found it to be hideously white.

BAFTA changed its rules last year so in two categories, entrants would have to meet two out of four diversity criteria to be nominated. The only problem is this has obviously failed, and by shortlisting others in these categories, BAFTA has taken the easy way out.

Why is it important to show you mean business with diversity? Because at the moment, British BAME creative talent is still having to go to America to make its name. Archie Punjabi, Parminder Nagra and Naveen Andrews spring to mind as actors of south Asian descent. When it comes to African and Caribbean stars, well, there are so many to choose from.

I do not pretend to understand the reason why America takes BAME actors to its bosom, and I am not saying Hollywood is a panacea. But it understands that the only colour that matters is green. Why else did we see the stellar black casts in 12 Years A Slave, Selma and Black Panther? The latter certainly proved the case of the ‘film it and they will come’ theory, and the black superhero film has record box-office takings. Why else would Netflix enter a mutually profitable deal with black film producer, Shonda Rhimes? Why else would the industry cast the excellent Bollywood star, Anupam Kher, in New Amsterdam, its latest medical drama offering?

I think we have a triple whammy when it comes to racial diversity in the UK – lip service; too difficult to solve; and one-in-one-out, pull-up-the-ladder-behind-you syndrome. Lip service because we simply do not have enough black or south Asian commissioners and decision makers. The industry knows this, explains that it is setting up yet another scheme based on something which has already failed, and keeps its fingers crossed that next time it will be different.

What is clear to many of us is that the profession still thinks two BAME talents in an influential position are one too many. And those BAMEs who are in positions of power realise that if someone else of colour comes inside the tent, then their power is cut, creating a Darwinian contest.

So, what is a possible solution? Eastern Eye proudly hosts the Arts Culture & Theatre Awards (ACTAs). It was set up because the paper recognised that so many south Asians had obvious talent, but were constantly being overlooked. When I am fortunate enough to be asked to judge, I feel so proud to see the upand-coming, homegrown talent which is so obviously out there. So what if BAFTA made a ‘diversity’ category?

When I was the honorary secretary of the RTS Midlands we did that, and we had dozens of entries, so a precedent of sorts is there. It forced broadcasters to seek out diverse talent. Can you imagine the BBC, ITV and Sky not entering this category? The RTS Midlands does not have this category any more because, according to one insider, “everyone embraces diversity and we do not need a special category”.

The colour-blind casting of Dev Patel in David Copperfield hints at some progress in the UK, but it is nowhere near enough. Unfortunately, the BAFTAs also show we need to do better, and it’s sad that something like the ACTAs is needed at all. But until the ACTAs are put out of business, we must acknowledge that the industry is simply failing its diverse talent.