To celebrate Black History Month, ACNE London hosted an insightful IRL event which saw two discussions take place: ‘Marvyn Harrison: Being Authentic at Work’, and ‘Diversity in Casting: Being Inclusive in Advertising, Film and TV + Q&A’. 

We share highlights from the Diversity in Casting talk, but just before we dive into that, we’ve taken our favourite quote from Marvyn’s talk about being authentic at work:

“If we don’t make space for real people, we lose the best of them. And most people do end up having to live in their head because they don’t get the language in the real world. So my thing is to always validate the interactions because it’s important for people to come out of their head and back into their gift.” - Dope Black Dads and BELOVD agency founder, Marvyn Harrison.

Diversity in Casting: Being Inclusive in Advertising, Film and TV + Q&A

With iconic characters such as The Little Mermaid, 007 and Doctor Who being played by black actors, toxic culture wars are raging and racist backlash against diverse casting is rising. ACNE London’s Head of Production, Jack Howard, spoke to the casting directors of Netflix’s ‘Top Boy’, Des Hamilton and Stephanie Okoye, and Natalie Trye, who leads a cross-industry diversity program for Meta, about the changing landscape and challenges of casting in advertising, film and TV.

Diversity in casting and increasing representation, equal opportunities and inclusion

The UCLA annual Hollywood diversity report for 2021 found that films with up to 30% minority actors had a higher median global box office return than films in any other tier. Films with the least diverse cast, 11% or less minority, were the poorest performers at the box office, and when it comes to those attending the cinema, there’s been an increase with up to 60% of audiences made up of people of colour.

Although the industry has witnessed positive changes in the representation and diversity of casting, our speakers agreed that there is still an element of box ticking that needs improving. While emphasis currently lies in the on-screen presence and representation, it was further suggested that more acknowledgement of people behind the screen is also needed to deliver true authentic work.

There’s also a lot of fear – there’s a concern that if you do put ethnic minorities and different identities in films, they’re not going to sell. If you’re trying to appeal to middle America, there’s an assumption that they want to see the likes of Tom Cruise and not necessarily John Boyega. Even though data shows very obviously that diversity sells, it isn’t something that’s born out by execs where the box office is so important to the success of their own careers and their studios.

Open up access and increase presence of people of colour 

There was a consensus that it is not about a lack of talent but rather about people of colour not having access. The talent and presence are leaning on mentorship opportunities from producers, writers and directors that will really help to make strides. Mentorship schemes are essential to driving more presence for people of colour and continuing to drive it forward.

“The mentorship from producers, writers, directors will really help to make strides. And these make me incredibly optimistic about the improvement. We’ve gone on to cast films for a lot of people who took part in such mentorship schemes and we need to look at the success of that and continue to drive it forward.” – Des Hamilton

“It’s a decision you have to make; you can’t just say ‘we want to be more diverse’, you have to mandate it. It’s the intention vs action. Action needs to be part of what you do on a day-to-day basis.” – Natalie Trye

Historical accuracy and blind casting

When it comes to casting historical figures, it was agreed that they can be any ethnicity as long as they do a good job in telling the story that’s set out. Casting should be as open as possible for it to be good and interesting. In the process of looking for the best actors, it is possible to cast people who don’t fit the historical description when ethnicity is not relevant to the story, as long as they do a good job in telling the story that’s set. It’s more about whether a person’s ethnicity is integral to their story, and if it isn’t then maybe it doesn’t matter as to who plays them.

“It’s also worth noting that with something like Lord of the Rings, it isn’t actually real. People worrying about having black elves is just such a ridiculous argument. We have to call it out for straight out racism when it is.” – Natalie Trye

This article was originally published in Little Black Book.