Media Diversified founder Samantha Asumadu on what feels like a burgeoning movement for black, brown and Asian theatre makers.

There are a few perks to being the founder of Media Diversified and this week that perk was getting to see Barry Jenkins’ feature film If Beale Street Could Talk. It is in effect one of the most beautiful kitchen sink dramas put on screen and could well be my favourite film of 2018. It feels as if Jenkins and other creatives of colour are really marking their own territory in a way that people such as musician Fela Kuti did in the sixties and seventies.

Fela Kuti was one of Africa’s most controversial musicians who, frustrated with the willingness of Nigerians to accept oppression, fought throughout his life for the rights of the common man despite vilification, harassment, and even imprisonment by the Nigerian government.’

In If Beale Street Could Talk, when Bryan Tyree Henry said in reference to his time in prison, “The white man is the devil” I felt that. I felt it because I know (or believe) along the line some producer, some film financier would have suggested that line be taken out. I had to fight my exec producers on my first documentary film The Super Ladies on a much smaller matter, the name of the film, so I know it’s not easy to stand  your ground when the others in the room hold the keys to both financing and distribution. So I salute Barry Jenkins for his feat as I do for any director and producer who manages to get a predominately black and/or people of colour cast on screen or stage.

But it is the catch your breath, stomach churning all encompassing love that is somehow produced on screen that will stay with you once you depart the cinema. Kiki Layne and Stephane James will break your heart in two and then those pieces will soar. Barry Jenkins, his producers and crew have created poetry on film. And I haven’t enjoyed a score and soundtrack as much since I saw Call Me By Your Name. Barry Jenkins is a beat poet. Every frame may as well have had a beating heart superimposed.

I often tweet a particular James Baldwin quote ’Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor’. To illustrate how I as a working class black woman brought up on a council estate have and do struggle with being poor. However he could have written “how extremely expensive it is to be black” and it would be just as apt considering the trials that his characters go through in his book If Beale Street Could Talk.

I am not often moved to write film reviews. I figure just go see it. However I have written one for Beale Street not just because it’s another chance to get James Baldwin into an article. If you hadn’t noticed I ALWAYS get a Baldwin quote into my articles! But because I couldn’t be happier to see Regina King in this masterpiece. It’s only what she deserves. As it pertains to black people in love on screen Regina has always led the way. In both Jerry Maguire and Enemy of the State it was Regina King who was the beating heart of both the relationships. However they were not love stories, not for those couples. Barry Jenkins adapted and directed a love story. There couldn’t be a better time for that than in 2018. I doubt anybody is going to call Barry Jenkins an auteur any time soon, these plaudits are usually reserved for the stale , male, pale types but the Bank street shots during the day time reminded me of in colour Hitchcock. The grainy greens of the subway reminded me of Katherine Bigelow’s Strange Days and High Maintenance and other great works but Barry Jenkins is a director apart. I couldn’t have been more pleased to see this work in a small screening room where not too many people could see my shoulders heave as I cried in the most frustratingly heartbreaking scenes.

Last week I was also lucky enough to see see  playwright Daniel York Loh’s#Forgotten . It was well crafted. Intelligent. Necessary. In fact to envision and then produce a story with the sweeping width and breadth of #Forgotten遗忘 takes massive brain power and tenacity. The Stage introduced their rave review thus, ‘Daniel York Loh’s study of the 140,000 Chinese Labour Corps who worked tirelessly for Britain during the First World War is a rhythmic and expansive piece of theatre which showcases the best of (often underestimated) British East Asian talent.’ I have known Daniel for his comment pieces on Theatre and TV  which I commissioned, for years as Editor in Chief of Media Diversified. That was fire enough, his playwriting however astounded me.

Well done to the  Arcola theatre also for having the vision to program it. Not a single weak link amongst the cast. In fact if the British acting industry were fairer they would all be household names.

I want to see this as a 3 part BBC One TV series. It could be our generation’s version of War and Peace or Parade’s End but without the raging bitch played by Rebecca Hall and the stoic piece of cheese that is Benedict Cumberbatch’s character. When talking to Daniel recently about what seemed to me to be a burgeoning movement of creatives of colour without fear or favour he said to me: “I saw Misty earlier this year and was completely inspired and emboldened by it. It fired me to take what I was doing with #Forgotten遗忘 even further. I love what diverse theatre makers are doing with London theatre at the moment. I’ve never known it so vibrant, urgent and exciting’ and everything fell in to place. Indeed both #Forgotten遗忘 and Misty utilised magical realism in a way I have never seen on stage. As did The Burial of Kojo on screen. 

And how blessed I was to also see Misty recently at Trafalgar Studios. Written and performed by Arinzé Kene, directed by Omar Elerian and originally commissioned by Madani Younis at Bush Theatre, this is a play with wings (and balloons). The Black Ticket project thankfully took my spare ticket and gave it to a lovely young man called Scully who was in ecstasy over the play. Afterwards in the bar he introduced me to Black Panther and Sicario’s Daniel Kaluuya, who had also come to watch Misty on its last night. It turned out they are both Ugandan – Daniel is from the Baganda tribe, so I literally said to him “You are a king!”, as the Baganda tribe were the Kings and Queens of Uganda. He nodded.

But before that chat which surely brought me closer to one day meeting Beautiful Boy, Timothée Chalamet I was thrilled and enchanted to watch Misty. If filmmaker Noah Baumbach was black, working class and from London it might be the sort of thing he was putting on the stage, as essentially it is a story about a near middle aged man in existential crisis, which appears to be a feature of all Baumbach’s films. Here’s hoping that Arinzé got compensated richly for his star turn so he can take some time off and write his next masterpiece. Pushing the barriers further would perhaps look like him having a character totally unlike himself in the play – not that stage Arinzé is the same as in real life Arinzé I expect –  a central woman character hopefully. 

I would LOVE to see Arinzé Kene compose and record the next James Bond theme tune. He can not only hit the high notes, but he knows how to write a score and a rhyme AND he can wring every bit of emotion out of an acapella. His falsetto bridge was spine tingling.

All of these creatives, embody these words by James Baldwin taken from a 1979 interview with the New York Times:

“The bottom line is: You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world. The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimetre, the way a person looks or people look at reality, you can change it. If there is no moral question, there is no reason to write. I am an old fashioned writer and, despite the odds, I want to change the world”

My only regret is they don’t appear to have women as peers, unless PRs are purposefully not sending me to women led and written plays and films – but the performances did have plenty of women on stage and I expect more were behind the scenes.

I look forward to seeing what’s next for black, brown and East Asian working class creatives. So I am putting out positive vibes here and now that they get the funding they richly deserve to make their big dreams and hard work bear even more fruit.

Samantha Asumadu is a documentary filmmaker, former journalist, founder of Media Diversified,  co-founder of Bare Lit Festival and CEO of Edmalia Ltd 

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