#FilmFebruary: “We need to let go of the idea of what ‘best person for the job’ looks like in our mind”

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You’ve seen the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite (or one of its many cousins) knocking about for a few years now – but what’s that all about? Do you mean to say that awards ceremonies aren’t meritocracies? Basically, yeah. And it’s not just the glitzy end of season parties that have a diversity problem; improvements still need to be made from the ground up, ensuring no one is excluded from a career in the arts due to their race, class, gender, disability, sexuality, or anything else.

Enter Elliott Bornemann.

Back in February 2020 he launched a YouTube channel dedicated to discussing diversity in film and TV: Hakuna Machatter. Since its inception he has talked about his experiences as a mixed race actor in the UK, how diversity improved Star Wars, his recommendations & favourites, the continuation of white saviour tropes, and created a series of videos dedicated to Diversity Heroes. There’s also a lot of MCU content in there. I first became aware of his work following his involvement with The Show Must Go Online (he played Luke Skywalker in William Shakespeare’s Star Wars and then made an appearance at the Groundlings’ Choice Awards), and thought there was no better time than Film February to get his thoughts on all things diversity.

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William Shakespeare’s Star Wars

You’ve spoken in the past about ‘identity conscious casting’ – can you remind readers what this is, and what benefits it provides?
Identity conscious casting is casting with the actor’s identity in mind. This can be based on race, gender, sexuality, disability, neurodivergence or any of the above combined. It’s the next step on from colour-blind casting. Where, instead of not thinking about certain identifiers, you are highlighting them, and using them to inform the character. We’ve seen David Tennant’s Hamlet, what would Laverne Cox’s Hamlet look like? The casting director, director and actor would all come together to build a version of Hamlet, informed by how Cox identifies.

Just how annoying is the ‘historical accuracy’ argument?
The ‘historical accuracy’ argument is one I’m still trying to wrap my teeth around. I can certainly see where people are coming from, however at face value it feels like a baseless way of saying minoritised race people, or women shouldn’t be here. I understand where people are coming from as they are using the history they have been taught to inform their argument, however, we are learning more and more that the history we have been taught is in no way wholly accurate. Swathes of people are regularly left out. I challenge people to question the history they think they know, and find new historians and commentators to learn from. Furthermore, is the onus on filmmakers to depict an accurate history, or tell a story? Where does creative licence come in? Recontextualisation? If you watch a film and then pick up a book to learn more about the history surrounding it, surely the film has done its job?

There is always a lot of discussion around the casting of long-running roles (such as James Bond & Doctor Who), particularly in relation to diversity. What are your feelings on this subject? And are there any roles that are typically cast or depicted in one particular way which you’d like to change up?
I put a video up towards the end of last year discussing if an actress should play Bond. And honestly, I landed in the middle on that one. When you look at Judi Dench’s M, Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd and Léa Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann, it’s safe to say that female characters are beginning to be better written in Bond films. On the other hand, with the introduction of Lashana Lynch’s Nomi there is definitely scope for a shake up to happen. I feel that in order for these long running franchises to continue, things need to be done differently. Shakespeare’s plays have lasted as long as they do, because there are companies out there redefining how Shakespeare is presented. Though I also think it’s really important how the change is handled; the whole point of a Black James Bond, is not that he’s Black. It’s that the actor chosen is the best choice for the job. Jodie Whittaker was chosen for Doctor Who because she was the best person for the job. That is an important point. We need to let go of the idea of what ‘best person for the job’ looks like in our mind, and actually put the phrase into practice. To be honest I’d challenge all typical castings. From an actor’s perspective the industry is still stuck on the idea that straight white male is the default, and this comes from all areas. Once that’s been properly challenged, we’ll see greater change.

Have there been any missed opportunities or mistakes relating to representation in recent films/TV series that have stood out to you?
The biggest standout to me currently is Cobra Kai. It’s a fantastic show, that I feel is beginning to lose its way. The first series had this great feel of minoritised people rising up and making a stand for themselves. The characters Miguel and Aisha led this charge, and it ignited something in me. I grew up on the Karate Kid films, and in fact trained in karate for eight years after watching the first film. Watching their story made me want to get back to it. Since then though I feel the show has really sidelined them. On top of that, any real connection to how karate was represented in the original films has been lost. Sounds strange to say, but with a figure such as Mr Miyagi, karate was kept in its traditions and values. Daniel Larusso wasn’t just learning how to throw a punch; he was learning about an entirely different culture and way of life. In a world that is becoming more and more polarised, having something that shows the importance of learning and growing through each other and enriching our lives through different cultures, is a necessity. I hope Cobra Kai finds that again.

Do you think the change in conditions for awards ceremonies such as the Oscars can have any meaningful effect in increasing diversity in films & film-making?
The changes will certainly have an effect. The question is, will it have an industry-wide effect? Not all films made will be vying for an Oscar. And some great films, full of beautiful diversity and representation, have been ignored by the Oscars for years. Which drums up the question, has the Academy made this move to cover its own back? 2015’s #OscarsSoWhite hashtag lives in the memory. Along with the La La Land / Moonlight mix-up. Which, having watched that back since, may have just been an honest mistake. It also just feels disingenuous that films would appear to be more diverse in order to win an award. I almost feel that the Academy should have kept the stipulations for internal use only, rather than setting them as a public benchmark. If that’s how you as a body want to nominate films, great. As an entry requirement, I’m not so sure. The industry needs to work harder to better represent people. Not just in order to win awards.

For anyone reading this who now wants to actively try and watch films or TV with more diversity, what would be your go-to recommendations?
In terms of platforms, my personal recommendation is Netflix. They’re producing tv shows with diversity and representation left, right and centre. I think of Sex Education, Shadow and Bone, Never Have I Ever, Dear White People, Bridgerton. As well as that, they’re making a real push on East Asian content. Squid Game helped to topple an already crumbling barrier, and now people are discovering all this content they would otherwise have never come across. And it’s not just from East Asia, Netflix is giving us access to content from all over the world. The French show Lupin was one of, if not my favourite show of 2021. In terms of film, I recently uploaded a video looking at eight diverse films to look out for in 2022, so I really recommend checking that out.

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