BBC diversity chief questions whether on-screen representation goes far enough

What you just read is an alternative headline that could have been used as an opening to this article published by the Daily Mail last week Wednesday. The current headline has sparked controversy and numerous conversations regarding the British crime drama television series Luther. While Luther remains at the centre of much of the discussions, what is also being driven to the forefront is emotions fuelled by a disconnect and lack of relatability between Black audiences and Black characters in TV and film.

In writing this opinion piece, I can’t help but think back to my time studying journalism at a master’s level. Particularly lectures that revolved around writing headlines, honing the craft and having a clear and succinct news angle. As journalists we are taught how pivotal the headline is to the story. We are taught how to take the most important facts and form a sentence that is both universally understood and of course a goldmine for search engines. A skill and an art form indeed – that is, a powerful and attention-grabbing headline. Though, much has to be said about headlines that are misleading, create controversy and spark the wrong kinds of conversations. The article published by the Daily Mail, is a clear example that more could have been done to strike a balance between grabbing the attention of readers and accurately portraying a topic discussed.

In this case, it takes reading beyond the headline to understand the sentiments expressed by the BBC’s Head of Creative Diversity Miranda Wayland. What does real diversity look like on-screen? How can this be achieved through an authentic and realistic portrayal of a character? Miranda Wayland’s sentiments aren’t appearing to perpetuate stereotypes, but expose the need to add depth and cultural significance into the development of Black characters. So, what does that look like? It could be traditions, it could be clothing, it could be references to Idris’ own Sierra Leonean and Ghanaian heritage. It could even be the presence of family members and friends that prevent the character from looking alienated or secluded within a community. Subtle reminders of traditional heritage or dual identity could be written into the character, even without taking anything away from the storyline or plot.

In the article it states that Luther‘s creator and writer Neil Cross insisted that Idris Elba “only took the role in the first place because race was not considered important to the character”. It then includes a quote by Cross saying, “I have no knowledge or expertise or right to try to tackle in some way the experience of being a black man in modern Britain.” I’ve highlighted this part of the article, because it reminded me of a recent conversation I had with Marcus Ryder MBE. He said, “it’s not about putting people in power that are the same as the people already in power, but just with a little more melanin. It’s about real diversity.”

It is an achievement that a Black man was given the space to play the character of Luther. It is also important to acknowledge that diversity and inclusion goes beyond casting a Black, Asian or minority ethnic lead. It’s a movement that involves self-awareness and sacrifice for the greater good. Allowing people of different genders, backgrounds, class, ethnicities and disabilities to take up space in positions they haven’t been given the opportunity to do so before. That could be hiring additional Black screenwriters whose lived experience could help to adding that personal touch which Miranda Wayland expressed that Luther needed.

It must be acknowledged that her comments about Luther form part of a much larger conversation. While reading the article a number of other shows came to mind where I have immediately felt a disconnect with certain Black characters. Most recently, that was Behind Her Eyes. I couldn’t help, but question why Louise Barnsley (played by Simona Brown) seemed so isolated. Despite the show being set in multicultural boroughs like Camden, Southwark, Islington, Kingston, Haringey and Lambeth. Some people on Twitter also expressed similar sentiments towards other British series and films with Black, Asian and minority ethnic leads.

Behind Her Eyes is adored by audiences for it’s plot twist and Idris Elba has won multiple awards for his portrayal of Luther including a Golden Globe award in 2012. It’s easy to take the position that if a series or film is award-winning, successful or popular then it has achieved it’s purpose. Though it is vital to move away from this kind of thinking and conversations occurring as a response to the article prove that more still needs to be done. The question remains: what does real diversity look like on-screen?