How the BAFTAs faced up to its problem with race

How the BAFTAs faced up to its problem with race

Behind the scenes — This week, the awards ceremony unveiled its diverse nominations list – a far cry from the overwhelmingly white line-up from last year. But do these changes go far enough, and what will it take for the rest of the industry to follow suit?

The pandemic has made this an awards season like no other. Cinemas have been intermittently closed for a year with production and new releases pushed back time and time again. Indeed, it was never going to be a ‘normal’ year, but when Aisling Bea and Susan Wokoma stood in an empty Royal Albert Hall yesterday to announce the nominees for the 74th British Academy Film Awards (BAFTAs) many were left stunned by what they revealed.

This year’s nominations are a dizzying about-turn from last year, when BAFTA produced an all-white slate of acting nominees, all but one from films that were major awards season players, and an all-male Best Director list – their seventh in a row. This year, that streak was gladly broken, with women nabbing four of the six directing slots: Chloe Zhao for Nomadland, Shannon Murphy for Babyteeth, Sarah Gavron for Rocks and Jasmila Žbanić for Quo Vadis, Aida?. For context, the last time BAFTA nominated a female director (Kathryn Bigelow for Zero Dark Thirty), Best Supporting Actor nominee Alan Kim, an adorable scene-stealer ‘Minari’, hadn’t yet been born. President Obama was still in his first term and Margaret Thatcher was still breathing. 

Last year was the fourth occasion in the past ten years that all nominated actors were white, topping off a particularly woeful decade that saw just eight per cent of acting nominations go to people of colour, down from 11 per cent in the 2000s. In this year’s nominations, that figure is a whopping 67 per cent – four in each category of six. Among this year’s twelve nominations for leading performances are eight actors of colour, as many as they recognised in those two categories at the preceding fourteen ceremonies combined. Going further back, the ‘Minari’ nominations for Kim and on-screen grandmother Yuh Jung-Youn mark the first time an actor of East Asian descent has been recognised since Ziyi Zhang for Memoirs of a Geisha fifteen years ago.

But crucially, the lack of representation in film and TV in this country extends far beyond the public-facing, surface level of the BAFTAs. Last year, in an interview with Variety, Sandra Oh commented that “the development of people [of colour] behind the camera is very slow”. She accused the UK of being behind the US on this matter, and added that she’d become accustomed to Killing Eve sets being, as she described it, “me and 75 white people”. 

Writer, director and actor Matthew Jacobs Morgan, one of Deadline’s Eight Scribes to Watch in 2021, agrees with Oh’s assessment: “I’ve only worked on British projects as an actor, and often I’m sat in a readthrough and I’m one of the only people who isn’t white. Likewise, as a writer, I worked on a continuing drama at the beginning of my career and was the sole Black person in the entire team.” However, he sees progress, particularly in the development stage: “All the companies I’m working with [as a writer] are definitely putting their money where their mouth is.”

Across the screen industries, the BAFTA nominations have been welcomed with open arms. Philippa Childs, Head of Bectu, praised the “markedly more diverse list of nominees than in previous years,” with Variety and Observer critic Guy Lodge marvelling that: “I’ve never had this little to complain about with a group of BAFTA nominees – they really smashed it.” All this comes from an organisation more used to delivering unwelcome surprises in its nominations, having become synonymous with what Lodge refers to as a “fusty reputation” for celebrating the safest, and often whitest, films.

These nominations are the result of much introspection at BAFTA and serve as a first test drive of the 120 changes it made to its voting process, all with the aim of producing a more diverse group of nominees and, as Childs describes it, “remove bias” from the process. Chief among these is the move away from a cross-membership vote and towards juries of up to twelve industry experts representing a range of backgrounds, experiences and ages. 

These juries are now totally responsible for determining nominees from the longlists in the four acting categories, ‘Best Director’, ‘Best Casting’ and ‘Outstanding British Debut’, and also determine half of the ten selections for ‘Outstanding British Film’. In acting and directing categories, a sixth nominee has been added, as BAFTA described in their annual review, “to allow for a broader representation in nominees”. 

As Lodge sees it, “They know that this is the most sensitive period and the one where they have to get it right,” since it’s always on nomination day that the most criticism is lobbied at awards bodies for their lack of diversity in nominations. ‘Best Film’ is now the only category that is never touched by a jury or chapter vote, determined at each stage by the whole membership.

As part of a move towards increased transparency in their awards process, BAFTA published a 37-page voting rules and guidelines report, in which they state that juries are “bias trained in voting mindfully and will be encouraged to consider how they define excellence”. This may go some way to explain their considerable deviation from many of this awards season’s developing narratives, however precious little detail is given as to what this training and encouragement involves, making it impossible to judge its effectiveness at this stage. 

For Jacobs Morgan, a participant in a dual scheme with BAFTA and the BFI (as part of the latter’s Flare strand of work supporting LGBTQ+ filmmakers), there is a different side of the British Academy, one far removed from the old, white reputation that they have cemented for themselves through their annual nominations. “[The scheme] was the first step towards me feeling as if I’m not an imposter and feeling welcomed in the industry,” he says, adding that it “gave me peers in the industry, and some of the projects I have in development wouldn’t have happened without it.”

With so much work going on behind the scenes to nurture previously underrepresented voices, largely unknown by the public, it is rather baffling that it has taken BAFTA this long to bring its outward-facing image in line with its greater intentions as an institution. By allowing its voting members to heap nominations upon the likes of Darkest Hour, 1917, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool and Dunkirk, while roundly ignoring a whole host of more adventurous, less white and male films, BAFTA did its own work as a wider institution a continual disservice. This year’s nominations will surely come as a great relief to many on the academy’s outreach and development side.

“Things can always move faster,” notes Jacobs Morgan, “but I do think that these next couple of years will be crucial in reshaping the industry permanently,” referring to both awards season contenders and work being made in the UK. “Out of face-saving can come actual systemic improvement,” says Lodge, “and if a body as old and entrenched as BAFTA feels that these measures are needed, then it should follow from the top down.” Perhaps other beleaguered awards groups, such as the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, currently coming off a barrage of criticism for their Golden Globe nominees, will see BAFTAs’ about-turn and push themselves to adopt a similar hands-on approach for next year. BAFTA put it off long enough – one could argue that post-#OscarsSoWhite they could’ve made their own pre-emptive changes – but have shown that change is better welcomed late than never.

The route to progress is a bumpy one: that Rocks ties for the most nominations yet wasn’t even longlisted for Best Film, and that Nomadland is the single crossover between that category and Best Director suggests further work will be needed in the coming years to bridge the gap between jury and broader membership tastes. Additionally, BAFTAs’ annual review indicates their intention to begin considering seriously casting choices for transgender, disabled and queer roles in nominations – an encouraging sign that they view progress as a journey rather than a destination.

Follow Rory Horne on Twitter.

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