CONTENT NOTE: This piece will contain spoilers for the programmes discussed.
A year ago, looking back on television that centred around people of colour, I highlighted Georgina Campbell’s staggering performance in Murdered By My Boyfriend. A performance that I confidently stated would receive no award recognition. Campbell went on to win a BAFTA.
So, leaving the award predictions aside, let’s do the same again, and look at the standout PoC performances in 2015. This year includes a look at online web-series, as well as television:
Zawe Ashton featured in one of my earliest Media Diversified pieces – a list of emerging UK actors of colour.
Ashton plays Katherine, Not Safe For Work’s lead. The programme opens with her and her (now) ex-husband signing their divorce papers. She has also recently suffered a miscarriage. Katherine works as an immigration civil servant who is “relocated” from the London office to work in Northampton due to government cutbacks, and subsequently discovers her new workplace is a monument to dysfunction.
The show is an ensemble piece, where its characters are all – in various ways – emotionally damaged. It is both a philippic against immigration policy, as well as revealing how office work can be a succubus on one’s humanity, causing the characters to often medicate with alcohol – among other substances.
The programme is a slow burn, but I especially liked the depiction of its numerous women characters, and the repressed interaction that occurs when you house enough English people in the same space.
Sophie Rundle, Sian Brooke, Anastasia Hille, and Jo Hartley are all superb, but their supporting turns pivot around Ashton. She is the axle of the story, given licence to be thoroughly unlikeable at times as she works through her inner angst. It’s the type of role normally given to a man, so to see a black woman portray such a nuanced character is a pleasing sight. I will be disgusted if this show doesn’t get a second series.
I’ll be honest, I’ve never been wholly convinced by Chan as an actor. While I’m always glad to see her get work – as I am with any woman of colour – I hadn’t seen her in a role that particularly resonated. That changed after her turn in the sinister sci-fi show, Humans.
Casting is one of the most overlooked aspects of good fiction. It’s not just about hiring a skilled actor, but finding one who fits the role, the tenor of the show, and meshes well with their fellow cast members.
Humans was an object lesson in the importance of casting, as it’s a perfect vehicle for Chan’s talents. It takes place in a world where hired help comes in the form of artificial humans, fresh with the “uncanny valley” look. Playing Anita, Chan is ideally placed as someone who emotes little, yet continuously hints at something simmering beneath her servile disposition.
It may seem like a basic performance, but don’t underestimate the discipline and focus it takes for an actor to be physically inactive – yet remain prominent – for lengthy periods. By doing so little, Chan was incredibly compelling, and I look forward to seeing her work in Season 2 of the programme.
Okay, so I’m slightly cheating by picking two actors instead of one, but the enjoyment in Cecile Emeke’s Ackee and Saltfish comes from the symbiosis of Tiwo and Babirye. The show simply wouldn’t work with only one of them. But how splendidly it works with both.
In some ways, Ackee and Saltfish felt redolent of (despite them being lilywhite) the solipsistic slacker movies from Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith. That “Seinfeldian” quality of being about nothing. Yet the messenger is often as germane as the message, and given that the show stars two black women – while being written and directed by another – means it’s far from superficial fare.
Even when one is fully cognisant of the inequities in our world, we still have to partake in the mundane aspects of life. Being well versed in the works of Toni Morrison doesn’t stop one having to eat breakfast, buy carpet, or try to get tickets to a Lauryn Hill gig.
Emeke’s dialogue functions like the most fluid rally of tennis, with the multiloquent Tiwo adroitly dovetailing with the wry Babirye. They are so well matched that whatever situation they find themselves in, they never fail to be entertaining. Ackee and Saltfish is a tremendous affirmation of black womanhood, and Tiwo and Babiyre are a pairing I will probably never get tired of watching.
Polyglot is a story – from the highly talented Amelia Umuhire – about the feelings of dislocation that immigration has on migrants. Amanda Mukasonga (a.k.a. Babiche Papaya) is the focus of the tale, playing the youngest of three Rwandans (her brothers live in England and Canada, respectively), a rapper who is looking for somewhere to live in Berlin.
In the first episode, she finds a flatshare, and her relief supersedes the common awkwardness that results when meeting a new group of people. Mukasonga is a winsome and radiant presence; whenever she laughs, it’s as if someone has turned on a light inside her face that beams outwards.
However, the next episode highlights the dissociation that comes from being away from home, and its effects on one’s mental health. She is about to text a friend, saying; “You know those days where you can’t stop crying”, but ends up sending the following; “Hey dude what’s up”.
The episode also demonstrates the significance of black women’s hair, as Amanda tries to cheer herself up through the therapeutic self-care of having her hair done. Local hairstylist, Mama Omar (also a migrant) tends to Amanda’s hair, and they have a conversation as tender as it is affecting. Mama Omar (in a marvellous performance from Anna Dushime) doesn’t always tell Amanda what she wants to hear, but does tell her what she needs to hear. The way the scene is shot, written, cut, and acted makes for the most wonderful storytelling.
Mukasonga takes a back seat in the most recent episode, which takes us to London. But it’s she who is the shining star from the series. She has a natural and easy screen presence, and I sorely hope Polyglot isn’t the only piece of acting that she does.
 – An “Altbauwohnung”, which is essentially a flat in an old building.
 – A familiar part of London for me, as my youngest sister lives about 10 minutes away.
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