“There are two sides to this problem. First, the repercussions are being felt on Britain’s screens and stages as actors of colour are excluded. As Thandie Newton has said about being based in Britain: “I love being here, but I can’t work, because I can’t do Downton Abbey, can’t be in Victoria, can’t be in Call the Midwife … there just seems to be a desire for stuff about the royal family, stuff from the past, which is understandable, but it just makes it slim pickings for people of colour.”
As a result, many British actors – from Idris Elba to David Oyelowo to Chiwetel Ejiofor – go to the US to find work as well. Sophie Okonedo went to act with Denzel Washington on Broadway, Newton is currently in Westworld, Daniel Kaluuya jumped ship with American horror Get Out – and the list goes on. Samuel L Jackson recently questioned why all the plum Hollywood roles were going to Brits; if he channel-surfed on British TV, he would have seen why.
The second aspect of the problem is that these ethnically cleansed costume dramas give the impression that there were no people of colour in Britain’s past, which is far from the truth. In the third century, Roman emperor Septimius Severus, born in what is now Libya, brought his family and court to York. A fourth-century skeleton excavated in York in 2010 was found to have African characteristics and was buried with a bracelet made of ivory. DNA tests discovered rare African-specific chromosomes in white British men. Onyeka’s book Blackamoores documents the presence of Africans in Tudor Britain. Britain’s global empire and the legacy of slavery brought significant non-white populations to our shores.
The underrepresentation of black historical figures on screen has created a catch-22 situation. At the British Film Institute last year, Oyelowo spoke about trying to develop a movie based on Bill Richmond, a real‑life black bare-knuckle boxer in 19th‑century London. He read out one of his rejection letters, in which the producers explained that they couldn’t make his film since “a viewer must have a sense of what it is they are to get: either a familiar title or a piece of history that is ripe for a revisit”. In other words, even though this was a true story, the producers thought it would confuse audiences to see a black character in a period movie. Oyelowo went off to play Martin Luther King instead.”