POWERHOUSE PERFORMANCE: Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup in the Oscar winning 12 Years A Slave
fOR ME, one of the highlights of the 2012 Olympic Games in London was seeing actor Norman Beaton’s face as the eponymous star of the south London-set sitcom Desmond’s projected on to giant screens in the stadium during the opening ceremony.
Beaton, of course, was a stalwart of black theatre, before making the transition to television and becoming a household name for his work on the small screen.
Though the actor died in 1994, his towering presence is still felt. Beaton’s co-stars Carmen Munroe and Robbie Gee will take part in a symposium along with the show’s creator Trix Worrell at the BFI, as part of its Black Star season, which starts next month at various venues across the country.
With 257 bespoke screenings and events, Black Star is impressive in its scope, from classic movie titles from Hollywood’s heyday such as Showboat, Cabin in the Sky and To Sir With Love to more contemporary fare such as Ray, Set it Off, Malcolm X and Selma.
There’s a look at the work of British powerhouse actors Chiwetel Ejiofor and David Oyewolo, who have both crossed the Atlantic and found considerable success in films such as 12 Years A Slave and Selma.
CLASSIC: David Oyelowo (centre) stars as Dr Martin Luther King in Selma
Nollywood gets a look-in, too, with star Nse Ikpe-Etim due to make an appearance to talk about her career.
Meanwhile, other events will include the European premiere of Green White Green: And All the Beautiful Colours in My Mosaic of Madness, the UK premiere of Faaji Agba, followed by a Q&A session with director Remi Vaughan-Richards. There will also be two shorts programmes – one dedicated to fiction and another dedicated to documentary.
Children and young people are also included in the season, with screenings of Like Mike, Annie, Home, The Wiz and
Space Jam. There will also be a chance to catch previews of a number of TV shows. Acclaimed British author Zadie Smith’s London-set novel NW, which has been adapted by the BBC, receives a screening and there is also a Q&A session with its stars, including Nikki Amuka-Bird and OT Fagbenle.
Meanwhile, David Olusoga presents the first episode of his documentary series, A Black History of Britain, and will also take part in a post-screening discussion.
Perhaps by necessity, the retrospective is dominated by American fare. It is telling that Worrell and Belle director Amma Asante are among only a handful of black behind-the-camera talent taking part in the season. While Hollywood has had to contend with the Oscars So White campaign, the BFI has had to deal with its own controversy over the lack of diversity of its staff.
I have often had cause to wonder how an arts organisation in the middle of a city with a 40 per cent BAME population could have so few employees of colour.
Last June, the BFI appointed its first Diversity Manager, Deborah Williams, to address this very problem and to augment its Three Ticks initiative, which is aimed at encouraging more production companies to adopt diverse representation across their workforces. Only time will tell what difference this will make to levels of black representation in the film and television industry.
The BFI has taken a step in the right direction. But it’s a small step on a long, long road.
BLACK ICONS WHO MADE HISTORY
Stunningly beautiful and enormously talented, Dandridge had the misfortune to practice her craft at a time when racism in Hollywood was at its most entrenched. Such was her success, however, she made the cover of LIFE magazine and was the first African American to be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. She starred in several films but because there were few black, male romantic leads, and Hollywood could not conceive of pairing her with a white actor, Dandridge’s career languished. In 1965, she was found dead in her apartment of a drug overdose.
SEE HER IN: Carmen Jones (1954)
The first artist to sell more than one million records and a multi-awardwinning actor, Belafonte succeeded in balancing stardom and serious activism. He was a vocal Civil Rights campaigner, going on to serve as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and to be awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Clinton. He now counts President Barack Obama among his friends and is a frequent visitor to the Whitehouse.
SEE HIM IN: Carmen Jones and Island In The Sun (1957)
One of eight children, Poitier was sent to live with an older brother in Miami when he started to get into trouble as a teenager. But frustrated by his inability to earn a living and by the disparaging way whites treated him, Poitier left Miami for New York. There he worked as a dishwasher, started a drama class and went on to launch a celebrated acting career that led to starring roles in a string of classic films.
SEE HIM IN: In The Heat of The Night (1967), No Way Out (1950), A Raisin in the Sun (1961) and To Sir With Love (1967)
Perhaps best known for her Oscar-winning performance as Mammy in Gone With the Wind in 1939, Hattie McDaniel bolstered the hopes of black Hollywood that the entertainment industry was finally ready to support more multidimensional, fully realised roles for black performers. “Everyone who has ever seen the picture is unanimous in agreement that one of her scenes which is close to the end of the picture is easily the high emotional point of the film,” according to studio boss David O Selznick. But his belief didn’t stop him from capitulating to Atlanta city officials who wanted the movie’s black actors barred from the film’s premiere.
SEE HER IN: Alice Adams (1935)
Hollywood’s first African-American screen siren, Horne battled segregated nightclubs that let her sing to, but not drink with, white customers. Nonetheless, she went on to become a successful cabaret singer and Vegas headliner, while movie studios glamorised her as a darker version of its white starlets – but gave her small roles and singing cameos that theatres in America’s Deep South could conveniently cut out.
SEE HER IN: Stormy Weather (1943)
Under the Trailblazer banner, there’s a screening of the first documented film with an all-black cast, Lime Kiln Club Field Day, made in 1913. You can also see the work of the phenomenally talented Paul Robeson, who took a central role in the Civil Rights Movement, and became more famous in the UK than his native America, thanks to his towering performance in films.
SEE HIM IN: The Proud Valley (1940) and Show Boat (1936)