NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 15: David Oyelowo attends an Official Academy Members Screening Of SELMA hosted by The Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences at The Academy Theatre at Lighthouse International on December 15, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Craig Barritt/Getty Images for Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences)
David Oyelowo (Photo by Craig Barritt/Getty Images for Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences)

The BFI today announced groundbreaking new research that explores the representation of black actors in UK films over the last 10 years (January 2006 – August 2016) and reveals that out of the 1,172 UK films made and released in that period, 59% (691 films) did not feature any black actors in either lead or named roles. The proportion of UK films which credited at least one black actor in a lead role was 13%, or 157 films in total. The new research provides an early indicator of what is set to be the most comprehensive set of data about UK films from 1911 to the present day – the BFI Filmography, launching in 2017.

BFI Creative Director Heather Stewart who presented the research this morning at the Black Star Symposium at the BFI London Film Festival in partnership with American Express, said: “Whilst we feel from what we see on screen that most UK films do not cast black actors in them, and that black actors are playing the same types of roles over and again we now have the data to support this. The number of lead roles for black actors has not really changed over ten years and the types of films in which they have had leading roles suggests stereotyping. Colour-blind casting across genres does not really exist on the big screen, ultimately limiting representation. Diversity is one of the biggest issues facing film – audiences want to see the world in which we live reflected back at them.

“The findings we are sharing today at the BFI Black Star Symposium are just the beginning of work my BFI colleagues are undertaking to help us understand what has actually been happening in UK film. I would like for us to be able to reconstruct past data, to give us longitudinal insights. Going forward, we will now champion the collection of accurate and meaningful data that will help the sector understand accurately what is being offered to audiences, and what we need to change.”

The headline conclusion presented by the research is that there has been little change in the number of films with roles for black actors (leading and named) over ten years, even in years in which more films were released and which logically could be assumed to have offered more opportunities for black actors. In addition, there are only 4 black actors, leading and/or named, in the list of the 100 most prolific actors in UK films.

Another of the most significant observations from the research is the clustering of lead roles for black actors within a relatively small number of films released. More than half of all leading roles for black actors are in 47 films, which means that less than 5% have cast a black actor in a lead or named role at all.

Only 15 black actors, of whom 5 are women, have played two or more lead roles in UK films since 2006. Leading the rankings on actors who have performed leading roles is Noel Clarke, who has had 8 leading roles in UK films including “Storage 24,” “Anomaly” and “Brotherhood,” followed by Ashley Walters with 7 roles (“Tu£sday,” “Sket,” “Life and Lyrics”), Naomie Harris with 6 roles (“Mandela Long Walk to Freedom,” “First Grader”), Thandie Newton with 5 roles (“Retreat,” “Rocknrolla”), Idris Elba with 4 (“Legacy,” “Mandela Long Walk to Freedom”) and Chiwetel Ejiofor with 3 leading roles (“12 Years a Slave,” “Half of a Yellow Sun”). The following actors all had 2 leading roles apiece: Femu Oyeniran, Colin Salmon, Ashley ‘Bashy’ Thomas, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Lucien Laviscount, Sophie Okonedo, Carmen Ejogo, Roger Nsengiyuma and John Boyega.

The data shows that a total of 897 black actors featured in lead and/or named roles in the 1,172 films over the ten years. The gender balance of roles given to black actors reflects the overall balance in the film industry of 2 male to 1 female roles (lead and named roles); across lead roles for black actors men account for 64% and women for 35%.

British black actors who have played the most leading roles in the UK since 2006

1 Noel Clarke, Male, 8 lead roles in UK films released
2 Ashley Walters, Male, 7
3 Naomie Harris, Female, 6
4 Thandie Newton, Female, 5
5 Idris Elba, Male, 4
6 Chiwetel Ejiofor, Male, 3
7 Femi Oyeniran, Male, 2
= Colin Salmon, Male, 2
= Ashley ‘Bashy’ Thomas, Male, 2
= Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Female, 2
= Lucien Laviscount, Male, 2
= Sophie Okonedo, Female, 2
= Carmen Ejogo, Female, 2
= Roger Nsengiyuma, Male, 2
= John Boyega, Male, 2

The genres less likely to feature black actors in lead or named roles are horror with 81 out of 121 films, or 67%, failing to cast any black actors; drama with 255 out of 387 films or 66%; comedy with 178 out of 287 films or 62%; and thrillers with 100 out of 169 films or 59%.

The genres which are more likely to feature black actors in leading or named roles are crime with 69 out of 107 films or 65%; science fiction with 38 out of 60 films or 63%; fantasy with 24 out of 39 films or 61%; and musicals with 8 out of 15 films or 53%.

The subjects that recur most frequently where a film has a cast with more black actors are slavery, racism, colonialism, crime and gangs. This suggests a pattern in which black actors are being cast mainly in stereotypical stories, limiting the range and depth of possible representation.

Looking at specific films that have the most roles with black actors, Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” (2014) with David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo, leads the field with 23 lead and named actor roles. Other films which have cast a number of roles for black actors include “Son of Man” (2006), “Half of a Yellow Sun” (2013), “Honeytrap” (2014), “It’s a Lot” (2013), “1 Day” (2009), “Brotherhood” (2016), “Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom” (2013), “Fast Girls” (2012) and “Adulthood” (2008).

UK films with the most roles for black actors since 2006, listed in “title,” “year,” “subject matter,” and number of “lead/named black actor roles” order:

— “Selma,” 2014, Martin Luther King/Civil Rights, 23
— “12 Years a Slave,” 2013, Slavery, 21
— “Son of Man” (aka “Jezile”), 2006, Religion, 20
— “Half of a Yellow Sun,” 2012, Nigerian civil war, 19
— “Baggage Claim,” 2013, Engagement/weddings, 16
— “Honeytrap,” 2014, Teenagers/homicide, 16
— “American Gangster,” 2007, Gangsters, 16
— “It’s a Lot,” 2013, Teenagers, 15
— “1 Day,” 2009, Hip Hop, 15
— “Brotherhood,” 2016, Organised crime, 14
— “Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom,” 2013, Nelson Mandela/South Africa, 14
— “Fast Girls,” 2012, Athletics/competition, 13
— “Adulthood,” 2008, Prisons/crime, 13

The data was presented at the LFF Black Star Symposium which started with a headline speech by actor and producer David Oyelowo. David also participated in a panel session delving into the issues that the industry faces in black on-screen representation. He was joined by Noel Clarke, Trevante Rhodes (“Moonlight”), Julie Dash (“Daughters of the Dust”) and Ramy El-Bergamy (On-Screen Diversity Executive, Channel 4) in a discussion about the opportunities available to, and obstacles faced by black actors in the US and the UK, the types of roles and kinds of stories being told, the politics vs the reality of “color-blind” casting and the big differences between the film and TV sectors in the US and the UK. The session was chaired by Ashley Clark, a programmer for BFI BLACK STAR.

Directors Amma Asante and Barry Jenkins, as well as Ije Nwokorie (CEO of design and brand agency Wolff Olins), Tunde Ogungbesan (Head of Diversity, Inclusion and Succession, BBC) and Ben Roberts (Director of the Film Fund, BFI) took part in a panel discussion looking at how we can tell more representative stories on-screen, the development and greenlighting barriers, how change can be stimulated within media agencies, funding bodies and production companies, and if more diverse and inclusive creative and management teams lead to a wider variety of productions. The session was chaired by writer and producer Gaylene Gould.

How the commercial sector approaches diversity and what it means for the bottom-line was discussed in conversation between Karen Blackett OBE, Chairwoman, MediaCom UK, who has been instrumental in championing diversity throughout the advertising and media industry and Heather Stewart, BFI Creative Director.

In 2015 BFI Diversity Standards (succeeding the ground-breaking BFI “Three Ticks” initiative) were introduced across all BFI Lottery funding schemes including film development, production, distribution and audience development with the pledge that the projects funded should reflect the society, both in terms of the people employed and the stories they tell.

Further analysis to come…