Award-winning director says British film awards risks becoming obsolete if it fails to recognise talent
Lanre Bakare – The Guardian
Steve McQueen: ‘… if you’re not supporting the people who are making headway in the industry, then I don’t understand what you are there for.’ Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA
Steve McQueen has said the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (Bafta) risks becoming irrelevant, redundant and of no interest or importance unless it undergoes reform to avoid a repeat of this year’s nominations where there was a lack of diversity in many of the principal categories, including all the main acting awards.
The director, who has won two Baftas – one for his debut feature film Hunger in 2009 and another for best film in 2014 for 12 Years a Slave – told the Guardian that the British film awards could become obsolete if it fails to recognise diverse talent.
“After a while you get a bit fed up with it,” he said. “Because if the Baftas are not supporting British talent, if you’re not supporting the people who are making headway in the industry, then I don’t understand what you are there for.
“Unless the Baftas wants to be like the Grammys, which is of no interest to anyone, and has no credibility at all, then they should continue on this path,” he added, referring to the criticism of the Grammys for consistently snubbing black talent. “If not then they have to change. Fact.”
McQueen said there was a vast amount of British talent that could have been nominated this year including Marianne Jean-Baptiste for In Fabric, Joanna Hogg for The Souvenir, Cynthia Erivo for Harriet, and Daniel Kaluuya for his performance in Queen & Slim. “But not even just British talent, it’s talent in general,” he said, using the example of Lupita Nyongo’o not being nominated for Jordan Peele’s Us. “It’s crazy.”
In response to the backlash on Monday after the nominations were announced, Marc Samuelson, chair of Bafta’s film committee, called the lack of diversity infuriating and said the awards could not make the industry do something about it. His comments echoed Bafta’s deputy chairman, Krishnendu Majumdar, who said the lack of female nominees in the best director category was an “industry-wide problem”.
McQueen said the argument that the lack of nominations could be explained as mostly an “industry problem” was nonsensical. “When these films are being made to critical acclaim, they’re not even being recognised – that’s nonsense.”
The director’s comments follow a week of criticism for Bafta, which announced on Thursday that it would undergo a review of its voting system after another year when its main acting awards will all be competed for by white talent. In 2018, a report revealed that 94% of all Bafta film award nominees had been white.
The criticism also came before the Oscars nominations on Monday, as attention turns to Hollywood, which has its own long history of diversity issues. In 2015, the Oscars – along with all the leading film and music awards – were heavily criticised for a lack of diversity among nominees, only 12 months after a “breakthrough” year when 12 Years a Slave won best picture. In 2016 – after another year of all-white nominees in the acting award, which led to a threatened boycott by Spike Lee, Jada Pinkett-Smith and Will Smith – the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced it would review its membership process. The Academy eventually pledged to double female and minority members by 2020.
Todd Phillips’s Joker led the Baftas field this year with 11 nominations, with many films featuring BAME and female talent missing out, including The Souvenir and Greta Gerwig’s Little Women – neither of whom featured in the all-male best director category.
In an email to voters, Samuelson and Bafta chief executive Amanda Berry said the nominations were “frustrating and deeply disappointing” and confirmed they would review all aspects of the voting process and listen to all interested parties in order to tackle the root cause of underrepresentation in Bafta nominations.
Bafta voting is divided into two rounds: nominations and then a final say on the shortlist. At present, the four main acting categories are nominated by the full membership, with specific “chapters” – made up of specialists from Bafta’s 6,700 members – choosing nominees for other categories such as best director, score and screenplay. After the nominations are complete, all Bafta members vote on the main awards, with some specialist juries and chapters deciding the winners in certain categories.
Berry said on Monday: “It’s clear there is much more to be done and we plan to double-down on our efforts to affect real change and to continue to support, and encourage the industry on the urgency of doing so much more.”
Other prominent British actors have voiced their disappointment with Bafta. Erivo, who was directed by McQueen in the Bafta-nominated film Widows, said she was asked to sing at the ceremony on 2 February, even though she had missed out on a best actress nomination. Erivo turned down the invitation.
“I felt like [the invitation] didn’t represent people of colour in the right light,” she told the US entertainment website Extra. “It felt like it was calling on me as an entertainer, as opposed to a person who was a part of the world of film, and I think that it’s important to make it known that it’s not something that you just throw in as a party trick, you know?”
Erivo said the many actors of colour who worked hard in 2019 deserved to be celebrated and she also criticised the lack of nominations for any female directors. “And no women directors? It just was like, c’mon,” she said.
McQueen said the issue was a wider one in British culture and that “black British talent gets very much overlooked” and at times had to go to the US in order to get recognition. “Don’t forget Cynthia [Erivo] debuted in the West End in The Color Purple and got very bad reviews and then got an amazing response in New York,” he said. “So maybe that’s it? Maybe you need to go to the States before you get recognised in your own country.”
When asked if he thought the lack of recognition could lead to a BAME talent drain to the US, McQueen said: “It’s happening anyway, that’s not news. Everyone knows that narrative. But there’s obviously a problem, a massive issue and it’s right in front of us. It’s right there and unless it is looked at, people are just not going to bother. People will go elsewhere.
“With the Baftas, if [film-makers] are not recognised visually in our culture, well what’s the bloody point? It becomes irrelevant, redundant and of no interest or importance. End of.”
- The Bafta film awards will take place on 2 February at the Royal Albert Hall, London.