Veteran filmmaker Kolton Lee has written an open letter to the film industry…

When I say veteran, I don’t mean age, rather, experience in the filmmaking industry, and to British Black folks in the industry Kolton Lee is one of our OG’s.

When I saw the title of Lee’s open letter to the industry, my interest was piqued, because, here we go again… how many times can the industry and its people keep offending and pissing my people off!? Amongst my friend circle, there was a quiet buzz about the letter. You know the drama, “Kolton’s taking down the industry, man’s calling ERRYBADY out!” (black folks *affectionate head shake*).

When I finally got around to reading, I didn’t see it as a scandalous call out at all. More, an honest vent about our veteran filmmaker’s experiences.

For saying sake … I have a great relationship with BFI they’ve supported TBB in ways not many other institutions have (because of the same things Lee mentions in his letter ironically). But I’m also aware I’ve also never had to ask the BFI for money to support a relevant project (yet), so my experience is incomparable to Lee’s.

However some of the issues he mentions are similar to those I’ve heard before, during and since I launched the British Blacklist, the awkward terminology, the microaggressions, the unconscious bias, the blatant prejudice towards of colour filmmakers and creatives, never seems to change. The dance the industry dances to avoid letting us tell our non-crime, sport, or music-related story because it doesn’t fit with their stereotype of who they believe Black people are and how they believe we live.

I hate the phrase ‘let’s start a conversation’, especially when it applies to the arts and diversity because the diversity in the arts conversation has been going on since before I was born. Even the word ‘diversity‘ makes me shudder. The fact that we’re still having to ‘talk’ about it pisses me off.  So I get the need to withdraw, to mute ourselves. Because it really is time to stop trying to convince people who appear to be pretending they want change, to change. We need our own infrastructure, more control of our arts.

But still, when the gatekeepers, hold all the keys, have locked the doors and won’t share the spare keys … it makes taking charge and running tings that little bit harder. It also creates industry silos Blacks over here, Asians over there, alternatively ableds back there, LGBTQs round there and White people up there.

Why not just unlock the doors? – Akua Gyamfi, Editor.

…Why I No Longer Want To Speak about Race & Diversity To the BFI (and all the other White People that provide public funding for filmmakers in the UK) or Any Of My White Producer friends
(TBB abbreviated; edited by Akua Gyamfi)

The Beginning

In the 1990s, I went to the National Film & Television School (NFTS). In those days NFTS was run by its first and most visionary director, Colin Young. His attitude to film education was very much ‘here is some filmmaking equipment, here are students who want to make films, here are the tutors happy to advise and guide you… go out and make films’. My film school experience was a wonderful period of playful experimentation that was probably quite rare at that time for someone of my background, Black British and working class.

There were very few people of colour at NFTS, certainly none of the teaching staff. We had a sense that on graduation our very presence would necessarily change the complexion of the industry, our work would change perceptions about race in England and we would be at the vanguard of a different, more varied narrative for British film. After all, this was NFTS, reputedly the best film school in Europe and I, at least, was driven on by a desire to make films and tell stories about people who looked like me.

Unfortunately, Colin left and the school was taken over by the former head of Danish film school, Henning Camre. He added a factory line rigour to the school. This marked the end of the playful experimentation and was, in some ways, a harbinger for what was to come.

Months after my graduation and in the immediate years beyond, phrases such as ‘white privilege’, ‘lack of inclusivity’, ‘unconscious bias’ and ‘microaggressions’ had yet to be coined. Yet these phrases speak of the experiences of every filmmaker of colour (and actor of colour) I know and knew. I say knew because many of those filmmakers and actors have either abandoned the industry or have moved to other countries where their complexion is less of an obstacle to their employment.

My plan was to leave clutching a brand new feature film screenplay that I would wave at whoever would take notice. It was kind of a La Haine before La Haine. For those who know, La Haine (1995) is a (very successful) French film about the experience of growing up Black in the suburbs of Paris. Well, my film was never made but my first television job once I’d left film school was brought about by that screenplay after it found its way onto the desk of a producer of BBC’s EastEnders. Soon after I was employed as a writer on the show. This happened within six months of leaving film school and was, in some sense, to give me a kind of false impression of what the reality of the industry would be.

I’ll tell you why…

The producer I had attached to that screenplay was a young woman called Judy Counihan. She had just produced, ‘Before The Rain’ (1994) which was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Professionally speaking, Judy was hot, and she wanted to produce my film! Fantastic! She applied to the European Script Fund (a European screenplay funding body), they gave us money for the further development of my screenplay and were, fulsome in their praise for the development work Judy and I carried out.

God bless Judy, she worked her socks off to bring my screenplay to fruition and get it into production. But she just couldn’t do it. The feedback in this country was always, that the script was not properly developed and the characters were underdeveloped. In the end, Judy tired of pushing my film and went off to make ‘Antonio’s Line’ (1995) which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

Repeated Patterns

This experience with Judy was one of two patterns repeated throughout my career – find hot producer to work with, they love the (black) project I bring to them, they experience difficulties they’ve never experienced before in trying to move to production, they eventually give up the project to work on one of their other (white) projects which are easier to move forward.

Another graphic example of this was a project I was working on with my writing partner some years ago. The said hot producer was the late Catherine Wearing, and an actor working with her, Timothy Spall. Catherine had optioned a novel called ‘East Of Acre Lane’, written by Alex Wheatle and set in Brixton. It was partly about the 80s inner-city uprisings. Catherine’s plan was to have a script written and the film go into production a year later. In her experience, this was not an unreasonable expectation.

Ha! The script was bounced back and forth between Channel 4 and the BBC and eventually, four years later, the production was abandoned. Why? Because the characters and the plot were underdeveloped. Both Catherine and Timothy were surprised, if not shocked, at the resistance to the project going into production and the difficulties over script development.  Both commented that they had never come across this kind of resistance to production before. My writing partner and I could only pass a knowing look between us. Welcome to our world. Catherine and Timothy, of course, moved on to their next projects.

Since I had no next project to move onto, my partner and I requested a meeting with the then head of drama at the BBC, Jane Tranter to discuss what had happened to our project. We had a long and cordial meeting. We asked her why there seemed to be a persistent and intractable problem with having black writers and directors tell our stories. Jane agreed that this was a problem and she was doing all she could to change things. If that were true, we said, then why did the problem persist? She said that sadly, the scripts that came in were never good enough, the characters and/or the storylines were never properly developed. We then suggested that if this were true, then every single film or drama that the BBC produced, which presumably were properly developed, would be ‘good’ and since this wasn’t true (she agreed), films went into production ultimately because someone (in a position of power – a cultural gatekeeper) wanted them to go into production. Jane thought about this. Then said yes, she could see our point and perhaps we should take another look at ‘East Of Acre Lane’. After four years of going back and forth and I don’t know how many re-writes and with Catherine and Timothy already having moved on… the project no longer felt viable and we passed on her offer.

But this event raises the issue of the second pattern that has blighted my career. The ‘under-developed screenplay’. I should say at this point that whilst I have written successfully for a number of TV shows (including having my NFTS graduation film picked up by Lenny Henry’s production company and screened by the BBC), when it comes to writing a screenplay of my own that, generally, tells a contemporary story with someone who looks like me at the centre of it, no screenplay for film or TV show that I have been commissioned to write, has ever been sufficiently developed. This after over 15 commissions from either the BBC, Channel 4, British Screen, the UK Film Council, the British Film Institute and other production companies. I am in no doubt that more often than not, when script editors say that the screenplay is not developed enough, what they are actually saying is ‘these black characters that I am reading about are not characters that I have ever met or had any experience of and therefore I’m not sure I believe them. Can you please go away and re-write them in a way that I (white person) find acceptable and believable.’

After graduating from NFTS I was told by a commissioner at the BBC that a screenplay I had written would have much more chance of going into production if I would only make my central characters white; having been commissioned to write a pilot for a police series with a black policeman as the central character, I was told by a senior editor at the BBC, working for Mal Young, Controller of Continuing Drama Series at the BBC, that a scenario involving a young black man was totally unbelievable, she questioned the veracity of my research and said that her (white person) experience of living in Brixton meant that she could not believe what we had written and I should go away and develop further. Another similar experience was when, having secured a meeting with the then head of drama at Channel 4, Gub Neal, where I was to pitch an idea for a gangster series (a contemporary telling of an old Fritz Lang movie, ‘M’) the conversation surprisingly turned into one about black history in Notting Hill a million miles away from what I was there to discuss. My gangster series was never commissioned but the series about the part black people played in the history of Notting Hill was. Later abandoned because neither the characters nor the screenplay were properly developed.

In a yet further example of this pattern, my former writing partner had written a commissioned screenplay for the BBC featuring people of colour; it was rejected for further development on the grounds that the characters were too middle class. Even I was rendered speechless by the idea that a British film was not worthy of consideration for production on the grounds that it featured too many characters who were middle class. Clearly, the problem here was that the characters of colour were too middle class for the white person reading the screenplay. Their idea of particularly black people meant that they couldn’t possibly be middle class.

I’d taken another screenplay I’d written, a romantic comedy called ‘Cherps’, to all the usual sources for funding and had it universally rejected for the usual reasons. The subtext to the ‘issue’ note was that the characters were not engaged in battling a ‘social issue’ and therefore there was no drama. The fact that this was a romantic comedy was apparently neither here nor there. But this time, instead of putting the project aside, I begged, borrowed, hustled and scrimped and eventually made the film with essentially no money but a lot of help and support. It took me almost two years. That film went on to win multiple awards and become the first Black, British independently made feature film to be bought by the BBC. (Oh, the irony!) Was the BBC interested in supporting it when it was a screenplay? No! Why? Because it was underdeveloped.
I would also say there was an unconscious bias against it and me.

The final rejection was on receiving a commission from Channel 4 to write a screenplay about a young, Sudanese refugee and her involvement in the early origins of Grime music. My producer Louis Heaton (and I) were told by Francis Hopkinson, who commissioned the screenplay, that it was too good for television and I should try and have it produced as a feature film. I like to think that even Francis was embarrassed by his response to our work. This was clearly a box-ticking exercise and our screenplay was never intended for production, whatever its merits. Neither I nor Louis have sought work in television drama since this meeting. Louis was also a filmmaker of colour and became yet another professional lost to the industry. Later that year, in 2009, I was fortunate enough to direct one of Film London’s microwave feature films. On the back of that film, and for my previous work, I was lucky enough to be awarded BFI ‘Break Thru Brit’. This was a little late but no less appreciated.

The BFI

I’ve recently had another experience with the BFI that has finally caused me to throw up my hands in despair that things will ever change in this country. Years on, after all the talk about their diversity initiatives the most recent of which only happened in October of 2017; after the launch of ‘Black Star’ at the National Theatre on the Southbank, after all the liberal hand-wringing over the speech by actor, David Oyelowo; after the BFI’s research has been released showing what I and my filmmaking colleagues of colour have known for years, which is that we have been systemically excluded from properly participating in the UK film industry since before the 2nd world war. Even after all of this, my latest experience, in 2018 was the following …

In early 2017 I and my current co-producer submitted an application to the BFI’s production fund. About 2 months later we received a brief email to say that whilst the screenplay contained some interesting and timely ideas and was based on a strong premise, the screenplay was not sufficiently developed. So I requested a meeting with the development executive, Kirstin Irving. The meeting was brief and cordial. and the salient points that emerged were this: given that there was much that was positive about the screenplay but it was felt to be not fully developed I wondered why I was not invited in to discuss this. I was told that filmmakers were only invited in if the BFI wanted a relationship with them and the project was almost certainly going to move forward. I replied that if the BFI is concerned about the lack of representation amongst the films that it supports and
the diversity and inclusivity of the filmmakers it supports why would they not want to have that discussion with me (a ‘Break Thru Brit’)?

I was told that in terms of their diversity they were helping Idris Elba with his latest film, Yardie (a film about Jamaican and black British drug dealers). I suggested that perhaps Idris did not need the help of the BFI as much as some others. She replied that they were also supporting new filmmakers from diverse communities. That’s a good thing, I said, but what about everybody else? Is she really saying that if you are a filmmaker of colour you either have to be a new filmmaker or you have to be working in Hollywood before you are deemed worthy of support? This question received no answer so I followed it up with another. What was the diversity within the BFI’s development and selection team when they are selecting the projects that they would support. This white person sitting in front of me said, and I quote, ‘Well, I’m an American.’

The meeting came to an end and Kristin was kind enough to facilitate a meeting with Ben Roberts, the BFI’s head of the film fund. Generally, agreed that there needed to be more diversity within the BFI but he said this was a slow process and that people needed to leave their jobs before the complexion of the organization could change. Apparently, he couldn’t be held responsible for the comments on diversity of his staff; he agreed that filmmakers of colour had been poorly served
over the years by the BFI but that they couldn’t interview every filmmaker of colour who applies to them because of the time this would take. I agreed that this was a fair point but given the inequities of the past and the BFI’s own pronouncements about how they were going to be more diverse, etc, why could they not make a greater effort to reach filmmakers of colour? Because if they don’t, how is anything ever going to change? (This is in a context where for decades UK filmmakers of colour have been essentially barred from telling stories about people of colour because the received wisdom within the industry was that these films never make money. As a former CEO of Protagonist Pictures, leading distributors in the UK industry, Ben would know that just this year alone ‘Get Out’, ‘Girls Trip’ and ‘Black Panther’ are recent examples of Black films that have turned huge profits.

Ben ‘invited’ me to re-apply with my screenplay his only stipulation was that the screenplay had to be substantially re-worked and that I should re-apply after October 1st, 2017 when the BFI launched yet more diversity guidelines. The screenplay was reworked (with the help of a freelance script editor who is regularly employed by the BFI) and I did re-submit it, just after October 1st. Three months later I was not surprised to receive an email from Ben that went into some detail saying why my screenplay was ‘strong and original’ in concept but that it needed ‘further exploring and developing’. The original decision to not have me in for interview and discussion would stand. (For those of you white readers unsure about the term ‘microaggression’, this is an example thereof).

Why This Matters

In the UK there is an ongoing debate about race and diversity. My question to Ben and Kirstin and Jane and Gub and Francis and John and Mal and others like them would be ‘when social scholars and historians look back on this debate in the early years of the 21st century, where were you?’ What did you do? Which side were you on?’ Because the race and diversity problem in the industry is caused by all the people mentioned above and many more. That’s what ‘systemic’ means.

My white producer friends – one of them heard about the latest diversity initiatives made by the BFI and the television broadcasters and said ‘Well, you’re alright then! But what about the rest of us?! Things have now gone too far, mate’. His implication was that this brief moment of apparent change somehow put him at a disadvantage. The decades of exclusion that I and other filmmakers of colour had suffered were neither here nor there. This, remember, is coming from a friend. The second white producer, on hearing of my rejection for an interview with the BFI, couldn’t understand why I was angered by it. On explaining carefully and slowly exactly why I was angry he responded that lots of his other (white) producer friends had also been rejected, that this was a tough industry and I should get over it. They all have.

On one level, of course, he’s right. This is a tough industry and I have indeed got over it. But on the other hand just because this is a tough industry I don’t see any reason why it should be tougher for filmmakers of colour than it is for white filmmakers.
Why? As I write this article I’m fully aware that some of you (white) readers won’t recognise the validity of what I’m saying and the reaction will be something along the lines of ‘Oh, he’s just a whinger.’ To that accusation, I would reply, if we are ever to have a proper debate about the racial and cultural diversity in our industry we have to speak the truth. This is my truth. The whole diversity debate seems to have firmly taken on board how women have been marginalised in some areas of the industry. Where race is concerned this is not the case, and that’s why I no longer feel able to talk to my white producer friends about race. Or indeed organizations like the BFI.

Kolton Lee is a filmmaker, a Senior Lecturer in Filmmaking at Kingston University and a Research Associate at Ravensbourne.
The end


*** The letter has been edited for brevity. The context has not been adjusted or changed***

Read the full unedited letter here.

See the BFI Black Star industry statistics here