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Where Are Our Black Female Leads In Cinema?

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New BFI research, released today, reveals that just 13% of UK films have a black actor in a leading role and 59% have no black actors in any role. In addition, there are only four black actors, leading and/or named, in the list of the 100 most prolific actors in UK films. But this problem extends beyond the UK and is a greater problem in Hollywood with even fewer female leads.

Recognising this, a bunch of passionate individuals across London are working to celebrate more positive portrayals of black people in film. The BFI has its Black Star season, a programme of films “Celebrating the range, versatility and power of black actors.” Reel Good Film Club are putting on a series of talks and screenings featuring black screen stars such as Queen Latifah. And The New Black Film Collective are showing films throughout October – that’s black history month, FYI – in Stratford. To support these guys first and foremost, and keep the conversation going around Hollywood’s attitude to race, we’ll be running an ongoing series of articles on black women in cinema – present or absent.
Sitting on my friends' sofas during weekend movie marathons as a pre-teen, I remember always having a niggling feeling of dissatisfaction, even if I couldn't pinpoint exactly what its source was. It's only now, as a 27-year-old woman – or with the wisdom of a few more years and a lot more film viewings under my belt – that I fully understand why I felt slightly disenchanted and disengaged with cinema as a child. And unfortunately those decade-old feelings still persist.

When I think back to cult movies I enjoyed on a surface level with my best friends as a child – I'm talking high brow stuff like Coyote Ugly, Crossroads or even Save The Last Dance – I frequently found it difficult to find someone to identify with in the lead cast. It seemed that the character I was offered to relate to was always the sassy sidekick, the not-so-smart-but-streetwise best mate who did a lot of teeth kissing and "mmmmhmm, girlfriend"-ing – think Tyra Banks in Coyote Ugly, Kerry Washington in Save The Last Dance or even Stacy Dash in Clueless.

I'm very aware that people still find it uncomfortable to talk about race and inclusivity, but the fact of the matter is, that as a young black girl, carving out my identity and place within society, Hollywood did nothing for my self-esteem, aspirations or personal understanding.
Artwork by Anna Jay.
While the majority of my friends had posters on their walls of Claire Danes in Romeo & Juliet, Kate Winslet in Titanic or Julia Stiles in 10 Things I Hate About You (I adored these actresses in equal measure) I couldn't quite relate to their looks and opportunities. I was just as clever, funny, ambitious and compassionate as my classmates but why was I or "my people" never fairly represented on the big screen. Where was our heroine?

Instead, I often found myself turning to literature to find my black protagonists, characters who came to life in the works of Zadie Smith, Hanif Kureishi and Ekow Eshun, characters who were worldly, dynamic, thoughtful and not just on the periphery, but central to the narrative.

The most depressing fact, more so than my child self not having an adequate, three-dimensional black female role model in film, is that almost 20 years on, the cinematic landscape is no better. If I think of some of the biggest film releases of 2016 like Jason Bourne, Bridget Jones, The Girl On The Train or Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, black or ethnic minority lead characters are scarce. Then when I think back to some of the biggest films with black leads from the past few years such as Selma, 12 Years A Slave, Mandela, The Help and The Butler, these films are always centred within a racial context – black characters are never incidental but more featuring in a greater discussion about oppression, inequality, slavery and emancipation. I'm the first to shout about the importance of spotlighting and reflecting on black history. But at the same it's just as crucial that we see more black women on our screen in varied, inspiring and uplifting modern roles.

Time and time again we've heard people rallying against the Academy for the lack of black stars nominated for awards, let alone those actually winning Oscars. This year was no different as actresses such as Lupita Nyong'o and Jada Pinkett-Smith expressed their disillusionment. "I am disappointed by the lack of inclusion in this year's Academy Awards nominations," Nyong’o posted on Instagram. "It has me thinking about unconscious prejudice and what merits prestige in our culture. The awards should not dictate the terms of art in our modern society, but rather be a diverse reflection of the best of what our art has to offer today. I stand with my peers who are calling for change in expanding the stories that are told and recognition of the people who tell them.”
Similarly, Jada Pinkett-Smith took to her Facebook page to explain why she was boycotting the ceremony: "Today is Martin Luther King's birthday, and I can't help but ask the question: Is it time that people of colour recognise how much power, influence, that we have amassed, that we no longer need to ask to be invited anywhere?

"Begging for acknowledgement, or even asking, diminishes dignity and diminishes power. And we are a dignified people, and we are powerful. So let's let the Academy do them, with all grace and love. And let's do us, differently.”

Despite winning an Oscar four years ago for her standout supporting role in The Help, African-American actress Octavia Spencer's film career failed to take off and she now focuses on television roles (where we thankfully see far more diversity anyway) instead of the silver screen. “I have to live a very small life in terms of what people think 'Hollywood' is... the roles I'm being offered in film are too small to sink your teeth into,” Spencer told the Daily Beast.

To over-simplify my point, and to highlight Hollywood's unwillingness to feature people of colour on the big screen, it was only in 2009 that we saw Disney's first black heroine, in The Princess and The Frog, Disney's 49th animated feature film. Yes, the majority of directors and producers might be loath to put black actors and actresses in their films but what took Disney so long (86 years to be precise) to draw one?
As I start seriously thinking about having kids and their futures, it is imperative that my children are surrounded by inspiring role models, be it their teachers, family, celebrities or the characters they see everyday on our screens. I want for my kids to be able to reel off countless successful black Hollywood actresses and not tail off after Halle Berry, Lupita Nyong'o and Thandie Newton.

I want my kids to be engaged, excited and educated by the variety of stimulating roles and films they see black actors and actresses in, not just another film about the hood, or an action film or heaven forbid another dance movie.

But more than anything, I don't want my kids to have to be singled out for this discussion at all. As director Steve McQueen told The Guardian earlier this year: "I don't think this is a 'black' issue. If people want to categorise it as a black issue, that's weird. Just like if I was talking about women in film. It's my issue, too. It's our issue. It's about we. W-E, not M-E.”
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