Only a few years ago, black British actors knew what to expect when they were offered parts on television or in the movies: a marginal role or, if their luck was in, the opportunity to reinforce a stereotype, perhaps as a gangster or a drug-dealer.
Now, though, that is all changing. Black actors are regulars on hit TV shows and some are beginning to make it through to Bafta and even Oscar nominations. Nominations for the black Baftas are announced today.
Just last week, the BBC said its first black family sitcom, The Crouches, would be broadcast next month. Lorraine Heggessey, controller of BBC1, hailed the innovation, saying: "This vibrant comedy will showcase the talent of some of Britain's best black actors and introduce new faces to a mainstream audience."
Perhaps, but precedent suggests that putting a mainstream audience in front of talent does not translate into wider recognition not, at any rate, if the talent is black.
Charles Thompson, the organiser of the black Baftas officially the Screen Nation Film and Television Awards, backed by The Independent says the reason why black actors are not better known is obvious: "Mainstream actors are recognised because they are consistently used in publicity to promote the film and television shows they are in. All black actors want is the same shot at publicity as the other actors in the show."
That lack of recognition has prompted an unprecedented attack by some leading black actors on what they regard as the prejudiced culture of Britain's showbusiness media, from chat shows and breakfast television programmes to celebrity magazines, tabloids and broadsheet arts pages.
Kwame Kwei-Armah, best known for his role as a paramedic in the BBC drama Casualty, said black actors were being starved of publicity. "There are problems with the marketing of black actors in this country. What makes you into a media celebrity is being on the front covers of magazines and being on breakfast television," he said. "People in publicity try but find it very hard to sell the black members of the cast they are not seen as sexy or newsworthy, whereas the blonde members of the cast they will run with."
Take the case of Marianne Jean-Baptiste. When she was nominated for an Oscar, the Londoner was supposed to change forever the working landscape of Britain's black actors and actresses.
Yet, more than six years later, Jean-Baptiste, 36, who was Oscar shortlisted as best supporting actress in 1997 for her role in Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies, is virtually unknown to the British public as is almost every other black British actor exceptLenny Henry.
Wil Johnson, star of the BBC series Babyfather, who said black film talent was being forced to leave Britain for America, has an idea why that might be: "The infrastructure in this industry here does not allow us to build a career."
The attack on the showbusiness media coincides with a survey that found, when asked to name the biggest black British female star in film or television, by far the most common answer of respondents (42 per cent) was that they could not think of one.
Other than that, the most frequent response was to name Angela Griffin (17 per cent), who is best known for her role in Coronation Street.
The biggest black British male star was easily Lenny Henry (43 per cent), with the only other people mentioned being the newsreader Trevor McDonald, EastEnders actor Rudolph Walker and comedian Richard Blackwood.
Not one of 200 people questioned was able to identify a photograph of Chiwetel Ejiofor, star of the Bafta-nominated film Dirty Pretty Things. Only 7 per cent could name Colin Salmon, who played M's chief of staff Charles Robinson in the last three Bond films and who has been tipped by Pierce Brosnan to become the next 007.
The black Baftas will be handed out next month at a ceremony in Leicester Square, home of the archetypal movie industry photo opportunity. But even here the shimmer is tarnished by disappointment.
Sources involved in the ceremony said that expected support of £30,000 from the 10 leading British broadcasters evaporated to a paltry £3,000. Mr Thompson said he was particularly surprised at the apparent lack of interest in Salmon, who was in Tomorrow Never Dies, The World is Not Enough and Die Another Day. "He's attractive and articulate. You'd think he would be used more in publicity but he's not."
Kwei-Armah is equally astonished at the media's treatment of Jean-Baptiste, who left Britain for America in search of better opportunities. "She received minute publicity," he said. "The first black British actress to be nominated for an Oscar and she was hardly covered. That's amazing to me."
Kwei-Armah said that although some broadcasters were showing programmes that cast black actors in challenging roles, that was not the case with ITV. He said he believed that ITV executives thought black actors did not suit its audiences. "I would say we all live in the same country at the same time," he said. Publicists confirmed they found it very hard to promote black actors. One publicist, who has represented black actors for 10 years, said: "It's not down to the efforts of the publicists but the narrow-mindedness of some of the people out there. They just say a person is not well known enough or they have got enough features at the moment."
Johnson, who has the starring role in a new black feature film, Emotional Backgammon, said he had become so frustrated at the lack of interest in his career by the showbusiness media that he had laid off his publicist.Some of the programmes that have been the most bold in creating roles for black actors have been axed because of low audiences, despite winning critical acclaim. Johnson said that the BBC's decision to drop Babyfather had been "a massive blow to the black community".
None the less, today's black Bafta nominations acknowledge Ejiofor's achievement in Dirty Pretty Things by placing him on the shortlist for best achievement in film (male). The actor, who will shortly star in a BBC adaptation of Chaucer's "The Knight's Tale", is also nominated in a separate category for television drama.
Salmon's role in the Bond movies has led to him also being nominated as best male film actor. In the female categories, Naomie Harris (who appeared in the film 28 Days Later and the TV version of Zadie Smith's White Teeth) and Sophie Okonedo (co-star in Dirty Pretty Things) each picked up two nominations.
But, like the public at large, the black film industry cannot help mentioning Lenny Henry. The Opportunity Knocks winner who went on to become Britain's best-loved black comedian is shortlisted for best achievement in comedy.Reuse content