Urban myths

Nightingale_Estate_747 560
Nightingale Estate, Hackney Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The 1993 murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence in an unprovoked knife attack had far reaching consequences across British life.

The public enquiry into his death, commonly known as the Macpherson report, was launched in the wake of outrage at the police’s failure to catch his killers. The report concluded that the investigation had been beset by ‘institutional racism’, poor leadership and incompetence, and recommended a number of changes to the police and justice systems.

While none of the 73 recommendations in the report referred to diversity and representation within Britain’s cultural industries, a significant part of its legacy was how it changed publicly supported film-making.

In his latest article, Just Get Something Black Made, Dr Clive James Nwonka of the Department of Sociology analyses the consequences of this policy from the vantage point of over a decade later.

The article uses the 2004 film Bullet Boy as a case study to highlight the tensions and failures of the government’s diversity agenda after the Macpherson report. The film, which was a relative critical and commercial failure, depicted a group of urban black youths whose lives were defined by criminal gangs and violence.

Bullet Boy was funded by the UK Film Council, which aimed to support black cinema as part of a social inclusion agenda. This objective was pitted against the requirement that films also achieve commercial success, in line with the doctrine of free market economics, one of the defining ideologies of the ruling New Labour government.

Dr Nwonka explains that these commercial pressures meant the film suffered from artistic constraints, leading to a representation of black culture that relied heavily on the black gang stereotype.

He says: “Audiences are familiar with media discourses about gangs and knife crime, and there is a constant state of moral panic around black youth. By giving the audience a perspective that merely corroborates this view, this type of film caters to that market but does not explain the structural elements that determine how and why these situations come to exist.”

The limited portrayal of black Briton’s lives was a result of what Dr Nwonka writes is a failure to achieve a ‘genuinely dialogical form of cultural production’. He says: “There’s a distance between those who are creating and producing, and those who make decisions.”

Dr Nwonka points to the lack of diversity and structural inequalities within the media industry, which means complex on screen portrayals of minority groups are unlikely to be fully realised.

“The large organisations that fund and make British films, like the BBC, Channel Four or the BFI, all face challenges around diversity within their workforces. But diversity policies cannot fully resolve these challenges independently, and the exclusion of certain people within a work particular workforce is an issue of social and racial inequality.”

The view that black film-makers and actors are facilitating the creation of films which reinforce criminal black cultural stereotypes is rejected by Dr Nwonka, who feels black film-makers are often working in the confines of the commercial market, seeking out scarce opportunities to pursue a career.

“Ashley Walters (the lead actor in Bullet Boy) has been typecast. The film industry hasn’t really provided the opportunities for him and others to show a broader range of acting.”

The films he has appeared in, particularly early in his career, reflect more about the crisis of how we understand racial identity and acting talent in this country, and how these actors are often locked into an industrial system of whiteness, rather than the personal agency he and others have had over their careers.”

15 years after Bullet Boy was released, Dr Nwonka feels there has been a social progress that is now being reflected in the films that are being made. In the UK, he attributes this change to the combination of the British film industry producing a wider range of British films, alongside audiences which have "had their fill of the genre of films" that Bullet Boy emerged from.

Internationally, the success of 2018’s Black Panther, a superhero film with an all-black cast, was a commercial and critical hit and could prove to be a film industry epoch.

Dr Nwonka says: “Whilst the film is not without fault, Black Panther’s breakthrough reflects a certain sophistication amongst its young audience, and a yearning for something new and different. It has an all black cast and circulates itself as a black film.”

I think its commercial and critical success will mean we see a range of characters and films offering a positive identification for minority audiences to counter the reductive depictions of people of colour.”

One of the factors behind this shift is that film-producers better appreciate how equality and diversity is good for business, realising that depictions of black people do not necessarily jeopardise a films chances commercial success. The same market forces that constrained Bullet Boy are helping to drive the change.

“I’m of the opinion that any inclusion of ethnic minorities should be good for equality reasons and nothing else. But we are starting to see a move away from some of the traditional arguments for diversity, inclusion and the production of films featuring black characters. This presents a more ethical question over what diversity actually means, and if the economic case for diversity can actually produce the structural change the issue requires. ”

Behind the article

Cultural discourses and practices of institutionalised diversity in the UK film sector: ‘Just get something black made’ by Clive James Nwonka and Sarita Malik was published by The Sociological Review in May 2018.