The Film Club That Is Putting People Of Colour On Screen

New BFI research reveals that just 13% of UK films have a black actor in a leading role and 59% have no black actors in any role. In addition, there are only four black actors, leading and/or named, in the list of the 100 most prolific actors in UK films. Recognising this, a bunch of passionate individuals across London are working to celebrate more positive portrayals of black people in film throughout October – that’s Black History Month, FYI. To support these guys, and keep the conversation going around the film industry’s attitude to race, we’ll be running an ongoing series of articles on black women in cinema – present or absent.
Reel Good Film Club. It's a great name, and what they do is great too – they aim to celebrate the diversity of cinema by putting on affordable and accessible screenings of films that are either made by, or feature, people of colour.
Started in 2013 by three students – Grace Barber-Plentie, Maria Cabrera and Lydia Heathcote – they’ve introduced new audiences to films like Sidewalk Stories and Set It Off – films with black protagonists, films which show that, if you look hard enough, black onscreen role models are out there. They’ve put on a #blacklivesmatter fundraiser screening, and had a special #oscarssowhite showing of Tangerine, a film about two trans sex workers in L.A.
To find out more about what drives Reel Good, we sat down with Grace and Maria to talk representation in cinema and the problem with the Academy. Along the way they handily shared some of their favourite films starring people of colour, so that we can go and check them out for ourselves.
Hi guys, so tell us, how did Reel Good start?
Maria: We were at university studying film and were discontent with the course. University for me was meant to be a chance to learn things that weren’t accessible to me before, and I remember a time early on in the year when someone referenced the black independent movement that took place in the '70s and '80s in America. But it was just a reference. We wanted more. So we went to a meeting at Scalarama, which is an initiative funded by the BFI where they show you trailers for films and you can screen one without having to pay for the license. We saw a trailer for a film called Sidewalk Stories and really wanted to see it, so we decided to show it ourselves. We put on a screening in Brighton. That was way back in 2013.
Grace: Then we did a screening at the bar in Genesis cinema, in east London. A Chilean film called Gloria. Soon we met other people from film clubs, and the people from Deptford Cinema, where we showed The Watermelon Woman by Cheryl Dunye, and it sold out really quickly.
Maria: I think the more screenings we’ve done, the more venues realise we have an audience.
Why are you passionate about putting on films by and starring people of colour?
Grace: When we started out we were looking for films that represented us and we’re two women of colour. The conversations [about race] in the wider film industry always feel pessimistic and people are moaning about a lack of films with people of colour but they are out there, you just have to look for them. Or sometimes they’re not available so we’re trying to make them available. They might have been made in the '80s or '90s, and have become overlooked. For example, Set It Off, which we screened last year, directed by F Gary Gray who did Straight Outta Compton and Friday. It’s a mainstream film but it’s just not well known because it wasn’t critically acclaimed.
Maria: Another important thing for us was to make the film club financially accessible. A lot of independent cinemas that are more likely to show “diverse” films or people of colour in films, because they programme world cinema or independent cinema, are usually far away from where a lot of people of colour live and are really expensive. It’s like: Are these films reaching their audiences? Are they accessible? We’re trying to make it that for one day you can go and see a film that you otherwise couldn’t that’s cheap or free to go to and not just in central London – on the outskirts or outside of London. A lot of the conversations are here in central London and as a black kid in Brighton it would have been helpful to me. I didn’t even know many black kids when I was growing up in Brighton but I saw a load of them yesterday when we put on a film screening there.
Would you say you’re focussed specifically on showing films with women of colour?
Maria: Not necessarily. We want to be as inclusive as possible and show all people of colour, especially queer people of colour – because non-binary people get even more left out of the conversation.
Grace: It’s like, ‘Are we asking too much to see black people on film?’ Maybe it’s never going to happen? I was on a panel recently and one of the panellists answered that question by saying, ‘I’m a human like anybody else, I get up, brush my teeth, go to work. The only difference is that I’m black.' This is what’s not being seen on screen; regular stories of people of colour should be the same as those about white people. It’s great that there are stories specifically about race – films about slavery, but what more.
Do you feel like, 'Wouldn’t it be nice to go to the cinema and see a rom com with a black lead?'
Grace: The thing is, there was an amazing period of rom coms in the late '90s/ early 2000s where everyone was black; Love Jones, The Best Man, Brown Sugar, Two Can Play That Game... All done by black directors, every actor in the films is black, and race doesn’t play into it at all. They’re just about love, friendship and careers – like any other rom com. They were made when I was little and I have no idea how many came over to the UK. I guess the Hood film came along and changed the dialogue around black cinema. I did see a film in the last few years though, called Top Five. Chris Rock plays a washed-up comedian that decides to make a slavery revolt drama. And he gets interviewed by a reporter played by Rosario Dawson. It’s like the black Before Sunrise. It’s amazing. Rosario Dawson is such an angel.
What does a black star mean to you?
Grace: Feel like I’ve been trying to work it out but it’s the same thing as a white star. It would just be nice if black female leads had a nice long healthy career.
Maria: That you have a more unstable career 'cause you have to work harder.
Why do you think so many cinemas are waking up to doing seasons on people of colour in cinema now?
Maria: Maybe because the mistreatment of black people has been intensified in the media over the last five years. And within film, actors have been speaking up. I do worry, though, that a focus on stars might take away from a discussion on black audiences and the importance of them to cinema. Maybe talking about how black actors are doing will help expand the conversation.
And finally – back to your film screenings, what have you got coming up?
Grace: The BFI are showing Bessie [with Queen Latifah] and we’re holding a panel. Last year I was really ill and I wanted to make a zine about Queen Latifah after seeing Set It Off, so I made one called Zine Latifah and weirdly loads of people were into it! She’s so important and she’s always been there as a musician, actress, talk show host – and yet she’s always in supporting roles, so we wanted to celebrate her.
Maria: And she’s a pioneering feminist! People overlook how sick she is. Her and her whole crew – Lil' Kim, Missy Elliott, these were women of colour talking about feminism long ago!
Reel Good will be holding a Halloween screening of Under The Shadow at The Lexi, screening music videos as part of gal-dem's Friday Late at V&A, and doing a Nia Long-Athon at Genesis Cinema.

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