Essay: ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Star O-T Fagbenle on Racial Fairness in the Entertainment Industry
Since first appearing on the screen in 2002, English actor O-T Fagbenle has been perpetually busy with film and television projects, including starring roles in popular mini-series’ like The Interceptor and The Five. 2017 saw the premiere of the outrageous comedy Maxxx on E4 (now streaming on Hulu), for which he starred, produced, wrote and directed.
In that same year, of course, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale debuted to widespread acclaim, followed by three wildly successful seasons, with a fourth on the way. In it, Fagbenle plays Luke Bankole, husband of Elisabeth Moss’ rebellious June Osborne—a role which made him a bonafide star in America. Later this year, he’ll appear alongside Scarlett Johansson and Rachel Weisz in Marvel’s much anticipated Black Widow.
At a time when racial divisions have come very much to the fore of the American conversation, he graciously offered to pen an essay on an entertainment industry “system” that is yet still doing a very poor job of offering good opportunities to black talent, both in front of and behind the camera—and how that situation can, and must be corrected.
O-T Fagbenle in The Handmaid’s Tale
On Giving Black Talent the Same Chances
I remember coming in for the table read for a big acting job. I went through hair, makeup, through the production office, I met the writers, the writers’ assistants, the producers, the producers’ assistants, I met catering and the drivers and on and on and I didn’t see a single black person. Not one.
I thought to myself… I wonder if anyone else sees this? Is it uncomfortable for anyone else that they can see that the company they work for hasn’t really hired black people behind the camera or any who are Heads of Department (HOD)? None in sound, or editing, or in the camera department and on and on.
For those of you in the industry, think back on the last job you were on and count how many black HODs there were, or the job before that. Take a moment.. it’s likely to be a quick exercise.
In my career of more than 50 productions (so well over 1000 HODs, writers and other positions of power) I’ve worked with about 10 black people who were HODs, executives or directors. I don’t think it’s for the most part because of racist bastards. I think it’s because:
1. The people in power don’t really notice.
2. They almost exclusively give first chances to white people.
3. They believe that there aren’t many black people qualified for the job.
They are there, but it takes extra effort to find them, often it means taking a risk and the job is already hard enough! It means forcing oneself to not go with the usual practices of hiring and it also means calling it out.
I wonder… why aren’t my white counterparts calling it out as outrageous when they walk around set and don’t see black people behind the camera or in a writing room or amongst the executives again and again? Why aren’t I consoling them as they say how fed up they are with it? Why don’t they insist that the same chances given to the first time white director, producer, DP are given to up and coming black people?
But then I look at myself and wonder why am I not more vocal about it? The truth is – as much as it bothers me, it’s because I’m afraid that there might be repercussions for speaking up. Mainly because well… no one wants to be the squeaky wheel on a team, much less be a lone black person bringing up race. Awks! I’m just trying to get along and be liked! I’m just trying to do my bit as a professional. But me not saying something is… well, a little racist. I’m not talking about the person but the inaction… Bear with me…
O-T Fagbenle in Maxxx
In a way it’s irrelevant if any person thinks they aren’t a racist. The question is, do we act in such a way that helps maintain racist patterns in society? In this instance, how am I – O-T – ineffectual in changing the hiring practices of the companies I work for? When I look at my company, or my team of agents, publicists, stylists, lawyers etc., how many black people did I hire? I have a company too. Am I a racist? No.
Do I contribute to racist systems if I’m not hiring/interviewing black people or making noise when I realise the companies I work for are doing the same? Yes.
I think it’s an important shift in thinking. It stops racism being “out there” done by ugly people we don’t know. It means that there is great work to be done combatting racism right here at home. Not amongst racist individuals, but in apathy against racist hiring patterns. How many black people did we interview for that assistant job (assistants often go on to be producers and series writers)? How many did we interview for the HOD job? I’m not talking about giving undeserved jobs. I’m just asking how many people got a chance to interview?
If you’re in the industry maybe you’re like me? Maybe you’ve noticed that the jobs you work on don’t have black HODs or execs or writers or producers… maybe they have one. Maybe you’ve noticed that the agency you work with doesn’t really have many black agents or assistants (because assistants become agents), or the fancy production company doesn’t have black executives.
I encourage you to see racism as a system that either you are actively confronting and working against, or allowing to be the status quo and then, in effect, supporting. Sure creating a mentoring program at your work is a good start. But I encourage you to:
Try harder to acquaint yourself with the great black professionals in the industry you don’t know.
Give an up and coming talented black person that first shot that every single person on set once got. A foot in the door that doesn’t hold the caveat “they got it because they were black” (you had no racial caveat to your foot in the door). Just give someone that same first shot that you were afforded and you may have already afforded others.
It’ll be a great start.