No Place To Be Somebody

February 22, 2010 - 11 minutes read
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Shortly before my thirtieth birthday, I decided to apply for The Carl Foreman Award organised by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA). All entrants had to be British, under 30 years old, and submit a full-length screenplay with a completed application form. The winner of the competition would receive a bursary for six months of study at a leading US film school specialising in screenwriting.

I was excited to be called in for an interview in front of some eleven men and the widow of the great American/British director in whose name the award was established. They fired at me various questions, many of which revolved around the subject “How do you feel about representing Britain abroad?” “Well, I do consider myself British by birth, English by socialisation, and black by the hand of God,” came the reply at one point. They laughed at that.


“I don’t foresee a problem. Like anyone of our black sportsmen, I too would be proud to ‘fly the flag’ for Britain in the United States or anywhere else in the world.” They smiled and nodded then. Two days later I received a call from one of the judges who lived in his neighbourhood: “We thought we would let you know that your script was the best we received, and that you were the best candidate at interview. We have, however, decided to offer the award to someone less capable than yourself. Since we felt that he would benefit more, and you would succeed anyway. Please take my telephone number, and if there’s anything I can ever do for you…” I thought I was dreaming. Then my former literary agent at ICM rang to confirm the same message. “That’s the worst load of bullshit I’ve ever heard,” the agent said. I could not agree more.

Soon after the 1980s ‘property boom’ had turned into the ‘negative equity’ of 1995 for him, I decided to spend some time living and writing abroad since I was now homeless at home. I dreamt of exploring ‘the centre of the free world’ using my pen as his sword and a notebook computer for a shield. In my mind, I wrestled with the forces of evil trying to defeat the collective good and was rewarded for my efforts based on merit and ability, and not according to some arbitrary rule of ‘family and friends’ or ‘the old boys’ network.’ For the quiet dreamer in me who sought the sweetness of The Cosby Show family; the support and guidance of a ready-made community; dynamic, intelligent friends and lovers; or access to a creative and economic powerhouse – the USA screamed out, “Look no further!” There, on the world wide web of my subconscious mind, I could clearly see it scrolling past in bright fluorescent letters–“You long to belong in the place where everyone is a ‘foreigner’ and there are virtually no un-Americans”.

British Film Industry: Underexposed: David Harewood and Petra Letang photographed by Franklyn Rogers

In 2008, the National Portrait Gallery featured UNDEREXPOSED, a series of 30 black and white portraits of Black British actors bathed in captivating reflective light. As the title suggests, the intended pun captured Franklyn Rogers’ bold and atmospheric style as well as a lack of visibility for these 30 actors in the UK; a number of whom have had to seek success in the United States. Click image to view full gallery of 30 exceptional images.

To casual observers, my wanderings to date may have suggested a terminal dissatisfaction with a place called ‘home.’ At the age of twenty-eight, my ambition had been to get as far away as possible from any idea of ever living or working in Britain again. I had shown that I could not work for ineffective management the day the last boss said: “ You’re black, articulate, and arrogant. Arrogance from someone black gets up people’s backs more than arrogance from someone white. What you need to do is get…” At which point she proceeded to pat the air from inches above the ground before continuing: “Or your colleges are gonna see you as a threat.”

I was not sure, if June, like my primary school teacher before her, was making a self-fulfilling prophecy, or telling it as it was. I certainly did not feel as if I had a problem with the people at work. I was no more arrogant, I felt, than anyone else in the Property Development Department at the height of the “loads-a-money” house price boom. Proud, perhaps, but if my colleagues had a problem with that or me, I expected them to speak to me face-to-face. “Or was it a management problem?” I wondered. The company had an Equal Opportunity Policy that most members of staff could not agree on. “If there was a problem, might it not be more to do with being young, black, well-paid, well groomed, well liked by clients and associates, and very good at my job by all accounts?” June did not see it that way. And although she could deny no part of it, she continued to make life for me at work a living hell.

This sudden ‘clash of personalities,’ as it became known, quickly escalated into a torrent of allegations and counter–allegations. At our pub lunches, my colleagues sat feeding me sympathies. During office hours, they smiled through tight lips, afraid for their jobs. There was no fun in mine any more. I was pushed, so the Workers’ Union said, but I walked out smiling.

In that year, 1991, my first play, Hair, received the BBC Radio Drama Young Playwrights’ Festival Award and was broadcast on BBC Radio 4. The following February, I invited all of my ex-colleagues to a self–production of my critically acclaimed stage-play, Boy with Beer, now published by Methuen Drama [1995]. June did not show up on opening night. She had buried another million pound property catastrophe behind the office filing cabinets, and had moved on to pastures greener, or so the gossip went. I imagine her these days living in Hampstead splendour with one or two children, a sizeable mortgage, a top job in the private sector, and oppressing the poor husband our talkative receptionist used to call “one weak-looking white man.”

As for me, good writing and early successes have not brought with them any reason to crack open the champagne almost two decades later. America may have its Spike Lee, Toni Morrison, Tyler Perry, Oprah Winfrey or Danny Glover, to name a few, but the recent success of British films at the box-office has brought with it no significant or corresponding improvement in the profile or fortunes of our black writers, actors and movie makers.

In Britain today, black projects are still considered a bad gamble for investors and of limited appeal to a domestic TV audience, as well as to cinema goers in the major movie markets world-wide. For black British film–makers the current climate of increased funding and production opportunities, has had little, if any, effect. Since the success of Isaac Julien’s Young Soul Rebels [1991] first raised hopes towards the end of the last century, just a handful of films have been made and released in Britain by black British film-makers. Julien has never made another feature film, and currently finds work in the United States.

Talking to Julien over lunch one afternoon in New York, it became clear that black creative artists in the UK often struggle to reap the benefits of a successful production (be it theatre, film, book, or music). One would expect that the strong international influence of African–American and Caribbean popular cultures would offer greater opportunity to market black British creativity to a wider audience. Not so, in an industry where an Irish project can be ‘mainstream’ or ‘universal’ while a similar black project is considered of ‘minority interest.’

The Fuller Picture, a 1990s report co-produced by the Black British Film Bulletin and the British Film Institute, identified a ‘cultural gap,’ and called for: “The urgent appointment of senior black personnel in commissioning and other funding institutions. None exist at the British Film Institute, British Screen, at any of the lottery–funded franchises or at the BBC.” Since commissioning is a highly personal issue and comes down to whether one likes or can relate to a project, who will champion the work of black British talent? Can we really expect one film, play, or book every few years to do everything?

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