By Zoe Mumba
When Michaela Coel won an Emmy last month for ‘Writing for an Anthology or Limited Series’ for I May Destroy You, it was a historic moment because it was the first time a black woman had ever won the award. I May Destroy You was a groundbreaking TV show because of the way it navigated the world of sexual assault and the grey areas of consent and misconduct. The fact that these issues were explored through the eyes of a dark-skinned black woman made it even more so.
Dark skinned black women are rarely given leading roles. When they are, they are often slaves, where they suffer from physical and verbal racial abuse. Another popular racist caricature in TV and film is the “Mammy”, who is often depicted as a larger, dark-skinned black woman who is always happy to please and offer endless emotional support to a white protagonist. The Mammy caricature dates as far back as the 1930s when Hattie McDaniel portrayed Mammy in Gone with the Wind. More recent depictions of the Mammy character include Octavia Spencer’s portrayal of Minny Jackson in The Help. In fact, Spencer has played the Mammy role in the form of a maid, nurse or cleaner a total of 21 times and commented on being typecast saying “….it’s the only box that they want to put you in.” Michaela Coel’s portrayal of Arabella in I May Destroy You is significant because her character is multifaceted. As viewers, we sympathise with Arabella, root for her, and even dislike her at times, which is important because there are few roles where dark skinned black women can simply be flawed humans beings.
One of the main reasons Coel was able to ensure such a complex and emotional role went to a dark-skinned black woman is because she turned down Netflix’s offer of $1 million for I May Destroy You in order to retain creative control. Being the creator, director and lead actress gave Coel the freedom to tell Arabella’s story on her terms. She not only earned a seat at the table, she took the lead. She showed media and entertainment companies that it’s not enough to give black talent a seat at the table, they need to be genuinely committed to improving diversity and championing black projects. Improving diversity onscreen is not just about providing roles to diverse talent. It’s about humanly telling diverse stories, and this can only happen if the talent behind the camera comes from a broader background.
Despite efforts to improve off-screen diversity in the UK’s media and entertainment industry, it’s still falling short of expectations. Ofcom’s recent report on diversity and equal opportunities in UK broadcasting found that, when looking at minority ethnic groups amongst senior managers and key decision-makers, the gap has widened in recent years. Many broadcasters focus on hiring entry-level recruits instead of training existing diverse staff and enabling them to progress. Ofcom’s report found that just 10% of senior managers at UK broadcasters come from minority ethnic backgrounds, despite studies showing diverse companies lead to a diversity of thought which leads to them enjoying a 19% increase in revenue compared to competitors.
The diversity challenges the media and entertainment space is facing is a lesson for companies all across media, as well as the technology companies that provide to them. Diversity is no longer optional, and it shouldn’t be a tick box exercise. Diversity is not simply a case of hiring a black person and giving them no opportunity to voice their opinions and progress their careers. Companies that don’t understand this will find their black talent following Coel’s lead and instead choosing to work with ones that value their ideas and input. Michaela Coel is a welcome breakthrough star, and we hope that many others follow suit, whether they’re in front of the camera or behind it.