When I was at work this weekend I was lucky enough to witness a moment that was both unremarkable and at the same time, so beautiful that I don’t know if I’ll be able to find the words to describe it. I’m also worried that simply by sharing it I’ll diminish its beauty, but there’s something so important in this ordinary moment that I’m going to risk it.
It was a busy Saturday, I’d just come through the gate at the adventure playground, and there were children and young people of all ages everywhere. Amidst the general buzz, a sudden flurry of activity on the football pitch caught my eye. Two teenage boys greeted each other enthusiastically, throwing their arms around each other and grinning. One of the boys was holding a football and the other said ‘OK then, just a quick penalty shoot-out before lunch.’ They threw down the ball and along with some other young people, began to play.
This was of course a very ordinary scene and could’ve happened anywhere. But it’s this ordinariness that made it so special. One of the young men has a learning disability, and the other doesn’t. They go to different schools and probably wouldn’t have met but for the inclusive nature of where I work.
There would’ve been many other moments like this yesterday. In fact it hadn’t stood out in my mind until a few minutes ago when I heard actor Idris Elba addressing MP’s last week about the lack of diversity in film and TV. He said there was a ‘disconnect between the real world and the TV world’ and went on to say that “the people in the TV world are often not the same people as in the real world.”
Photo: Ben Gabbe
That ordinary moment in the playground is what my real world looks like, but it’s one I very rarely see reflected on screen.
Idris also explained why increased diversity in the media mattered, saying, “The TV world helps shape our real world.”
The two young men on the football pitch, one black, one white, one disabled, one non-disabled, both growing up in a densely populated area with high levels of deprivation, are unlikely to have seen their experiences or their friendship represented anywhere on screen.
Idris’s speech was particularly powerful because it didn’t focus on just one characteristic. He explained that, “Diversity in the modern world is more than just skin colour. It’s gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, social background, and – most important of all, as far as I’m concerned – diversity of thought.”
Most importantly he said, “Talent is everywhere but opportunity isn’t.” And this gets right to the heart of the issue.
Last week Michael Caine and Charlotte Rampling spoke with exceptional ignorance on the topic of another year of all white Oscar nominees. Rampling suggested that perhaps black actors ‘weren’t good enough’, and Caine saying they needed to ‘be patient’.
Among other things these comments make the ludicrous assumption that there’s a level playing field – which there very definitely is not.
If you’re not white, or if you’re a woman, or a disabled person, you’ll face many barriers within the film and television industry at every level – barriers that are echoed within wider society.
Unchecked, this lack of diversity becomes a self-perpetuating cycle, because if you don’t see yourself represented on screen, you’re much less likely to feel that acting’s a possibility for you.
If drama schools are inaccessible, and political policies continue to strip support from poor and disabled students, our institutions won’t ever be inclusive. Actors, directors and writers at the early stages of their careers won’t experience difference, and won’t consider it within their practice as a result.
A lack of diversity in front of the cameras, as well as behind them, means limited or stereotyped parts for actors who aren’t white are inevitable. It also leads to non-disabled actors playing disabled roles and being acclaimed for how effectively they mimic disability. And it means representations of gender and sexuality are nearly always binary.
Far too many people don’t see themselves reflected on screen – this is bad for the industry and bad for us all. Not only is a wealth of talent and creativity going to waste, but seeing the same stories and the same people over and over again quickly gets boring. This represents a financial as well as a social and moral risk for the industry.
It isn’t a case of actors needing to ‘be patient’ or ‘be better’. It’s time for us as audiences to be more demanding, and for the industry’s leaders to recognise the opportunities they’re missing by failing to embrace diversity.
And this isn’t a case of waiting for new talent to fight their way through. For me, the biggest change would be achieved if industry insiders took a radically different approach to how they cast and what stories they’re telling.
“Shakespeare did not say whether Juliet was or was not a wheelchair user, nor if Prospero was or was not someone with a differing voice pattern!”
Thinking openly about the potential of broader stories and finding ways to connect talent to opportunity will lead to a richer, stronger and more inclusive industry. To find out more about how you can support improved representation, check out Act For Change. They’re working to make the arts sector more reflective of society.
I want the young people I work with to know that all possibilities are open to them. I want them to see people who look, sound or move like they do being successful in all sorts of roles.
The two boys on the football pitch could have easily never met, and their experiences remained invisible to each other. It’s only through increased visibility of difference, whether in our communities or on screen, that discrimination and stereotypes will be broken down and equality of opportunity made achievable and sustainable.