Representation Among BAFTA Nominees Improves After Changes

Three years after an all-white lineup of actors was nominated, this year’s group is more diverse.

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By Farah Nayeri

LONDON — In January 2020, the performers shortlisted for the British Academy Film Awards were announced. All 20 actors on the list were white. Never mind that, five years earlier, an all-white actor lineup at the Academy Awards had sparked a global backlash, and given rise to the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag. The British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) was taking the same path.

Criticism was instant, and it continued at the awards ceremony the following month. “Not for the first time in the last few years, we find ourselves talking again about the need to do more to ensure diversity in the sector and in the awards process,” said Prince William, the president of BAFTA, as he introduced the event’s final award at the Royal Albert Hall. “That simply cannot be right in this day and age.”

Joaquin Phoenix went further, as he collected his award for best actor for “Joker.” “I think that we send a very clear message to people of color that you are not welcome here,” he said. It was, he added, “the obligation of the people that have created, and perpetuate and benefit from, a system of oppression to be the ones that dismantle it. So that’s on us.”

BAFTA’s reaction was immediate, and comprehensive. As the world descended into lockdown in the early months of the pandemic, the British academy seized the opportunity to consult about 400 people, including industry-group representatives, directors, actors, and screenwriters, as well as academics and union leaders.

By September, a review was out with more than 120 changes. Among them: adding at least 1,000 new voting BAFTA members, with a focus on underrepresented groups; publishing a longlist in all categories, with voters obliged to see all longlisted films in the categories they are voting for; and demanding that there be as many women as men on the best director longlist.

Three years on, the diversity among nominees has improved. Ten of the 24 nominees in the four performance categories are ethnically diverse. The multiverse story about a Chinese American immigrant family, “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” starring Michelle Yeoh, has 10 nominations. And the only criticism raised by this year’s shortlist is that only one woman has been nominated in the best director category — Gina Prince-Bythewood for her movie “The Woman King.”

The awards have “increased visibility of Black and brown people and people of color” in all categories, and they have also “sustained conversations” on the theme of diversity and inclusivity, said Clive Nwonka, an associate professor of film, culture and society at University College London, who was one of the many people consulted by BAFTA in its review.

Mr. Nwonka welcomed the review, describing it as “extensive,” and said it reflected “a recognition that there needs to be some kind of radical change.”

Yet he noted that it would take five or six years to get a full sense of the review’s impact, and that in the meantime, discriminatory attitudes and practices remained just as ingrained as they were everywhere else.

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The entertainment world “parades the idea that what happens in the industry is separate and distinct from the rest of the society,” Mr. Nwonka said. Yet the same systemic racism prevails in the film world as it does when a person of color is “walking down the street.”

The BAFTA review was spearheaded by the organization’s chair Krishnendu Majumdar, a film and television producer who was previously BAFTA’s deputy chair, and who steps down from the board in June.

BAFTA’s aim is “to level the playing field: We want more films to be watched, and a diverse range of films to be evaluated,” Mr. Majumdar said in an interview at the British academy’s headquarters on London’s Piccadilly. “And it has to be on merit.”

The review threw up a number of findings. Actors of color spoke of “exclusion” and “racism,” which Mr. Majumdar said he had experienced firsthand. For actors with disabilities or from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, the outlook was possibly worse, he said, recalling the “horrific” stories that those performers had told of experiencing invisibility and discrimination.

Still, the professionals polled in the review made one thing clear: They wanted no quotas and no “tokenism” — no separate category for female directors, for instance. They “just wanted their work to be seen,” Mr. Majumdar said.

All in all, the problem “starts at the top” of the British film industry, Mr. Majumdar said, because there isn’t “the diversity of voices” and “the diversity of thought” in boardrooms and among decision makers and program commissioners. He concluded: “We’re moving toward a fairer system.”

Jane Millichip, the BAFTA chief executive who took over in July, promised that the review process would be ongoing and constant. “Every year, we will reassess. Every year, we will look again,” she said. “This is not a perfect full stop.”

She said that to get rid of “unconscious bias,” BAFTA voters were being encouraged to watch videos aimed at “broadening the mind-set” and making sure that they weren’t “unintentionally making systemic assumptions.” The academy was striving for “empathy,” she added, and “asking people to put themselves in someone else’s shoes.”

Since 2020, there are signs of progress, and not just in the acting category.

The best director and best picture winners in the last two years were women: Chloé Zhao for “Nomadland” in 2021, and Jane Campion for “The Power of the Dog” in 2022. In the half-century before, there had only ever been six female nominees in the director category, and one winner — Kathryn Bigelow in 2010 for “The Hurt Locker.”

As BAFTA pointed out, there might have been more than one shortlisted women director this year, were it not for the fact that more than twice as many men as women submitted films to be considered for the best director category. In other words, there was a much bigger male talent pool for the voters to choose from.

What does Britain’s leading actors’ union think of this year’s nominations?

Ian Manborde, the equality and diversity officer of the Equity union — which represents 47,000 creative professionals and the majority of actors in Britain — was among those consulted by BAFTA in its review.

“Quite clearly, there’s been some change if you look at the lineup now,” he said in an interview. Yet he added that the review was “not a one-off exercise: It’s a constant process.”

He said some of Equity’s biggest concerns were around disability and social class — more specifically, how to prevent performers from being discriminated against on those grounds.

In the end, Mr. Manborde said, the awards system was just “one feature” of a global industry that determined what stories were told, who commissioned and created them, and who got the opportunity to portray them. And that industry was far from equal, he said.

“True diversity in the awards system will only exist when there’s greater diversity at the other end,” Mr. Manborde said — meaning “who gets to decide what stories are told.”

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