Reni narration: There has been somewhat of a revolution on our cultural landscape in recent years. This has to be symbolised by the fact that in 2017, the oxford english dictionary added the word ‘woke’ to its pages.
Here’s that definition of woke, courtesy of the OED:
Alert to injustice in society, especially racism.
Welcome to About Race with Reni Eddo-Lodge.
I’ve noticed a cycle to the culture of woke. It pushes the limits and widens the possibilities of our culture by starting out as widespread criticism, which is then followed up by earnest action.
Some examples. There was #OscarsSoWhite, led by April Reign in 2016 which shook up the film industry. Then, in early 2018 we were all struck by the cult of Black Panther, which quickly became one of the highest earning films of all time. I have no idea if these two facts are related.
In Britain, analysis from trade magazine the Bookseller found that in 2016, fewer than 100 of the thousands upon thousands of books published in the UK that year where written by non-white British authors. In the two years since, several UK publishing companies have established initiatives to redress the balance, including Penguin Random House , Faber & Faber, and Hachette.
In journalism, the first woman editor of the National Geographic made an unprecedented move this year when she appointed a historian to critically examine the magazine’s coverage of people of colour since its inception. 'For decades, our coverage was racist', read the headline. An apology was made.
Back in Britain, Edward Enninful was appointed the first black editor of British Vogue, news of which was received with much celebration. Outgoing editor Alexandra Shulman gave an interview to the Guardian which showed her to be painfully ignorant of the issues at hand.
In the art world, Lubaina Himid won the the 2017 Turner Prize for her work on slavery, colonialism and the legacy of racism and the Tate Modern’s exhibition of art in the age of black power was wildly popular.
Going back to that Oxford English Dictionary definition, this was all very ‘woke’. But where was this all coming from?
Riz: I think that popular culture and culture in general is becoming more attuned to those conversations. And I think that's because they become hard to ignore particularly on social media and the conversation spaces that have been democratised because of social media and the Internet.
Reni narration: The actor, rapper and activist Riz Ahmed has enjoyed a career just long about long enough to witness this change in culture. Known initially for his role in the underground music scene and independent film in the mid 2000s, he is now well established in Hollywood. Most notably, he played Bodhi Rook in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. We met to discuss how the culture of woke has affected… well.. culture at large.
Riz: I think that there's a wave and who knows if it's a wave that will kind of let peter out, that is hard for people to ignore. And I think people are either having to ride that wave and deal with it or they get kind of swept away by its force. And I think some of that has to do with you know democratising the conversation in popular culture through social media. And I think some of it is you know quite a direct reaction to some of the kind of nativist xenophobic political realities we're facing in a lot of Western democracies post austerity.
Reni: You sound pretty confident that those sort of like conversations on social media having a direct impact on what's being commissioned. What's making it to our screens.
Riz: I think some of the kind of complacency of the kind of centre left liberals that often dominate the creative industries both as creatives and on the business side has been shown to be misplaced. That complacency has been challenged by some of the electoral results we've seen, you know with Brexit or with Trump or lots of what's been happening in mainland Europe. You know the political reality in India right now and I think that complacent bubble that kind of delusion that we were slowly heading towards you know this land of milk and honey, I think that delusions that bubbles been burst really and because of that I think people are realising that we won't inevitably drift towards an inclusive and tolerant society necessarily.
I think there’s this is realisation now that we have to kind of show up and push things uphill at times to get there.
Reni narration: There’s loads of us in Britain who see Riz as a British success story. He’s won an Emmy, and was also named as one of Time magazine’s 100 influential people by Hamilton powerhouse Lin-Manuel Miranda. I wanted to know whether he thinks this is a chicken or egg situation.
Riz: So, I'm able to have more of a career because things are changing in the industry and as I have more of a career that means that things can change more in the industry. This isn’t just, I mean you brought up me as an example I don't think my personal success necessarily has any kind of change on the structures of the systemic challenges that we face. But there are lots of people like me are like you that start doing well in our industry then it does start changing things and it's hard to know what comes first or what needs to come first whether it's kind of a benevolent person who's steeped in privilege who decides to kind of take a risk and back some horses. You know J.J. Abrams and Kathy Kennedy saying hang on a minute let's cast John Boyega and Daisy Ridley a woman and a British Nigerian guy. Whether it's that and the people in privilege kind of need to kind of you know bequeath us you know a seat at the table or whether it's like you know certain people just become too good to ignore. And I think it's often a combination of both.
Reni narration: All of this seems ostensibly good. But have we been here before? Meera Syal is a stalwart of the British entertainment industry, with a decades long career that has comprised of comedy, acting, writing books and plays and presenting television… the list is almost endless, and her numerous awards reflect this. I asked her if, in this moment of woke, she was currently experiencing a severe case of deja vu.
Meera: Ooh, oh now the first time I talked about this was way back at the Edinburgh Television Festival, probably, in the mid 80s and there are probably sections of that speech I could get out and read again now. So there is an ebb and a flow, that’s why you have to be so vigilant and that’s why the monitoring of what is happening on our television and film industries, of course which Lenny Henry really spearheaded, because that monitoring stopped for a while, and that’s where he came in and said you know we’ve stopped monitoring what’s going on and it’s got bad, here are the new figures, we need to start this again. It’s two steps forwards and one step back. It’s really easy to get complacent. Trying to get the stories that don’t tell the narrative that the commissioners want to hear, trying to get them on is really difficult and that’s the next step. What does give me a lot of hope is that I think a lot of artists, like you’ve just said, are understanding that going to the old institutions, there is too much to dismantle and too many people to persuade to a different way of seeing the world. You can do it yourself, there is a democratisation of storytelling going on through the internet, through social media and social platforms which is changing the way the work is made and I find that quite exciting. You know, if you build it they will come.
Meera: They are there. It’s just that you’re not serving them and the less you serve them the more they are going to go to the niche platforms like their Zee TVs or their Netflix Indias and they are going to abandon you.
Reni narration: We tried hard to speak to a television or film commissioner for this episode. These are the people who determine what we’re all watching, gatekeepers in the strictest sense. Unfortunately, none really wanted to speak to me. But an interesting turn of events meant that I could discuss the issues with a very successful film producer instead. Alison Owen has been in the business for almost thirty years. We met in a cafe in west London, so do excuse the background noise.
Alison: I would say my best known films are Elizabeth, which is about Queen Elizabeth that was nominated for an Oscar quite a way back now yeah 98. Suffragette, Saving Mr. Banks with Merryl no not Meryl, Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks, I told you my memory was bad. Me Before You. Which came out last year. I'm just gearing up to do a film version of Caitlin Moran’s How to Build A Girl.
Reni: So what does film production involve?
Alison: It can involve lots of different things. I tend to be pretty much an A-Z producer which means that I will generate the films I will have an idea myself or read a book that I want to make into a film or read an article or meet a writer who's got a great idea that I want to develop with them so I will start by optioning that material raising money or spending my own money on the option to develop a script and then when I've got a script I will put it together with the director get some cast go raise money make the film sell it if it's not already sold along the way and make sure it gets the right release out into the world.
Reni: Get some cast, What does that mean? How involved are you in the casting of films?
Alison: Very involved. I mean I have to be very involved that's mine, I am the conduit between the director and the creative side and the financiers which is the financial side. So I straddle both sides. I obviously want what's best creatively for the movie. I also have to be aware of what's going to work in the marketplace and what’s going to raise the money so I will be the person who is maybe encouraging the director to think more commercially about their creative ideas and I will be the person encouraging the financier to maybe be a bit more open minded and think imaginatively and try and get two people to meet in the middle.
Reni: This interview has come about because your daughter Lily Allen randomly tweeted both me and the author Nikesh Shukla, who is the editor of an anthology named The Good Immigrant, that I contributed to and Nikesh was tweeting and was saying look at the success of the Black Panther film. Look at the success of Reni's book, has just become a bestseller. Anybody who says that diversity doesn't sell. I just want to have a word. And I think that was a thinly veiled threat on Nikesh’s part. Lily tweeted us both and she said My mum is a film producer I asked her if she felt stupid for having ignored this market. She said she has tried countless times to get films with ‘diverse’ casts/subject matters on the ground but bigwigs can’t relate to slash see themselves in the stories so they never signed off.
Alison: Sounds like something I would say and that certainly does represent the many conversations and attempts I've had over the years and as I’ve said mirrors, it mirrors my efforts to get women on screen. It's the same thing. I'm pretty much obsessed with the female gaze and trying to get that represent on screen properly and that has also obviously has an intersectional aspect to it in terms of wanting to represent ethnic diversity on screen. I would say it's certainly become slightly easier and I hope that Black Panther will have smashed a lot of people's preconceived notions and it will be even easier in future. But certainly the first time when I made a film called young Americans in 1990 that was my first experience of really getting slapped round the face with it. When we cast a mixed race girl with a white boy and we had our finance pulled from the movie because of it and they said it cast, Thandie Newton it was she was straight out of drama school, they said if we cast Thandie they would pull the money out.
Alison: And of course we said fuck you we're going to cast Thandie. And they did pull the money out and we had to refinance the movie.
Alison: and that was a real eye opener and at that point interestingly because things ebb and flow over the years and the decades. At that point it was an American problem. It was American money that we lost the British money was fine and did not have a problem with it. It was the American money that got pulled out and we had to refinance the movie pretty much of Europe and Britain. I would say that probably America has got better and Britain has stayed sort of the same. I would say that America's accelerated in its in its relationship with it. Often I think it's easier to get things on TV over here. I did a project while ago called Small Island.
Reni: Oh yeah based on Andrea Levy's book
Alison: exactly in which the BBC were very supportive and we had a lot of success with that and it got Emmys and whatever but that kind of project is easier to make on British television than on American television and that's probably still the case for network television at any rate differences between the two cultures but problems all along the way, yeah.
Reni narration: As a producer, Alison casts. As an actor, Riz is casted. I was interested in his perspective on this issue.
Reni: You said at the beginning of our interview that you, you work a lot in the US. That tells me that the roles in the UK are still lacking for you.
Riz: I think the roles are lacking here but I also think and this isn’t me letting the UK off the hook. I think it's just so much more of a kind of old boys network here it is just so upper middle class and white and posh over here. I think there are real problems here in terms of who the gatekeepers are and just you know I think really the issue in the UK is like our idea of who we are as a nation. What counts as a story worthy of being told to the nation. What is our national story we're in denial about it. Basically, America is in denial about its national story in other ways but our idea of ourselves is lords and ladies running around in in bonnets. America's idea of itself is kind of like salad bowl like haven of multiculturalism. They're both completely diluted but at least America's myth of itself allows for a bit more diversity in popular culture, you know it accepts it’s a nation of immigrants. We are a nation of immigrants as well but we won’t accept that, you know this is an island nation that has been constantly and consistently invaded and settled and inhabited by waves of different people from around the world. And if it hadn't been then it wouldn't be the country that is today.
Reni narration: Riz is right. Britain loves a period drama, and historical fiction is hugely powerful in a country’s understanding of itself. So I put this to film producer Alison Owen . For context, I used the musical Hamilton as an example of casting that tells a different story.
Reni: It had black actors and actresses playing slave owners.
Alison: Yeah and that's what was so fantastic. Flipping the whole thing on its head I don't know that the world is ready. I think you could do that in a movie because it's very stylised. I think what’s hard I sometimes struggle with in terms of people telling me you've got to do colourblind casting. I find that hard when you're realising actual historical moments like if I was remaking Elizabeth the First would you be able to cast Elizabeth the first as a black woman and just carry on as normal and the film? I don’t know.
Reni: What’s colourblind casting?
Alison: Like not, like literally not just thinking OK who's the best person for the role and it doesn't matter what racial derivation and I suppose to some extent you should be able to do the same thing with gender, if you were taking the argument to its logical conclusion. But I think if you’re, the truth is also really important to man I think if you are rendering a historical moment surely you want to render that as truthfully as possible.
Reni narration: Case in point: her 2015 film Suffragette, about Britain’s women’s suffrage movement in the early 20th century.
Alison: I had the experience with Suffragette where I made, I spent 10 years making a movie that I really believed in and fought to make this movie which is probably the first movie made about that subject that was that was with a decent budget with proper cast and it did fantastically well in Britain and it got widely reviled in America because from my point of view from an inaccurate perception that there should have been black women in it now no matter how many times I said at endless Q and A’s across America but there were no black women in the east end at that time we've endlessly researched it, nobody would listen and they, everyone got very angry. I couldn't understand it and Amma Asante who is a friend of mine was the only person who sufficiently explained it to me. She said Alison, I was like why are they picking on me. This is a good movie. You know I'm a lovely white liberal here what's the problem. What’s your fucking problem. Why don't you go pick on some other violent movie. You know there's lots of horrible movies out there. There’s no black people in Downton Abbey, there’s no black people in Theory of Everything or lots of horrible action movies why are you picking on this nice suffragette movie. And she said look what really makes black women in America angry is that all those things you just said do make them angry. But what makes them most angry is not being a part of something that they perceive they should have been a part of. And that's why your films making them angry. And I totally got that when she said that, I do get that and I always have to remember that it's not about me. You know OK I'm upset and disappointed about that reception to suffragette but that is a drop in the ocean compared to everything that these people, who are feeling that have gone through so me to labor on about my disappointment and resentment about that is I should just shut the fuck up basically.
Reni: There was some conversation at the time about Sophia Duleep Singh, I believe the South Asian suffragette who I know of because the woman who wrote the book about her is with my publishing company. What did you make of that conversation?
Alison: Well, we knew about Sophia Duleep Singh as you she was like Queen Victoria's granddaughter. She was very aristocratic and our film was about working class women we very much. There have been some movies and TV things about the Pankhurst and the sort of upper class suffragette movement but we were wanting to get away from that kind of crinoline suffragettes and really portray them as the gorillas that day throwing bombs and getting beaten up by the police. And we wanted to concentrate on the working class suffragettes so we didn’t want to have Queen Victoria's granddaughter and she was the only women of colour in the suffragette movement were very aristocratic ones. And that wasn't what we were portraying. Now you could make a I think in hindsight and in looking at the importance of see it to be it and recognising how important it is for women of colour to see themselves on screen I would rethink that and I would try and weave in some of those women to be more representative.
Reni narration: Meera wonders if, because of white focused stories, things are actually getting worse for British actors of colour.
Meera: Riz Ahmed, Archie Panjabi, Parminder Nagra who was in Bend it Like Beckham has to go to the States and do ER, obviously Idris. Marianne Jean Baptiste was the first British black woman to get an Oscar nomination and she couldn’t get work here and she went to the States and there she is now, it’s shameful. Why?
Meera: I think sometimes has a feeling like we've done diversity. You know we've done that, there’s lots of different strands to this question actually. We’re now post diversity, we just cast the right person for the job, that’s an excuse often used. I suppose the other thing is the kind of stories that we are put in I think causes a lot of actors to go to America because if the only stories you’re offered here as an actor are to play a sex abuser or a terrorist or a victim of a violent father in an arranged marriage, then you are probably going to look elsewhere for your roles. I don’t want to sound too negative because I think there are changes and I can switch on, and the soaps are the best at this actually, ironically, I can switch on some programmes and see the Britain I know, but then you look at the quality of the role and the kinds of narrative that those characters are being given that’s a whole other question.
Farrukh: Take two examples there's no no there's no new Devil's Advocate there's no new tough black voice in that sense there's no new Desmond’s. They don’t know how to do it. They don't know how to do it.
Reni narration: Farrukh Dhondy. A British black panther in the 1970s, a television commission by the 1990s, and a sharp critic of British television dabbling in race. There was, however, one recent British tv programme he did have significant input on.
Farrukh: Oh dear
Reni narration: Airing in 2017, Sky Atlantic’s much debated television series Guerilla profiled the love of two young activists of colour fighting racism in 1970s London. Being a former black panther meant that Farrukh acted as a consultant for the creators of the show.
Farrukh: They gave me the scripts before that and I said hang on, I told them, this has nothing to do with what we actually did because we never resorted to making a bomb or terrorism or anything. And they said no you did that. I said yeah that was the mainstream that the breakaway people doing that so so there was a kind of a threat of violence and so on.
Freida Pinto, they based on my late ex-wife Mala and I said she wasn’t a terrorist. And he said really? We've talked to so and so and so and she was quite for violence. She was saying shoot to Policeman, do something right. And Mala might have talked like that
Reni: But she didn't actually do it
Farrukh: Do it, no
Reni: So you felt it was a misrepresentation then of what happened.
Farrukh: In a sense yes because we were a political movement right. We were a political movement the Black Panther movement so was Race Today. You know nobody resorted to secret bombings and that, we wanted the public to join us
Reni: What do you think about the criticisms that came of the show about it’s erasure of…
Farrukh: Oh that the Asian girl should be there, that’s all rubbish.
Reni: The erasure of black women in particular because I think Elizabeth Obi wrote in the Guardian saying no I was there and...
Farrukh: of course
Reni: the only black woman who was in it was a sex worker in the first program and she wasn't very happy about that.
Farrukh: Elizabeth's being ya, Liz is being stupid, because Liz was the best friend of Mala, my ex-wife. They were like that, inseparable. I mean still, Mala left Liz a lot of her, when she died four years ago, she left her a lot of stuff. Liz and Marla were like that. Liz might have thought that maybe Althea should have been represented, but there were black girls, there were black women in the show. But I don't agree with the fact that they should not have been an Asian activist.
Reni narration: This is what Elizabeth Obi wrote in the Guardian. ‘For those of us who were around at the time, the role of Jas Mitra (played by Freida Pinto), is quite obviously in recognition of Mala Sen, who was part of the leadership of the Black Panther movement and a member of the Race Today Collective alongside the late Darcus Howe and Farrukh Dhondy, who acted as consultants for the series. For me it was an absolute pleasure to have Mala’s contribution acknowledged through the role of Jas, and I am interested to see how her character unfolds, if nothing else.
Aside from Jas, the portrayal of black women in the first episode was unforgivable, as they are represented solely by Wunmi Mosaku’s character Kenya, a sex worker whose clients include the police inspector Pence. Historically women were the backbone of the black movement: Althea Jones-Lecointe, Barbara Beese, Leila Hassan, Olive Morris, Beverley Bryan and Stella Dadzie, to name but a few, and I can only hope this is reflected in future episodes.’
Farrukh: I don’t think Guerrilla is a continuation of the work that we did. I don't think so. I think it's transatlantic entertainment Netflix type of program.
Reni: Well that's really interesting
Farrukh: It’s more Game of Thrones than Desmond’s.
Reni narration: Culture is never not important in how we perceive the world, and I think that’s why conversations about accurate representation in our cultural products -- books, and films and television, music theatre and media -- will continue to rage until access to those professions is less exclusive. But there’s also a convincing argument to be made that suggests that this is all somewhat of a distraction, drawing us away from the harder ways politics affects our lives.
Diane Abbott MP is skeptical of putting too much hope in culture.
Diane: Politics is not a consumer activity, I wouldn’t say everyone has to get in the Labour party, I have never said that in 30 odd years of political activity, got to get involved in something. There’s a tendency for people to think that politics is something you consume and there’s a tendency which actually goes back to think that a man on a white horse is going to come over the horizon and save us. No one is going to save black people, we have to save ourselves and whereas I wouldn’t say everyone has to join the labour party, gotta join something because if you’re just going to events at the Tate and going home and feeling reinforced in your ideas about society, who does that help, how does that change anything.
When I came into politics at the end of the 70s early 80s, when I went into politics clearly cultural politics was a backdrop. Clearly. I mean I’d consumed all of the feminist texts, Fiona Yuna, Kate Millett, Spare Rib because you know the days before the internet if you wanted to find out about what’s happening politically, you had to go to a bookshop and buy something. So I consumed all of the cultural products in relation to feminism and I consumed all of the 80s black female writers Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Toni Cade Bambaru, I think she was. I read all of them and it undoubtedly presented the backdrop to my activism and literature and activity and writing and discussion is a necessary backdrop now but the idea that all you have to do is listen to a podcast and a town hall near you…
Reni: We’re hearing you loud and clear on this one Diane
Diane: is going promote some poor black woman who has worked there for 20 years to the role she should be in there’s not necessarily a connection. Because what the local State is and what institutions rely on is that we don’t get involved. They rely on the fact that we don’t get involved and they rely on the fact that they can talk the talk but no one is coming to them and saying excuse me, how many senior social workers do you have who are actually black women even though a lot of your junior ones are. So it’s to an extent the people that comes to your events, are concerned about, they are relying on the fact that people don’t get involved.
Reni narration: I put these concerns to the actor and activist Riz Ahmed.
Reni: Are we guilty of selling the people who like our work a vision of feeling empowered feeling represented that isn't actually translating into some sort of political change?
Riz: I mean I think it depends whether the reality that your kind of selling people is an escapist reality or is something that engages with our reality in order to kind of challenge and stretch it. I think often you can have both. I mean look at something like Black Panther. There is a lot of escapism in Black Panther. It's a you know fantastical country doesn't really exist the whole reality is kind of like it's a superhero movie. And yet actually I think that because it's not a film that's kind of steeped in social realism it can actually comment on our society and really engage with it in a way that feels quite free actually is free to do that and I think science fiction for example or fantasies always had an ability to do that. So again I actually don't think the two things are always mutually exclusive.
I think the danger isn't so much that we offer people perspectives on the world that are odds with dominant culture and that in doing so we're deluding them or selling them a mirage as to how things are. I think our political and social reality as shaped by dominant culture is all too obvious to those of us who kind of live with its boot on our neck. I don’t think theres any danger that we'll kind of forget what our reality is like, you know.
Reni: it's great that people can read a book and feel like yes this is speaking for me but it can't end there.
Riz: No but I think we don't maybe give people enough credit if we think it does end there. I don't think it does end there. I think they carry that extra bit of confidence to that let's say I don't get used to seeing myself in literature, let’s say I read a book where someone like me is at the centre of the story. If I just put that book down and carry on going to work I'm still going to carry that feeling of being you know a hero in my own story with me to work that week. I will just have my experience reaffirmed that maybe give me a different kind of confidence it may allow me to kind of question some of my self hate or how I think of myself as a bit player in my own life. I think the effect of our own culture is sometimes quite intangible but on a kind of emotional molecular level I think people carry its impact with them throughout the day throughout their month throughout the years. In terms of like showing up as an activist becoming politically engaged and our society t is really really important, if you care about changing our society. Does that mean that any art that doesn't make you stand up and sign up for momentum is a waste of time. No of course not. It doesn't, it affects people in different ways.
Reni narration: One thing that strikes me as a conflict is that as our culture has become more woke, formal politics has become increasingly regressive.
Riz: We live in a Britain today that is in large part shaped by Nigel Farage. But we also live in the London of Sadiq Khan and those things can coexist. So do we have some progress in pop culture and in politics. Yes. Do we have some real challenges in both of those still. Yes absolutely. In a way I think those two things can be true at the same time. In terms of a lot more directly to question is a more inclusive popular culture bringing out a more inclusive political reality. I think time will tell. I think sometimes these things can take a while to filter down. But you know you hear things like OK would you have ever had Obama without Jay-Z, for example, which might sound like a kind of facile question to ask but I do think that you know when the generation of young people grows up seeing certain faces and certain people as a normalised presence in their reality and normalised role models as well I think that that does kind of filter through to how they see the world how they engage with people in the world and also how they vote. Does it solve all our problems. No. Will you still have resistance to that. Yes. Do we have a really kind of segmented pop cultural landscape where actually you could totally grow up in the 90s and early 2000s and never have listened to Jay-Z? Yeah, absolutely. I grew up I've never listen to The Beatles. I still don't know really any of their music. So I think you can have these contradictory things existing at the same time.
Reni narration: I started this episode wondering if there was a bit of a disconnect between ‘woke’ pop culture and political decisions, but now I’m convinced it’s not a strict either or situation. The two influence each other, for better or for worse. Fictionalised versions of current affairs can make or break public empathy towards a situation.
I don’t think my non-fiction book would have had the impact it did in Britain without the Brexit vote a year before it’s release. And in a more extreme example, there would be no current president of the united states without a Television show. I can only sincerely hope that Britain doesn’t follow in the same footsteps.
When it comes to the people who are commissioning our culture -- well, the fact that so few wanted to speak to me tells me that they’re not yet ready to be held accountable for what they create.
In the meantime, DIYing it may be the most surefire way to secure the culture that you want to see.