The Baftas don’t even bother with tokenism anymore

Pimp my award ceremony has been the name of the game for the past few years. These events get bigger and bigger because successful film and pop stars just don’t have enough opportunity to pat themselves on the backs, make dire speeches, tell each other they are the best, and model clothes from whichever designer favours them. These gongfests are increasingly becoming exercises in the branding both of movies and fashion, with the tuxes and evening gowns more high-vis than on the catwalk, and a circus surrounding every female star who poses on a red carpet in a strapless column and no coat in February.

Some excellent people attend these shebangs and some excellent films are honoured. But this year’s Bafta ceremony wins no awards if you happen to think that the film industry should strive to reach out to the world we live in, rather than reflect the closing down of opportunity for those not born with immense advantages. The entire event was not solely white and posh, but a lot of it was. And why did we need a bloomin’ Prince to drone on at the event? To say this does not mean that any of the Etonian actors are bad. Tom Hiddleston, Eddie Redmayne, Damian Lewis, Henry Faber, et al, are brilliant. It is simply to ask: where are the emerging working-class actors? Is it only when we’re watching Julie Walters’ generation that we get to hear a non-posh accent now? The life and work of Bob Hoskins was not commemorated. Where was Timothy Spall in the acting nominations, for his performance in Mr Turner?

One of the effects of austerity is that it is much harder to risk a financially vulnerable career in acting, art, music, and yes, in journalism, without considerable parental back-up. Sam Smith, with his haul of Grammys last night, has had a lot of help from his family.

In 2012, Bafta organised a survey and itself bemoaned “the lack of talented people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds”, and the women who are at particular risk “of being lost to these industries”. In order to stop it being a club for the privileged, a mentorship scheme was set up.

But looking around at last night’s almost entirely white affair, it’s clear we are going backwards in a number of ways. Benedict Cumberbatch said on the red carpet “I wish David Oyelowo was here tonight. I don’t understand it. He would have got my vote,” referring to his performance in Selma. The lack of nominations for that film was explained away by its release date. Which is all very well, but we know that actors including David Harewood, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sophie Okonedo, Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Idris Elba have all had to go to the US to find success. We know too that the idea of Elba as James Bond has produced some utter drivel about the essential “whiteness” of Bond.                   

It’s as if having rewarded 12 Years a Slave last year, we can just ignore this awkward stuff again for a while. Watching all this, I asked myself if it’s fair to ask the arts to deliver more on the diversity front than business or politics or journalism – sectors where the situation is still pretty grim. The forthcoming election will be covered almost entirely by white media folk. 

It’s as if we have moved on from tokenism these days, the demand for there to be at least one black person, one woman, one working-class oik at an event, or on a panel. Now, it seems, we’re meant to feel pretty comfortable not bothering to think about that stuff any more.

Personally, I feel about as comfortable as the women sewn into their corseted frocks. There were some fine people in that audience and some fine films that we will watch in decades to come, but this event and the institution that organises it has to get with the programme.

It may well be fun fussing about a woman letting the side down by wearing the wrong shade of green. Actually the key look of the night was a whitewash. Why does any of this matter? Because it is through the media, through movies, TV and games that we see the world and we see ourselves. Or would like to. (c) Guardian News & Media Ltd, 2015

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.


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