#BAFTAsSoWhite? Where the British Academy Stands in the Diversity Conversation

BAFTA - Beasts of No Nation - Netflix - H 2016
Courtesy of Netflix

The race controversy dogging the Academy Awards is shining an unexpected (and some say long overdue) spotlight on similar issues facing the U.K.'s biggest film honor.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

It's no secret that the BAFTAs have been sidling up to the Oscars in recent years. Since the British Academy shifted its annual awards to a Sunday slot two weeks before the Hollywood heavyweight, it's become the biggest film industry event outside of the U.S.

But when it comes to major issues of contention, such as the #OscarsSoWhite uproar, how do the BAFTAs compare to their big brothers in Hollywood? This year the BAFTAs have Beasts of No Nation's Idris Elba up for supporting actor, and he's going against Sicario's Benicio Del Toro. But in 2015, like the Oscars, it was a wholly white affair, leading to criticism for its snubbing of Selma. That movie was led by British star David Oyelowo and produced by British company Pathe UK. It sends an "odd message," said Oyelowo of the omission.

At the time, BAFTA boss Amanda Berry suggested that prejudice wasn't at play and that it happened to be a "strong year for biopics." It appears that 2016 is another strong year for biopics, but where the all-white lineups of The Danish Girl, Steve Jobs, Spotlight and Bridge of Spies have several noms each at the BAFTAs, there's nothing for Straight Outta Compton, which, incidentally, earned more at the box office. Maybe it's simply that the story of N.W.A isn't BAFTA fare?

"But what is a BAFTA film?" asks Akua Gyamfi, the founder of the British Blacklist, a database of black creatives working in the U.K. "What are the criteria?"

Inevitably, the criteria come down to the 6,500 film-voting BAFTA members. While there are no official statistics, the makeup is believed to be similar to that of the U.S. Academy, although one source suggested the U.K. side was "perhaps a little younger."

BAFTA is inviting its members to, voluntarily and anonymously, take part in a survey aimed at finding out the nature of its makeup, something it has assured was arranged long before the diversity debate was sparked. But there's no indication of what BAFTA might do once the results are in, or whether the results will be shared. "Mostly white, male and over 60," predicts Fraser Ayres, co-founder of The Triforce Creative Network, on what the survey will find. Ayres, whose organization has been working to increase diversity across the U.K.'s TV, film and theater industries for more than a decade, adds the caveat that he doesn't believe there's a "Machiavellian room of elderly white men with cigars trying to be as racist as possible" but that the issue lies in the viewing tastes of BAFTA voting members.

Outside the main categories, the BAFTAs have been making a concerted hat-tip toward diversity. The night's Rising Star award has welcomed nominations like Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Lupita Nyong'o and this year has THR's Next Gen 2015 topper John Boyega as a favorite. Such leg-ups have value, but behind it all lurks that most British of topics, and a far more powerful, complicated force than simply who makes and watches films: class, which even in 2016 holds sway over society and culture.

"That is the fundamental issue underlying all of these things," says Ayres. "If you were to address the class imbalance, actually an awful lot of other imbalances wouldn't exist."