Major study of racial inequality in UK film industry

UCL is launching a major 1m research project into the links between racism, racial inequality, diversity and policy in the UK film industry, working closely with the British Film Institute (BFI), the UK’s lead organisation for film and the moving image.

The Colour of Diversity: A Longitudinal Analysis of BFI Diversity Standards Data and Racial Inequality in the UK Film Industry i s’a three-year research study that will explore the true nature of the presence, representation and experiences of Black and minority ethnic identities within the UK film industry.

Central to the research will be the analysis of the BFI’s Diversity Standards, a major policy initiative launched in 2016 to respond to prevailing sector inequalities and boost diversity and inclusion primarily related to the protected characteristics cited in the 2010 Equality Act. This project, which identifies the film industry as a site of multi-faceted racial inequalities, goes beyond issues of under-representation to explore in depth the experiences of people of colour involved at every stage of the industry, from creatives to funders, from actors to technicians and from the ideas stage to the finished product, including the experience of Black and minority ethnic film audiences.

The longitudinal study will be led by Dr Clive Nwonka (Principal Investigator) incoming lecturer in Film Culture and Society at UCL’s Institute of Advanced Studies, and Professor Sarita Malik (Co-Investigator) Professor of Media, Culture and Communications in the Department of Social and Political Sciences, Brunel University London. Both Nwonka and Malik are recognised as two of the UK’s leading academic researchers in the study of race, racism, diversity and Black British and Asian identity in film and television. In addition, the project will be recruiting a Post-Doctoral Research Assistant who will be based at UCL.

Commenting on the study, Dr Nwonka (incoming to UCL Institute of Advanced Studies) said: "Despite nearly three decades of policy initiatives racial inequalities in the screen industry in terms of workforce demographic and on-screen representations of Black and ethnic minority identities remain a significant social problem. What has been missing is a close-up analysis, over time, of how diversity policy that has attempted to respond to racial inequalities is constructed and implemented, and its success, failure and impact."

The study, totalling nearly 1 million and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), builds on Nwonka’s previous research into racial inequality in the film sector, notably the report Race and Ethnicity in the UK Film Industry: An Analysis of the BFI Diversity Standards in 2020. This data-led sample study, conducted with the support of the BFI, revealed a number of racial inequalities and disparities unaddressed within the BFI’s Diversity Standards framework, particularly relating to the inclusion of Black and ethnic minority women, the presence of racial difference in key on-screen and off-screen roles and positions, and the vast racial inequalities found within regional film production.

The Colour of Diversity will consider the question of race and ethnicity across the variables of film roles, positions, genres, budgets, settings and regions, and how these racial inequalities cut across the intersections of gender, class, sexual orientation, disability and other protected characteristics. In doing so, the study will assist the BFI’s continued policy developments by conducting an independent and external examination of the Diversity Standards, with the BFI providing unique access to the Diversity Standards data in order to deepen understandings of the construction, trends and impacts of agendas towards racial equality within cultural diversity policy.

In addition to the quantitative study of the BFI’s Diversity Standard’s data, the research team will conduct a textual analysis of a large number of films that have adhered to the Diversity Standards from 2016 to determine how their on-screen portrayals of racial and ethnic difference as declared in the Diversity Standards relate to the lived realities of Black and ethnic minority experiences and film cultures in a range of UK settings, regions and communities.

Related to this, the researchers will also engage with a large range of Black and ethnic minority cultural practitioners, curators, audiences and communities across the UK via workshops, forums, seminars and events designed to understand the decision-making practices of film industry stakeholders, in relation to race and ethnicity and the testimonies, anecdotes, experiences and perspectives of Black and minority ethnic cultural workers and communities of colour within British film culture.

Whilst the project application was submitted and reviewed prior to the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, its central themes have undoubtedly taken on a greater significance given the increased attention to the presence and impact of structural and institutional racism within the UK’s cultural and creative industries that the global anti-racism protests catalysed. The project has received an unprecedented level of funding and will be the largest ever study of racial inequality in the UK film industry, with an interdisciplinary research approach that draws from film studies, cultural studies, Critical Race Theory, media and communications and sociology.

The overall aim is to exchange knowledge about diversity and inclusion in the cultural and creative industries (CCIs), with a specific focus on film, analysing the mechanisms of cultural policy that try to respond to racial inequalities. This in turn will increase knowledge about how the sector constructs diversity initiatives, its relationship with the question of racism, and support other industry stakeholders, from a number of international territories, to put in place informed policy strategies that are genuinely effective in eradicating intersectional inequalities.

Beyond the production of a number of academic articles, the dissemination of the research will include a project report, a major international conference, a co-authored book and a project film offering an overview of the project themes and summarising its key finding. The research project will start in September 2021, with its key findings to be made public in the summer of 2024.

Professor Sarita Malik (Brunel University) said: "The creative industries remain a site of continuous debate over ’race’, diversity and inclusion. Our project aims to increase academic and creative sector knowledge and support industry stakeholders in implementing effective, informed policy strategies with real effects in tackling structural racial inequalities."

"The Colour of Diversity, through close collaboration with the UK’s leading body for film culture, the British Film Institute (BFI), is an ambitious, timely and impactful academic research-led programme in a sector where racial inequality remains a major policy challenge.

Black and minority ethnic communities experience multi-dimensional inequalities and forms of discrimination. The issue pertains to inequalities in employment, audience access and problematic representations. Responding to this inequality and discrimination urgently matters even more because cultural production plays a critical role in shaping everyday society and culture - how communities see themselves and are seen by others. The field of cultural production and representation, therefore, has real social effects.

Jen Smith, Head of Inclusion at the BFI, said: "We welcome the opportunity to work with UCL to evaluate the construction, development and impact of the BFI Diversity Standards. We look forward to learning from and building on the insights from this ground-breaking study as we continue our work to create a UK film industry that leads the world in dismantling racial inequalities in our sector. This dismantling needs to be demonstrable in its actions relating to workforce, practices, policies and its creative outputs.

"We would like to join with Dr Nwonka and his team to invite ethnically diverse practitioners and other stakeholders from across the UK to engage with this robust programme of research. We want to ensure that the testimony and narratives of all those we aim to support are heard. This research will help us to demonstrate the responsibility and power of our sector in understanding racial and ethnic inequality and will help contribute to effective diversity policies that result in lasting change."

Organisations and individuals interested in finding out more about The Colour of Diversity research project should contact Principal Investigator Dr Clive Nwonka at c.nwonka [@] ucl.ac.uk.

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  • The Colour of Diversity: A Longitudinal Analysis of BFI Diversity Standards Data and Racial Inequality in the UK Film Industry


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