New BFI Research reveals representation of black actors in UK film over last 10 years

The BFI announced ground-breaking new research that explores the representation of black actors in UK films over the last 10 years (January 2006 – August 2016) and reveals that out of the 1,172 UK films made and released in that period, 59% (691 films) did not feature any black actors in either lead or named roles1.  The proportion of UK films2,3 which credited at least one black actor4 in a lead role was 13%, or 157 films in total.  The new research provides an early indicator of what is set to be the most comprehensive set of data about UK films from 1911 to the present day – the BFI Filmography, launching in 2017.


BFI Creative Director Heather Stewart who presented the research this morning at the Black Star Symposium at the BFI London Film Festival in partnership with American Express®, said:


Whilst we feel from what we see on screen that most UK films do not cast black actors in them, and that black actors are playing the same types of roles over and again we now have the data to support this.  The number of lead roles for black actors has not really changed over ten years and the types of films in which they have had leading roles suggests stereotyping.  Colour-blind casting across genres does not really exist on the big screen, ultimately limiting representation.  Diversity is one of the biggest issues facing film – audiences want to see the world in which we live reflected back at them.


“The findings we are sharing today at the BFI Black Star Symposium are just the beginning of work my BFI colleagues are undertaking to help us understand what has actually been happening in UK film.  I would like for us to be able to reconstruct past data, to give us longitudinal insights. Going forward, we will now champion the collection of accurate and meaningful data that will help the sector understand accurately what is being offered to audiences, and what we need to change.”



The headline conclusion presented by the research is that there has been little change in the number of films with roles for black actors (leading and named) over ten years, even in years in which more films were released and which logically could be assumed to have offered more opportunities for black actors. In addition, there are only 4 black actors, leading and/or named, in the list of the 100 most prolific actors in UK films.


Another of the most significant observations from the research is the clustering of lead roles for black actors within a relatively small number of films released.  More than half of all leading roles for black actors are in 47 films, which means that less than 5% have cast a black actor in a lead or named role at all.


Only 15 black actors, of whom 5 are women, have played two or more lead roles in UK films since 2006.  Leading the rankings on actors who have performed leading roles is Noel Clarke, who has had 8 leading roles in UK films including Storage 24, Anomaly and Brotherhood followed by Ashley Walters with 7 roles (Tu£sdaySket,  Life and Lyrics), Naomie Harris with 6 roles (Mandela Long Walk to Freedom, First Grader), Thandie Newton with 5 roles (RetreatRocknrolla), Idris Elba with 4 (LegacyMandela Long Walk to Freedom) and Chiwetel Ejiofor with 3 leading roles (12 Years a Slave, Half of a Yellow Sun).  The following actors all had 2 leading roles apiece: Femu Oyeniran, Colin Salmon, Ashley ‘Bashy’ Thomas, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Lucien Laviscount, Sophie Okonedo, Carmen Ejogo, Roger Nsengiyuma and John Boyega.


The data shows that a total of 897 black actors featured in lead and/or named roles in the 1,172 films over the ten years.   The gender balance of roles given to black actors reflects the overall balance in the film industry of 2 male to 1 female roles (lead and named roles); across lead roles for black actors men account for 64% and women for 35%.


British black actors who have played the most leading roles in the UK since 2006

Actor                                                                       Gender                                   Number of lead roles

                                                                                                                                      in UK films released


1          Noel Clarke                                             Male                                                                                 8

2          Ashley Walters                                      Male                                                                                 7

3          Naomie Harris                                        Female                                                                             6

4          Thandie Newton                                   Female                                                                             5

5          Idris Elba                                                   Male                                                                                 4

6          Chiwetel Ejiofor                                    Male                                                                                 3

7          Femi Oyeniran                                       Male                                                                                 2

=          Colin Salmon                                          Male                                                                                 2

=          Ashley ‘Bashy’ Thomas                       Male                                                                                 2

=          Gugu Mbatha-Raw                               Female                                                                             2

=          Lucien Laviscount                                 Male                                                                                 2

=          Sophie Okonedo                                   Female                                                                             2

=          Carmen Ejogo                                         Female                                                                             2

=          Roger Nsengiyuma                               Male                                                                                 2

=          John Boyega                                            Male                                                                                 2



The genres less likely to feature black actors in lead or named roles are horror with 81 out of 121 films or 67% failing to cast any black actors; drama with 255 out of 387 films or 66%; comedy with 178 out of 287 films or 62%; and thrillers with 100 out of 169 films or 59%.


The genres which are more likely to feature black actors in leading or named roles are crime with 69 out of 107 films or 65%science fiction with 38 out of 60 films or 63%fantasy with 24 out of 39 films or 61%; and musicals with 8 out of 15 films or 53%.


The subjects that recur most frequently where a film has a cast with more black actors are slavery, racism, colonialism, crime and gangs.  This suggests a pattern in which black actors are being cast mainly in stereotypical stories, limiting the range and depth of possible representation.


Looking at specific films that have the most roles with black actors, Ava de Vernay’s Selma (2014) with David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo, leads the field with 23 lead and named actor roles. Other films which have cast a number of roles for black actors include Son of Man (2006), Half of a Yellow Sun (2013), Honeytrap (2014), It’s a Lot (2013), 1 Day (2009), Brotherhood (2016), Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom (2013), Fast Girls (2012) and Adulthood (2008).

UK films with the most roles for black actors since 2006

Film                                                               Year                   Subject                Lead/named black actor roles

Selma                                                            2014                   Martin Luther King                                             23

                                                                                                     /civil rights

12 Years a Slave                                        2013                   Slavery                                                                     21

Son of Man (aka Jezile)                         2006                   Religion                                                                   20

Half of a Yellow Sun                               2012                   Nigerian civil war                                                19

Baggage Claim                                           2013                   Engagement/weddings                                    16

Honeytrap                                                  2014                   Teenagers/homicide                                         16

American Gangster                                 2007                   Gangsters                                                               16

It’s a Lot                                                       2013                   Teenagers                                                              15

1 Day                                                             2009                   Hip Hop                                                                   15

Brotherhood                                              2016                   Organised crime                                                  14

Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom     2013                   Nelson Mandela/South Africa                       14

Fast Girls                                                     2012                   Athletics/competition                                      13

Adulthood                                                  2008                   Prisons/crime                                                       13



The data was presented at the LFF Black Star Symposium which started with a headline speech by actor and producer David Oyelowowho has played many award-winning and nominated lead and supporting roles in US films including Selma, Lincoln, Jack Reacher and Lee Daniels’ The Butler and stars in A United Kingdom and  Queen of Katwe in this year’s LFF.  David also participated in a panel session delving into the issues that the industry faces in black on-screen representation.  He was joined by Noel Clarke (Kidulthood, Adulthood and Brotherhood), Trevante Rhodes (Moonlight), Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust) and Ramy El-Bergamy (On-Screen Diversity Executive, Channel 4) in a discussion about the opportunities available to, and obstacles faced by black actors in the US  and the UK, the types of roles and kinds of stories being told, the politics vs the reality of ‘colour-blind’ casting and the big differences between the film and TV sectors in the US and the UK. The session was chaired by Ashley Clark, a programmer for BFI BLACK STAR.


Amma Asante (A United Kingdom, Belle), Barry Jenkins (Moonlight, Medicine for Melancholy), Ije Nwokorie (CEO of design and brand agency Wolff Olins); Tunde Ogungbesan (Head of Diversity, Inclusion and Succession, BBC) and Ben Roberts (Director of the Film Fund, BFI)  took part in a panel discussion looking at how we can tell more representative stories on-screen, the development and greenlighting barriers, how change can be stimulated within media agencies, funding bodies and production companies, and if more diverse and inclusive creative and management teams lead to a wider variety of productions. The session was chaired by writer and producer Gaylene Gould. 


How the commercial sector approaches diversity and what it means for the bottom-line was discussed in conversation between KarenBlackett OBE, Chairwoman, MediaCom UK, who has been instrumental in championing diversity throughout the advertising and media industry and Heather Stewart, BFI Creative Director.


BFI Diversity Standards 

Representing a contemporary UK, in the films we fund and show, the audiences that watch them and the filmmakers, actors and crew who make them is a priority for the BFI, as the lead body for film in the UK, a public funder and a Lottery distributor.  In 2015 BFI Diversity Standards (succeeding the ground-breaking BFI ‘Three Ticks’ initiative) were introduced across all BFI Lottery funding schemes including film development, production, distribution and audience development  with the pledge that the projects we fund should reflect the society we live in, both in terms of the people employed and the stories they tell.


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