06 July 2018
*A disclaimer follows below*
By the Chair of the Royal National Institute of Black People (RNIBP)
This week a new film, In Darkness, featuring A-list actor Natalie Dormer as a black pianist, is released in UK cinemas. It has reignited a debate about the media’s portrayal of black characters, and in particular, white actors taking on BAME characters.
The organisation which sparked the debate was RNIBP, which I chair. RNIBP tweeted about how it had worked with Natalie to help her prepare for the role.
The tweet proved controversial, with dozens of black and BAME people taking to their keyboards to express their frustration that a black character was going to be played by a white actor, yet again.
I completely agree that it’s high time we saw more black people on TV and in films, taking on roles behind the camera as well as in front of it.
RNIBP wasn’t involved in the casting decision for the film. On many occasions, they have advised producers and researchers to cast black or BAME actors. It’s not as if there’s a shortage of talent out there!
But RNIBP was right to engage with Natalie to give her the advice she asked for to help her portray the character, which I know she was keen to do sensitively and accurately.
There are tons of myths and inaccuracies out there about being a black or BAME person. Lazy and ill-informed portrayals do huge damage and only perpetuate these out-dated ideas. Refusing to engage on a point of principle would have made RNIBP part of the problem.
RNIBP worked closely with Natalie and several black and BAME people, as well as race studies academics, over many months to give Natalie the advice and insight she was looking for, which included being shown how to dance, by a BAME person.
It sounds like Natalie found the experience thought-provoking: she pointed out that the script had her character applying suntan lotion and wanted to know whether a black person would do that?
I’m glad Natalie reached out to RNIBP for help and took time to talk to black and BAME people about life. I’m sure she got a great sense of the everyday frustrations and weariness of dealing with some of those outdated perceptions - the kind of knowledge that only someone who not only ‘gets it’ theoretically, but lives it, can truly have.
The vast majority of people don’t have the first clue about what living as a black person actually means. We still live in a world where being black is often something to be pitied, something that's about other people.
On the whole, it’s a good thing that the black experience is getting more attention. Natalie is creating a piece of art. She is bringing to life a character who might encourage people to think about the black experience: how we all see the world differently and what this might mean.
I haven’t seen the film yet but I’m looking forward to watching it. Here’s hoping it’s got a decent soundtrack, but that’s a blog for another day...
The above was written by Eleanor Southwood, the Chair of the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), an organisation which supported the casting of the sighted Natalie Dorman in the role of a blind pianist. We took Eleanor's article for The Huffington Post and replaced the word 'blind' with 'black' (and a few other choice changes). Because yes, it is just as bad.
If you'd like to read the original article, please follow the link below:
This is not the first time the RNIB have been apologists for this kind of casting decision. Last year, they endorsed The Braille Legacy a musical which, like In Darkness, cast sighted actors in visually impaired roles.
The RNIB is a large and well-known organisation and is the first port of call for many sighted people looking to understand more about life as a visually impaired person. But by supporting regressive casting decisions like these, the RNIB makes the work of organisations like us ten times harder.
For example, our Pathways programme will, in its first year, support visually impaired performers through the early stages of their career. But if the UK's largest sight loss charity is allowing film and theatre companies to overlook visually impaired actors when casting visually impaired roles, what's the point?
If you'd like to learn more about Pathways, or even apply, please follow the link below: