In 2016 BFI research looked at the representation of black actors in UK film over the last 10 years.
Revealed at the monumental BFI Black Star event it was announced that only four black actors appeared on the top 100 most prolific actors in UK films over the last decade list. Those actors were Noel Clarke at the top followed by Ashley Walters, Naomie Harris, and Thandie Newton.
Surprised? A lot of us were.
A panel during the Black Star season chaired by Black Star Season programmer Ashley Clark, featured David Oyelowo, Noel Clarke, director and Morehouse University professor Julie Dash (Daughters of The Dust), Remy El-Bergamy (On Screen Diversity Executive Channel 4) and actor Trevante Rhodes (Moonlight). Noel Clarke challenged Ashley Clark about why none of his films featured as part of the London programming of the Black Star film screenings. Considering his appearance at the top of the list. Also that his films, love them or hate them have had an impact on the wave of black filmmakers and screen creatives coming up behind him.
That Clarke has teamed up with Ashley Walters, second on that top 100 list, on new series Bulletproof is no small thing. Especially as they are the co-creators and leading stars in the UK’s first ever cop drama fronted by two black men. We spoke to Clarke to find out more…
1# Last time you spoke to us, you were starring in ITV’s The Level  …
That was about two years ago. I’ve had children since then. I’ve got three now. My oldest is 10 in a few weeks’ time. The middle has turned 7 and the little one is two.
… which one is going to go in your footsteps?
Hopefully none of them. But if any of them do, it will be the middle one. He’s showing signs. He does accents he’s always showing off, overly dramatic. He’s done a bit before…
2# So, you’re a bit like Marmite, you either love Noel Clarke and his films or you dislike him/them. That aside you’re considered a hero to a lot of British Black creatives and your body of work in front of and behind the camera has had an impact on the British Black screen industry, how do you feel when you look back at your legacy?
I appreciate it. There’s a definitely a Marmite element and that Marmite element is what keeps me going because I care very little what people think and you have to have that mentality to be able to traverse this terrain. Especially because most of the people who are talking can’t even quantify the battles you have to fight, they just see the end result and say, ‘do they have to represent us like that?’ But they have no clue where you’ve been what you’ve done. They’ve never sat in a room where you’ve been told to make all the characters white and you’ve refused point blank. They’ve never sat in a room where they’ve told you, ‘switch this to a white guy then we’ll do it’. All they see is the films and think that they know you. They don’t know that every decision made, Marmite or not that has led me to being a household name, and now I can I say we have a show with two black cops and one of them is going to have a dark-skinned wife. You ain’t gonna tell me nothing.
… That was something I was going to mention. It was great to see Lashana Lynch as Ashley’s character’s wife…
It was completely intentional. Lashana has been in Fast Girls (2012), she’s been in Brotherhood (2016) when Ashley and I created this show we said Ashley’s character has to have a black wife. Not mixed race, black and dark-skinned; it has to be normalised. One of my favourite moments in the show is when them two are in the bath chilling and the kids come in and they send them out, it shows we’re just normal people and there’s no drugs, no one’s beating anyone, they’re not falling out. No one’s having an affair.
3# I can say I’ve previously questioned your perspective when it came to casting black women in your projects. But as you said, I along with many others don’t know what’s happened behind closed doors…
What people have to understand is until we became the powerhouses in the industry that we are, we couldn’t do that. The way we’ve got to do the things we are doing now, is by doing the things we had to do to get here. It’s not about representing anyone in a bad way, it’s about doing the stories that we were allowed to do, and telling our truth. Ashley is telling his truth. My films are my truth. Obviously, the last two were just movies, but the first one (Kidulthood, 2006) was me and my friends hanging out. I lived in that area opposite Grenfell Tower, that’s where I was born and bred. So, I wasn’t doing any story, that’s what I lived.
4# I feel like I’ve heard rumours about Bulletproof for quite a few years now, is it one of the projects you had to fight to get greenlit?
When Ashley originally came to me with this idea it was years ago. I’m more the producer so I’m the one batting it around. I’ve sat in rooms where people have said to me, you make one of the characters white and we’ll do this now. I’ve said no it’s got to be me and Ash or it’s not going to happen. We kept building our careers and it got to a point where it couldn’t be ignored. It came to Sky, they’ve got wonderful execs called Anne Mensah and Cameron Roach; they had the vision, Anne saw it and said we’re doing it. When Sky came on board and Vertigo films, it was a very quick process.
… That’s testament to having patience, determination, and confidence in who you are…
That determination and knowing what you’re about, is the very thing that people that don’t know what I’m doing behind the scenes will say ‘I don’t like that brudda, he’s very brash, he’s very forward’ but you have to be like that or you’ll get destroyed by the industry. Every time we see an obstacle I’m gonna find a way around that obstacle or over that obstacle and if there’s no way round I’m gonna go through it.
5# When did you come to that realisation in your career?
It was very early on. As an actor I was asking my first agent at the time, ‘why am I not going up for bob, or Jim or Sam?’ they kept saying you’re up for ‘mugger no.1 bank robber no. 3’. I remember I was offered a soap (not the big two) my agent at the time said you’re a kid from a council estate, you’ll probably never see this much money so you should take the job. I understood where she was coming from. You had to be drama school, you weren’t cultured you were posh middle class. There was no chance if you were black or if you were working class with no drama or film school training. I truly believe when she said that, she didn’t mean it in an intrinsically institutionalised racist way. That’s what she believed. But I said I’m not doing it because I can achieve more than that. I started writing my films and that was 2-3 years into my career.
6# How did you and Ashley come together on Bulletproof?
Ashley’d been working before me, I remember watching Storm Damage and thinking I’d love to do that. We met on my second job, a short film in 1999. He’s from South, I’m a West Londoner, we weren’t friends but we’d see each other in auditions, nod heads, and then gradually he started getting bigger in the business, I started getting bigger in the business and as we got older and became men we became friends. Then about however many years ago he came and said we should do this. But then we’d develop the idea then he’d go away and do a show for 6 months, I’d go away and work on a film then a year later we’d say let’s do this. It’s been a process but I feel like he’s a kindred spirit. We’ve become proper friends
7# The chemistry is apparent on screen it’s great, you guys say bro and bruv A LOT which is very London! So obviously, there’s going to be comparisons to Bad Boys with Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, what kind of steps did you take to make sure it’s representative. Also, you don’t often see young black British detectives running around London…
We didn’t have many shows here, the old skool shows like The Professionals (1977) and The Sweeney (1975), but essentially, we wanted to make an original show. Of course, there’s gonna be the Bad Boys comp, that’s the first thing people are going to think because the disgraceful thing is we’ve never had a show like this in this country with two black cops. Hopefully, in 10, 40 years’ time when people do this again they’ll say this is like Bulletproof and compare it to what we’re achieving here.
The element of London was we wanted to make sure it was representative of what our characters are. Society and the media have conditioned us to love us being bad man. Our most popular show amongst us is Top Boy, which I love Ash, Kano, Arnold and all my boys in it, we need shows like that like America needs shows like Power, but that’s our top show and we’re drug dealers. I can’t wait for this show we’re bringing that element of bad man that people like but we’re going, you know what, you can be bad, but you don’t have to be a crook you can be a cop and be cool. I want young people to say if I can be like that and be a cop then yeah. Maybe the next show will be about doctors or lawyers but the main thing is we want to show our young people they can be more than what we’ve seen so far.
… especially at this time when relations between police and our community is dire. I enjoyed the fight scenes in Bulletproof, there’s some cool hand to hand combat…
We’re not messing about. I feel like the culture not just black people, but the working-class culture will relate and say, ‘I like these guys it doesn’t matter that they’re cops, I love this show’ and that’s what we’re trying to achieve. Subconsciously it’s gonna normalise it. So hopefully it’s not gonna be such a big thing when you see shows with black lawyers and doctors. When you see Lashana or Ashley in the bath or smooching up people aren’t going to be ‘huh? it’s a black couple; who’s beating who?’ it’s not going to be a big thing. Because they’re just a couple in love. When that happens, everyone ceases to be black, they become characters and that’s going to make it go more mainstream. We’re trying to get into the mainstream consciousness.
8# Without spoilers how will the story pan out, is it a one theme series or a new crime each episode?
We get on adventures in each episode but overall, it’s an overarching story that will last over the series; a conspiracy thing. I’m not going to give anything away, but as much as it was important that Ashley’s character had a black wife, it was important to us that Bishop (Clarke) and Pike (Walters) they’re not going to betray each other. They’re boys. We don’t see that enough. These two have got each other’s backs. They’re like brothers they’re gonna argue and fall out but they’ll never stab each other in the back. What you’ve got is a completely new experience for people within our culture to look at and get inspired by and a completely new experience for the mainstream.
9# Tell us a bit about your new TV production deal for your production company Unstoppable what can we expect and are you open to unsolicited ideas?
Jason Maza and I have had the company for years. We’ve got films on lock, but we’re looking at new TV. We’re gonna go down in flames or we’re going to change the game. We’re not trying to do regular TV shows. Everything we’re trying to do is original, which will make it a struggle. It’s unique its representative of what we see in the world we wanna work with people of colour, with people with disability with women… We do get unsolicited ideas there’s an email address on our socials. We take people who have agents, currently, the doors are still open to everything because we wanna see what’s out there. We’re looking at books and novels and what could be great TV.
What’s your goal for your legacy as a filmmaker and actor?
I just wanna work. Hopefully, my kids can be proud of me. Really, I just want to be working and making a difference. Hopefully in years to come, they will say he was an innovator or a pioneer, and now we get it. Hopefully the doors will open by then.
Bulletproof airs on Sky One at 9pm on Tuesday 15th May.