Many in the ‘creative economies’ discuss ‘diversity’ in such an abstract and intellectual way that it de-politicises real and everyday injustice, writes filmmaker and academic Kolton Lee
Kolton Lee
Kolton Lee

Weeks ago I wrote an article about race and diversity and how this relates to the British film industry. When I wrote the article I had no idea how people would respond to it; it was written in a genuine attempt to continue the debate about diversity but in such a way that added honesty and light, from a personal perspective, on what has been an intractable problem within the industry for decades. It was crystal clear to me that my experiences were not unique amongst black, British filmmakers, but to what extent others would acknowledge this truth, I had no idea.

I have to say I have been humbled by the numbers of people that have been hugely supportive and congratulatory about the article and the truths that it articulated. Clearly, my experience chimed with many others, a number of whom wrote to me about their own experiences in the industry. Given the number of people that I have heard from or who have been moved to talk about their own experiences on social media, I have to say my instinct about the value of this conversation was correct.

That said, the humbling expression of support that I have received then led me to reflect on why it is that this problem within our industry has been allowed to fester for so long, for decades, given the strength of feeling that exists about it. Why is it that so much of what was articulated in my article is recognisable for so many people, black and white, and yet the situation is allowed to continue?

Well, for what it’s worth these are my thoughts: firstly, when we talk about ‘diversity’ in the British film industry and what that means, I think we should be more honest and call it what it is; what we are talking about is ‘inequality’. We have a situation in the industry that is not fair and it is not right. The British Film Institute’s own data tells us as much (1). But many in the ‘creative economies’ discuss ‘diversity’ in such an abstract and intellectual way that it somehow makes what is a very real and daily injustice, that should make all people angry…not angry. As Bob Marley famously said “He who feels it, knows it more.” I suspect not enough white people ‘feel it’ in the way black people ‘feel it’. Ultimately, it seems to me that many of the people who aren’t angry about the inequality that exists within our film industry aren’t angry because they either directly or indirectly, benefit from the inequality. They’re comfortable with the status quo. Let’s face facts. I know lots of white filmmakers in this industry. They’re mostly all smart and perceptive people. They know how black filmmakers have been ostracised. How many of them have raised their voices, in a context where they are able, to say this is wrong. The same applies to all the other black, British actors or filmmakers who have contacted me with similar stories of exclusion or unfair treatment. What about all their white friends in the industry? I’ll leave that hanging for those of you reading this article to think about.

In the meantime, while you’re thinking about that, let me give you an example of what a fairer system might look like. In Sweden, there is a woman called Anna Serner who heads the Swedish Film Institute (SFI), their equivalent of the British Film Institute (BFI). When Anna Serner was employed in 2011 there was a gap between men and women in terms of the films the SFI funded. Women helmed about 26% of those films and men 74%. To Serner this was a situation that was not fair and it was not right. So she immediately implemented a target of 50:50 between men and women and the films helmed, and publicly stated that this target should be reached by the year 2020. And what is crucially important is that she made it clear to those below her that if these targets were not met, there would be consequences. The consequences would be that all of the money allocated for film funding, about £15m per year, would go to women. Period. No discussion.

By 2017, six years after this mandate from the top, women helmed 64% of the films that the SFI commissioned that year.

I could go into detail about how Serner made this dramatic transformation but that’s not my point. My point is, when someone is at the top of a publicly funded organisation and they recognise that their mandate is to serve all of the people of the country, and they take that responsibility seriously, this is the kind of change that is possible. Sadly, our own British Film Institute falls someway short of this. What I see in Sweden is action, not talking; targets set, and then consequences for not hitting those targets. What I see at the BFI is a number diversity initiatives for filmmakers applying for funding (at least 2 separate initiatives in the past 6 years) but no consequences for failing to hit these targets. And this, to be clear, applies to staff at the BFI who are apparently in jobs for life. Ben Roberts, for example, the Director of the Lottery Film Fund, has been in post for 6 years and the two most senior Development and Production executives, Natascha Wharton and Lizzie Francke, have been in place for at least 8 years (either with the BFI or with its predecessor, the UK Film Council). What exactly are the consequences for failing to deliver on published targets?

Interestingly, Serner has said that the situation she found at the SFI when she arrived was that whilst there was an awareness of the inequality between men and women, the feeling was that the submissions coming in from women were just not strong enough to fund. Hmmm. That sounds familiar to my own experience as a black filmmaker with the BFI. Serner’s analysis of this situation was firstly that it was nonsense and the notion of what is ‘strong enough’ needed to be examined and then more clearly defined in an open and transparent way; but more importantly she recognised that those who determine who is fit to be funded and who isn’t, were not inclined (or empowered) to rock the funding boat. In other words, there is no risk in maintaining the status quo, so of course people are inclined to do things as they’ve always been done, therefore protecting their position within the organisation; and what had always been done was to discriminate against women. This was a culture that she was determined to change, and she did. Looking at this situation, it seems to me that unless there is a similar determination for action and change where their anti-black bias is concerned at the BFI, we can only expect what we have been seeing for the last some decades.

Shame and Guilt

There is of course another big reason why I think the problems around diversity and the anti-black bias are allowed to continue within our film industry and also our television industry. For those of us who have felt excluded or shut out there is a sense that this is somehow our fault and that if we would only work harder, be ‘better’, things might be different. When having done those things but still nothing changes we are made to feel one or both of two things: shame and guilt at our own failure. ‘Guilt’ because maybe, just maybe, we’re not actually good enough; and this then engenders a sense of ‘shame’. This small but nagging sense of guilt and shame is what stops some of us from being honest about this injustice, because our failure to do well in this industry must in some way be our fault. And it’s our fault because we’re working in a meritocracy; we’re operating on a level playing field.

The problem with this narrative is that it’s not true. The truth is we’re living in a world of big data and the big data is telling us loud and clear that this industry is not operating from the position of a level playing field. In fact, what the big data is telling us is that this is an industry rife with cronyism, nepotism, racism and sexism. The playing field in this industry is nowhere near level. Just look at the evidence that’s out there, I did (2). So this sense of shame and guilt that we are conditioned to feel at our own failure and our own lack of progress should be put elsewhere. We should more rightly place this shame and guilt, where it belongs; with those who run organisations like the BFI and the structures within the industry that they implicitly perpetuate.

And my final reason for people’s reluctance to be honest around the diversity debate is that no one wants to openly criticise the industry in which they ‘work’ because who in their right mind would want to alienate the very people with whom they are hoping to work. Sadly, what this means for black filmmakers is that we are then presented with a situation where we are waiting for white people to do the right thing; speaking for myself, I’m tired of waiting. If we’re going to even bother to have this difficult and troubling and unsettling conversation about diversity (inequality), we should at least try and keep it real. Like Serner in Sweden, any child will tell you that inequality is wrong; and yet with all the collective talent and intelligence that exists within our industry it not only persists but we have a whole other industry that supports hundreds of people to talk about diversity. And instead of being angry about a situation of inequality and demanding change, the talking about ‘diversity’ continues; on and on, year after year, decade after decade.


Interestingly, I heard the recent Mctaggart lecture at this year’s Edinburgh television festival, by Michaela Coel, where she, unlike most black, British filmmakers, does choose to talk openly and candidly about her own experiences of racism within the television industry. This is what she had to say: I’ve never accused anyone at work of racism but I’ve been urged to understand someone “isn’t racist” on every job I’ve acted in since, just by pointing out possible patterns, tendencies. When I agree they aren’t racist, but suggest they may be thoughtless on the matter; it doesn’t go down very well. But if you’re not racist, or thoughtless about race, what other thing can you be?” This seems to me a hugely pertinent question and one we should all give much thought. I don’t know Michaela Coel but I applaud her honesty.

My own feeling about the debate around diversity is that it has largely been lip service. We know this because after all the various diversity initiatives launched by the BFI, the UK Film Council and Skillset over the years, there seems to be no internal record of how successful these initiatives have been: the results of these initiatives are not tracked and so where ethnicity is concerned there is no pipeline of black, British writing, directing or producing talent that has been developed and tracked over the years. Sadly, that tells you all you need to know about how seriously these initiatives are taken. But one thing we do know is that Black and Ethnic Minority involvement within the film and television industry is as bad as it’s ever been. To put this another way, you could say that all the initiatives that the BFI and the other public sector bodies have organised to increase the level of BME involvement in the business of making British film and television productions…have been a waste of time and money. The inequality in these industries is as bad as ever. And yet the talking continues.

I’ll give you an example of the duplicity around this talk in the world of television. There is an organisation known as the Creative Diversity Network and it’s made up of all the British broadcasters: Channel 4, Channel 5, the BBC, ITV, Sky, SC4 and ITN. Between them they’ve launched (yet another) diversity initiative called Project Diamond. Project Diamond was set up to use big data to track the diverse output of the all the collective programming across the various stakeholder partners. They do this by collecting information from all productions (over a certain size) and collating it in such a way as to present a picture of the diversity of our broadcasting sector. The initiative was launched in 2015 so one can only assume that the longer the initiative runs, the more accurate it will become. On the face of it this is an initiative to be applauded since it is the light of transparency that will effect change. This is data that looks at, amongst other things, the ethnic make up of people in front of the camera and the production teams, not only across the different TV genres but also within individual programmes across the industry. One would have thought this information at individual programme level would be hugely beneficial in shining a forensic light onto the bottle necks of black advancement across the industry. But no. The CDN is refusing to release this information. The reason given is that it infringes issues of privacy. However, since all the contributing productions have to be over a certain size and all information is given in statistics, percentages and is anonymised…forgive my scepticism but after all the time and money spent talking about diversity, I’m not buying this. This smells to me like a fudge, a deliberate attempt to hide information about where these bottle necks are, because certain production companies would find this information, out in the public domain, hugely embarrassing. And so the talking about diversity goes on. And on.

So how might we address this problem more effectively than we have thus far?

Firstly, for those at the CDN, I would release the full findings of their Diamond project. Who knows, the truth may well set us all free. As Michaela Coel said in her lecture, and I paraphrase: transparency, transparency, transparency! Secondly, I would take a long and honest look at the BFI since this is the publicly funded body at the heart of the British film industry. I would then ask those that run the BFI some questions. Here are some that I would ask: Is it true that the BFI unfairly denies black, British filmmakers access to the film production funds? Is it true that the BFI talks about how diverse the productions are that it supports with regard to ethnicity, and yet refuses to engage internally with the issue of ethnic diversity? Is it true that the BFI lacks transparency when making decisions about the films it chooses to support? Is it true that the BFI is unaccountable to anybody but themselves in how they organise their film development and production funds? Where film funding is concerned, is it true that the BFI operates with no discernible vision of what a British film industry should look like if it is to represent all of us (given on the BFI website, when talking about Production & Development funding, the BFI says this: ‘We provide support for the production, development and completion of feature films which fairly reflect people from different backgrounds’)? And finally, is it true that the best way to manage the BFI’s production funds is by employing the people who manage those funds on fixed term contracts (say, 5 years?), thereby guarding against corruption, cronyism and nepotism?

If those running the BFI are being honest and find themselves answering ‘yes’ to even just one of these questions, then they need to be encouraged to change their internal systems. And given the problems that the big data is telling us about the film industry, I would suggest that the BFI will answer ‘yes’ to more than just one of the above questions. Films in the UK are paid for with a combination of private finance, personal finance and public finance. The situation at the BFI is a problem because in the end, the private/personal finance in the film industry will do whatever the private/personal finance wants, but the public finance, in the shape of the BFI, has a mandate to represent all of us and should surely be held to a higher standard.

To live and work with structures within our industry that tacitly or otherwise promote cronyism, nepotism, racism and sexism is not good enough. And neither is the abstract conversation about ‘diversity’ good enough. I highlight the BFI because, as I say, they are at the heart of our industry. But actually, I would also question the work of Film4 and BBC Films. I’ve heard a lot of talking over the years from people like Tessa Ross and Christine Langan but I haven’t seen a lot of action. I think we all deserve better and if things are to change in our industry, we all need to speak up. Not only black filmmakers but also those white filmmakers who we all class as friends, who should know better. As black filmmakers we’re not all as well known as Michaela Coel but that doesn’t make our stories of mistreatment any less valid.


(1) According the BFI’s own data, out of 1,172 UK feature films produced in the UK (UK films of more than 40 minutes duration, released theatrically in the UK and produced by a UK based production company) between 2006 – 2016, only 157 (13%) featured black actors in a leading role; however, more pertinently, of the 45,000 roles in totality over this period, only 218 (0.5%) were played by black actors and exactly half of these appeared in a mere 47 films. Even more damning to some extent is that these films are generally based around crime, music or sports and “It could be argued that where there are black roles they are telling us nothing new (Sight & Sound, November 2016),” allowing stereotypes to prevail.

a) UK Television: Adjusting the Colour Balance
b) Cut Out of the Picture: A study of gender inequality among directors within the UK film industry
c) Gender inequality and screenwriters
d) Workforce diversity in the UK screen sector: evidence review

You can find this letter shared freely via Google docs here, along with its first part.

Kolton Lee is a filmmaker, a Senior Lecturer in Filmmaking at Kingston University and a Research Associate at Ravensbourne.

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