Should we settle for representation?

Image Credit: Nurina Iman Nizam

Nicola Kenny asks if representation of minority groups is the best we can hope for? What more needs to be done in film and television?

I begin by speaking to Ola Majekodunmi, Broadcaster and multi-talented creative who, along with her cousin Jess Majekodunmi and fellow Broadcaster and friend Zainab Boladale, founded Beyond Representation in 2019.  Beyond Representation is a project that aims to champion women of colour breaking new grounds in Irish media, arts, and business through events, performances, and social media.

In conversation with the OTwo, Ola tells me more about this initiative: “We wanted to put [Beyond Representation] together as we felt there was a lack of representation of women of colour in Ireland.” She explains. “We felt like there was so many [of these women] doing such amazing things but not getting the platform to showcase that.”

Describing the experience of gathering at their first event in 2019, Majekodunmi fondly reflects on the occasion of gathering and hearing everyone’s stories. “In the Irish context…” she explains, “I don’t think we always get a chance to have those discussions. […] If organisations aren’t going to do it, you might as well do it yourself and showcase [those talents] and then get their attention,” she tells me. Majekodunmi points out that while everyone is listening now in the wake of the Black Lives Matter Movement, Beyond Representation focused on these issues well before that. “It was such as a special time, and it was so heart-warming as well,” she says. 

In more recent times, critical points have been brought forward within the industry by people such as Dr Zélie Asava, who presented her talk Diverse Narratives as part of IFI Spotlight in July 2020. At this event, Dr Asava recognised how Ireland is today home to significant “multi-racial communities, many of whom are citizens.” While drawing on various examples, she identified how Irish Cinema has often portrayed non-white citizens and presented them as foreigners. Additionally, she noted the use of negative tropes and stereotypes in the Irish Screen Industries and the framing of ethnic communities as “newcomers on [Irish] shores” and “not as one of us.” Dr Asava also considered how minority characters have often been used in Irish media as metonyms for social disadvantage. 

Outlining the negative consequences of misrepresentative screen culture, Dr Asava reflected on the experiences of microaggression as well as covert and overt racism within Irish society. “Leading figures such as the lord major of Dublin (Hazel Chu) [have been] referred to as migrants referring to the idea that Irishness can only ever be white”, she described. 

According to the most recent census carried out in 2016, nearly 10% of the Irish population is constituted by Traveller, Black or Asian ethnicities. However, as evident at last year’s IFTA awards, those voices and faces are often absent in front of and behind Irish television and cinema screens. Projects such as Beyond Representation highlight how diverse talent and stories are abundant in Ireland. Equally, there is a public demand for them. Yet, it appears that issues of recognition, advancement and success continue. 

Several structural changes have taken place in recent times. RTE has developed its strategy (2018-2022) in which it states a “responsibility to represent and reflect the experiences and perspectives of all the people of Ireland.” Additionally, Screen Ireland have broadly acknowledged a need to enhance the greater diversity of Irish screen talent “whether understood in terms of ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation.” However, crucially there is no statistical data available in the industry in Ireland as a whole, and Screen Ireland does not monitor race or ethnicity. In 2019 critical changes were introduced to section 481, the Irish tax incentive for the creative media industries, aiming to address inequality issues. Productions must now provide details on gender equality and diversity and inclusion initiatives as part of their work. 

Speaking with the OTwo, Dr Asava, a UCD Alumnus, said, “I think there remains significant problems in terms of both underrepresentation and misrepresentation [of ethnic communities.]” She describes how while “racial/ethnic on-screen representation has improved in recent years, the diversity of the crews behind these productions has not.” 

“The introduction of Section 481 is a very positive step, but we need to see employment practices shift at all levels of the industry to create meaningful change,” says Dr Asava. “Recent years have seen a plethora of reports on diversity in the screen industries globally, and each state that the only way to create real change in terms of toxic stereotypes and tropes is to address the underrepresentation of minority groups in the creative teams behind film and television productions” she explains. 

She describes how “for example, last year’s BFI report on racial inequality showed that the introduction of Diversity Standards (since adopted by the Academy) has produced significant gains.” Nevertheless, she acknowledges that “much more is needed to address the embeddedness of structural racism and to respond to the complexities of the sector.”

Speaking about recent developments in the industry, Majekodunmi points out that while “there has been a good mix of contributors coming on to talk about different topics, it’s usually about racism. [People] are noticing different talents from minority backgrounds,” she says, “but there’s obviously still a lot of progress to make.” 

“Growing up and watching RTE, it would always be a surprise to see someone of colour on”, she recalls. “I think when we get to the point when it’s no longer a shock when people of colour are on screen, that’s when we know we’ve done well.”

She explains how “we need to go beyond [representing different groups…] and to realise [that] just because people are black doesn’t mean they want to talk about race all the time. It’s about realising that people are versatile and they have more to them. For me, I feel like I struggle sometimes because I am so passionate about identity, [but] I don’t want people to think that’s the only thing I talk about.”

“Sometimes it does feel like you are shouting, and you know that they realise you’re there, but they’re not paying attention. It’s really about going beyond that; I suppose it’s just about more awareness,” She tells me. 

Ola also points out broader issues of diversity in the media industry. She describes how we also need “to see more people with disabilities [as well as] more women on air […] so it’s not just old white men on screen,” she explains. 

Reflecting on these conversations, it becomes clear that much more significant consideration needs to be given to see a more diverse and inclusive voice emerge on-screen and to empower people to tell their stories. We need to see greater visibility, advocacy, and engagement at all levels on and off-screen. These are Irish stories with which we can all identify, celebrate, and be inspired by. We will be all the better for them.

See more from Beyond Representation on Twitter: @BRepresentation

See Dr Zélie Asava’s talk “IFI Spotlight 2020: Diverse Narratives” on YouTube.