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A few Sundays ago, at a screening in a dingy room in London’s Southbank Centre, a young Jamaican-British woman sat sheepishly before a packed audience. Looking at the floor and fiddling with her baggy hooded jacket, she shuffled her feet as they applauded her work.
Cecile Emeke, 23, a self-taught film-maker who started a YouTube channel a year ago and has since been averaging about 20,000 views per upload, had just screened her short film, Strolling, a 20-minute piece compiled from her web series of the same name. The film, like the series, splices together walk-and-talk interviews with young, non-white people who speak — some awkwardly, some animatedly, others bristling with annoyance — about their experiences of multicultural urban life. “It’s like a party you weren’t invited to,” says a young black Londoner in horn-rimmed glasses in one episode. “And this fucking party has been going on for 500 and something years.”
Emeke’s subjects are emotive and convincing, and the lightness of the camera’s motion and her swift, jagged edits suggest her presence even though she never appears in shot. Her technical abilities and her message have not gone unnoticed; a talk she gave at the School of Oriental and African Studies a few days earlier titled “Decolonising Filmmaking” was attended by a thousand people. When I speak to her after the Strolling screening, we are interrupted several times by fans and well-wishers.
To look at mainstream British television, though, one doesn’t get a sense of blossoming multiculturalism. Diversity quotas are met cynically, with non-white people filling subservient roles in a circular rollout of colonial-era dramas such as Channel 4’s Indian Summers, which still takes the same buoyant approach to imperialism as did The Jewel in the Crown 30 years ago. Though minority British cinema has had some indie successes in recent decades such as East is East (1999) and Belle (2013), Steve McQueen, director of 12 Years a Slave (2013), is today, perhaps, Britain’s sole high-profile champion of minority voices on screen.
In the US, though, change is afoot. Several new TV shows have emerged in the past few months that are characterised by a new and highly unusual trait: they are written by and cast almost entirely with people from minority ethnic groups. The most prominent is Empire, a hip-hop soap opera about a dynasty of music producers, created by Lee Daniels, director of the Oscar-nominated film Precious (2009). The series, broadcast on the Fox network and due to arrive in the UK this week, has broken ratings records in the US, its season finale scoring an exceptional 23m viewers.
But Empire is not alone. Other instances of “diversity programming”, as it is known in the business, include Jane the Virgin, an excellent comedy adapted from a Venezuelan telenovela, which has just started airing in the UK; Being Mary Jane, a drama about an African-American female news anchor; and Fresh Off the Boat, a comedy about a Southeast Asian family living in Florida (the first US series to centre on an Asian-American family since Margaret Cho’s All American Girl in 1994).
Perhaps the best of the bunch, though, is Black-ish, a sharp and provocative sitcom that is midway through its first season on ABC. It rests on a single joke, but a good one: that Andre Johnson, an African-American advertising executive who lives with his family in an affluent neighbourhood in California, is infuriated by what he perceives as a dilution of his culture by white suburban America. His children are dorky and dreadful at sports, they know more about Justin Bieber than about Martin Luther King, and they aren’t sure what’s so important about Obama. “For Junior, nerd is the new black,” says Andre of his teenage son.
The show is brazenly ironic in its handling of African-American stereotypes. In its absurd opening sequence, a bus loaded with camera-toting tourists pulls up beside Andre’s house as a guide says into a mic: “And if you look to your left, you’ll see the mythical and majestic ‘black family’, out of their natural habitat and yet still thriving.” Reminiscent of Justin Simien’s widely admired satirical film Dear White People, which caused some sensation last year, Black-ish is designed to make its audience uncomfortable, to proffer a response to ingrained, white-driven assumptions about ethnicity. “I think it’s very bold,” says Clement Virgo, a director on The Wire and writer of a recent mini-series on slavery, The Book of Negroes. “You would not have had a show called Black-ish 10 years ago.”
Indeed, not everyone was ready. The show prompted Donald Trump to take to Twitter in protest in October. “How is ABC allowed to have a show entitled ‘Blackish’?” he wrote. “Can you imagine the furor of a show, ‘Whiteish’? Racism at highest level?” Trump’s indignation, though, was not shared by all. One African-American user responded: “Unlike racism, Donald Trump might actually go away if we ignore him. #Blackish.”
Shows such as Black-ish are useful to networks, giving them a contemporary, post-racial cachet and thus scoring points with young audiences. The distinction between diversity and tokenism is blurry. Indeed, despite recent developments, TV is still, to steal a line from Black-ish, as white as “the inside of Conan O’Brien’s thigh”. A study from the Ralph J Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA this February found that although one-third of the US population is non-white, minorities still account for only 6.5 per cent of lead roles on TV.
“You’ve got these mostly white, middle-aged and middle-class TV executives that have been making decisions for years,” says Damon D’Oliveira, a producer on The Book of Negroes, “and there’s a kind of disconnect with the next generation that’s coming along, which is actually hungry for content that looks like them.”
It is difficult to explain the scarcity of non-white people on television without landing on the same answer that Cecile Emeke gives me: “The industry is racist . . . [network executives] just don’t want to make TV diverse.” She describes tangible barriers to entry into national channels. “I know a lot of [non-white] writers and directors who pitch stuff and it just gets rejected . . . they’re asked to take out black characters or told, ‘That’s too similar to something else that has black characters in it.’ ” She cites the UK’s groaning array of detective dramas as evidence that having shows “too similar” to one another is not something that usually troubles executives.
The US is moving tentatively forward. HBO is developing a series by Steve McQueen about the life of a black man in New York high society called Codes of Conduct, and also a comedy based on web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae, who has drawn comparison with Girls creator Lena Dunham. The BBC has also commissioned McQueen to make a drama about black communities in London but, on the whole, British television is lagging behind.
According to a study by TV ratings group Nielsen last year, African-Americans watch 45 hours of TV per week, 14 hours more than any other group. Given the advertising revenue this could generate, there is little economic (let alone artistic) sense in excluding minorities from the small screen. And yet the road is littered with obstacles.
Fresh off the Boat, for example, has been beset by internal bickering over how Eddie Huang’s memoir, the basis of the show, has been adapted for the screen. White writers, meanwhile, have stumbled over the terrain of minority TV. The online outcry over a piece in The New York Times in September that referred to Shonda Rhimes, one of America’s most prominent producers, as an “angry black woman” elicited a lengthy response from the paper’s public editor.
Despite the advent of web series, mainstream TV remains a white man’s world. But the internet is nudging it forward. “There’s kind of a black renaissance when it comes to television,” says Danielle Scott-Haughton, a London-based film-maker who writes and directs the web series Dear Jesus. “Before, we’d be so stuck for choice if we wanted to watch anything that represented us but, at this time in American television — and American television only — I have that choice.”