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Etonian And Oxbridge Actors Are Talented, But There Are Actors From Less Privileged Backgrounds Who Could Be Just As Good

22/11/2016 13:07

I don't mean to be a killjoy but I am currently disinclined to see films featuring posh actors, preferring films that include people from more diverse backgrounds. And I would certainly like more white actors from less privileged backgrounds given a chance. The UK is letting their indigenous working class creative community woefully down.

Some of these posh actors have unquestionable talent; I am just tired of seeing them. It's making the industry anodyne - just one shade and tone. The actors that I loved, when I was growing up, were De Niro in his early films, Deer Hunter, Raging Bull, Al Pacino in God Father Part 1 and 2, Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now: all actors from humble beginnings. As for the great working class British actors I think of Richard Burton and Terence Stamp; I have always preferred more gritty actors. Kathy Burke is incredible, but apparently she's gone into directing now. One of the greatest performances I've seen was in Ken Loach's, Kes. Did this talented school kid who played the lead go onto greater things? If he had been from a certain background would he have ascended the ranks?

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh champion working class actors like Timothy Spall or non professionals, we need more directors like them - desperately.

I am an artist, a writer and filmmaker, everything that I have done and achieved I have had to fight for; and I have been a professional artist for nearly 20 years now. Doesn't it count for something: the 15 films, the 9 published books, the over 100 exhibitions and screenings around the world? Well I have a Wikipedia write up - thanks. I am not embittered, only frustrated. I long to see different stories told on the BBC, not just in film but also across all media. It's still woeful. The year when I received my first grant from the UK Film Council to make my film White Wall it was shut down shortly afterwards by the government, making it even tougher for independents to get their films made. The BFI's application process, which claims to support diversity, is a minefield.

2016-11-17-1479392271-4919753-WEP1littlegirl6.jpg
Still from White Wall, my animation film commissioned by the UK Film Council, 2010

Tim Burton, a director whom I admire, said '...things either call for things or they don't...' when asked why he didn't cast actors from more diverse backgrounds. He argued that being politically correct about casting was offensive. There are dramas and documentaries about Asians, but often they feature women in hijabs, honour killings, and arranged marriages, as if there is only one type of Asian out there. The comedy show Citizen Khan plays on those stereotypes, it is hardly ground breaking. Riz Khan (Oxford educated - is that a prerequisite to be an actor?) is one of the few mainstream British Asian actors, his range has been diverse (even though he has been typecast at times). Just because you have brown skin doesn't mean there has to be a brown storyline that ticks all the boxes. Can we bin that idea please? The stories of Asians who are gay, transgender, unconventional, eccentric, dynamic, a bit leftfield and mad - are they not worth telling or is the media is only interested in one kind of myopic depiction.

Being tacitly shunned by the cultural elite motivates me to get my art out there. Yes, my work is controversial; I performed my one-woman play and acted in it too at Rich Mix in 2015. It was called, 'Do I Look Like a F*****g Mad Person?' Having a credible platform to express yourself is fundamental for all society.

Writers like J K Rowling are in pole position to encourage more diverse casting. Imagine a black or Asian actor in the staring role in one of her fantastical creations, so far black and Asians have only received supporting roles in her films. And why couldn't we see a black or Asian super hero?

Having Obama, the first black US President, seemed like a landmark, implying the world was changing and people from more diverse backgrounds could occupy significant roles. Trump's election victory is a rejection of this shift and an adamant assertion of white supremacy in all aspects of life. Does that include arts and culture?

The Arts Council's Diversity department was closed some years ago. Getting grants is becoming tougher, the new application system has so many caveats. It's an actual art to fill in one of those forms, and you are more likely to get funding if you apply for small pots of cash.

Social media and YouTube will be the platforms for black and Asian filmmakers and actors to portray different stories, but will they have the courage to tell them without proper training? Going to art school and acting school is becoming the preserve of those who can afford it.

As a filmmaker and the first recipient of a Channel 4 bursary maybe I should have pushed harder to get my projects off the ground, but then for someone like me who doesn't fit in Bangladeshi society and also is not white it's tough - there remains a cultural bias towards the white voice, white actors, white stories with a preference for posh educated ones. This bias has become endemic

Black film directors like Steve McQueen inspire me, and in interviews he's fierce. He knows he benefited from a first class education at Goldsmiths, which was free. Not everyone has his self belief though. If you lack confidence mentors are essential. Stephen Fry, my friend, has been a mentor of sorts, quietly encouraging me to keep on with my work even when I have been at a low ebb.

Black and Asians who have excelled and been successful in the cultural industries like Idris Elba, Gurinder Chadha, Lenny Henry and Meera Syal could mentor the younger generation of actors and filmmakers; this might help to precipitate change. Elba is already doing this. I am mentoring a Singaporean artist, and I'm involving Malaysian film students in my next film project for the Malaysian Mental Health Association. A life in the arts was never going to be easy. But I will say to aspiring black and Asian actors, filmmakers, writers and artists - follow your dream - if the passion burns go for it.

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