Where are the UK’s black actresses?

Nicole Beharie speaking at the 2014 San Diego Comic Con

Since 2012 there’s been an increase in the presence of black women on US television. Shows such as Scandal have featured popular actors in positive leading roles, like Kerry Washington as the strong-minded Olivia Pope, and Viola Davis as defence attorney and professor of law, Annalise Keating.

This year we’ll see our first black female president played by Alfre Woodard on the NBC drama State of Affairs.

While the USA seems to have recognised and opened doors to black actors, the UK media is still far behind in the number of roles that showcase female black actors in lead or authoritative roles.

The ‘strong black woman’ persona has been played out in several current US TV shows: How to Get Away with Murder, Sleepy Hollow, Gotham, Deception, Hawthorne and Suits, but while the US TV industry is striving towards a better diverse representation, its UK counterparts desperately need to make improvements.

Kerry Washington 2010

Kerry Washington 2010

Earlier this year, comedian and TV personality Lenny Henry spoke of the lack of ethnic diversity within the UK media industry. He called on funding for apprenticeship schemes to increase the presence of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people (BAME).

Actor Idris Elba wrote an open letter to the directors of the UK’s major TV production companies including Channel 4, Channel 5, BSkyB, ITV and the BBC urging for a ring-fence for BAME programmes.

Many societal factors have impacted the media industry in the USA which has helped the representation of black women and black people in general. In 2009, Michelle Obama became the first African-American First Lady and her impact on the positive representation of black women across the world is undeniable.

These characteristics are being emulated within US mainstream media. In the same year Disney introduced their first black princess: Tiana voiced by Anika Noni Rose in The Princess and the Frog and Jada Pinkett Smith took a lead role in cable network television show Hawthorne.

The first appearance of a black female actress on an American sitcom was Ethel Waters. In 1950 she played the lead role as a servant in Beulah, but due to its stereotypical depiction of black people she left the show after only a year.

Black women playing faithful and obedient domestic servants in the media is a sad trend that dominated American media throughout the next decade. Patricia Hill Collins described the roles in her 1990 book Black Feminist Thought as being created to justify the economic exploitation of house slaves.

“We’re in crisis mode as black actresses”

There were of course exceptions to the norm – Nichelle Nichols, widely recognised as Lieutenant Uhura in the 1966 cult TV series Star Trek, broke boundaries in TV history for not only showcasing a black female in a non-stereotypical role but for also showing the first interracial kiss on U.S. Television. In 1972 the UK had its first black female actor, Jeillo Edwards, in Dixon of Dock Green, a popular UK television series.

With the growing number of ethnicities in the UK it’s important to showcase a multi-layered, multicultural, diverse representation of people of all colours on UK Television.

The lack of opportunity in the UK is only going to force actors and actresses to go overseas. The US has been progressive in its shift in representation of black women, there’s still however a white patriarchal view of black women on television which continues to use covert and underlying tones.

In all of these shows there’s a consistent and compulsory relationship between the lead black women and their white male counterpart. This isn’t a stance against interracial relationships rather a question to the TV industry, ‘Why is it we only see leading black women with white men?’

Five out of the seven of the previous list of TV shows feature this relationship. In Sleepy Hollow both a black actress and white actor play leads, while in Gotham the lead character is a white male with black actresses playing central roles. This is a form of racial subordination, where black people are only seen through the white perspective.

Meagan Good

Meagan Good

Speaking to Hildegard Titus, a London College of Communication graduate and creator of photojournalism exhibition The Politics of Black Hair, she says “I think it has to do with the justification of black women. No matter how strong you are, black women always have to submit, not only to a man but to a white man. You will never see a black power couple [on TV].

“Although we are humans we’re also animals and the way males control their authority is by controlling women. It’s multicultural and interracial but it’s a relationship of domination. Obviously black women date white men but within the media it’s the only possible relation type which must be tamed.”

Asking Hildegard if the UK was ready for a black couple on TV, she replied: “I think people in general are ready for it but it depends if the media believe it to be viable and marketable. The BBC Three TV show, Some Girls which features the black actress Adelayo Adedayo as Viva Bennett has a lead role but she is also in an interracial relationship.”

As a society, positive black couples should be displayed on primetime TV shows, not only relating to entertainment or sports. There seems to be a lack of ethnic and cultural diversity on TV, with many shows depicting a lone black lead surrounded by predominately white colleagues, for example the popular UK TV show Luther.

The US has began to diversify their shows but the UK lags behind with popular TV shows appearing to demonstrate more assimilation than integration. Speaking to Aisha Richards, founder of Shades of Noir and a lecturer at LCC and CSM, she compares this to the diversity of children’s shows and newsreaders:

“On children’s channels there is a diverse representation of people of colour and that works well. The previous Chief Operating Officer of BBC Children’s, Tamara Howe, is a black female and when I spoke to her she said her mission is to create opportunities for diversity and see people on TV like themselves, bringing in all ethnicities, disabilities and genders.”

In June this year Lord Hall, BBC’s director-general, promised one in seven BBC presenters to be an ethnic minority by 2017.

There seems to be a better representation of black women in British children’s shows, however, there’s just not enough for a nation which continues to openly promote diversity and opportunities. This isn’t just for black people but for society as a whole.

The constant depictions of black females on shows like Top Boy, MisFits, EastEnders portraying black women as ‘baby mothers’, over sexualised or aggressive, does nothing but continue to stereotype black women. This continues to encourage ignorance and downplay the positive contributions black women have made over the years within western society.

In June 2013 Oprah Winfrey’s Oprah’s Next Chapter discussed African Americans in Hollywood, and Viola Davis made an important point: “We’re in crisis mode as black actresses not only in the number of roles that offered… but the quality of the roles. We’re in deprivation mode because we’re all in the same category, but if you take a caucasian actress, you have the ones who are the teens, 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and they’re all different, there’s roles for each of them.”

The US is beginning to showcase diversity in screen writers, directors, producers and actresses and it’s time the UK TV industry stepped up and did the same.