Screenwriting is a craft that sometimes rises to the level of an art

Syd Field, in Four Themes, Four Screenplays

Taking Black Writers Seriously

About Taking Black Writers Seriously 2020

This video is a recording of the showcase pitch event to industry professional as part of the BFI London Film Festival Industry programme held on October 16 2020.

In June 2020, Alby James and Shantelle Rochester of production companies Dramatic Encounters and Ida Rose, respectively, teamed up with Kwame Kwei Armah and The Young Vic Theatre to launch Taking Black Writers Seriously, a story development programme and pitching showcase to highlight the range and quality of stories from the Black community by playwrights that had been produced for the stage; novels and non-fiction works that had been published; and the work of early career screenwriters and YouTubers whose work was not appearing in the 9pm TV schedules or on the streamers despite some significant achievements by these writers that should have created greater interest in the work from this community.

The purpose of the showcase, then, was to engender greater interest in Black writers’ creativity and ambitions for reaching wider audiences and to stimulate new partnerships between them, producers and the predominantly white commissioning editors and gatekeepers in film to encourage a wider range of voices and stories reaching our screens.

The first showcase took place at the Young Vic Theatre on October 16th as part of the BFI London Film Festival and was relayed on Zoom to invited members of the industry who could make a difference in respect of commissioning Black writers. The showcase was introduced in a moving speech by writer/director Amma Asante from her home in the Netherlands. She called on the industry to give Black people a chance to tell their own stories and to recognise that Black Britons were not a sub-set of Black America but a people with their own distinctive histories which reflected the closer relations we have with people in the former colonies of Britain in the Caribbean and Africa than in America from where many Black British people or their parents or grandparents came. Furthermore, we had become better integrated with the white people of Britain in many parts of the nation, leading to many positive lives and stories about the Black British experience over centuries. The constant focus on racism, then, and on Black people as victims was not what Black people wished to see or write about all the time. Nor what white people wished to see. This was not Black people’s agenda, she insisted, and it didn’t tell the whole truth. She pleaded, therefore, with the industry gatekeepers to open their minds to what Black Lives Matter really means, which is to let Black lives be as fully expressed in dramas for the screen and on equal terms with white people.

Amma’s speech was a wonderful in that it elaborated brilliantly what we had presented to the industry about our purpose. The pitch showcase that followed included Black writers of two new novels, the writer of a new memoir and the writer of a collection of fantasy short stories, all of which are by women. It also included 8 screenwriters who pitched 6 original series and 2 feature films. These writers had received development assistance from Alby and his development colleagues, Hugo Heppell and Tendayi Nyeke, in the concept development lab. Host duties were shared between Kwame Kwei-Armah and Alby James.

The screenwriters confidently made their pitches from the Young Vic stage to the camera and an unseen audience in groups of 2 or 3 followed by feedback from the pitching panel of commissioning editors from C4, the BBC and Lionsgate Television, a production & development executive from the BFI Film Fund and a film and TV producer from South Africa, who is a former head of drama at the SABC but had grown up in England herself because the apartheid regime still existed then. These pitches were followed by the five novelists who happily shared stories about themselves and their latest books and the inspiration behind them during interviews with Alby James. The brief feedback given on all these projects indicated that these were, indeed, the kind of new works that the industry should be considering.

As part of its commitment to increasing the awareness and opportunities for more Black-led projects to be developed and produced in the UK and in co-production with partners in the UK or in the international community of film and series drama producers, broadcasters and streamers, Dramatic Encounters and Ida Rose is repeating this programme with the backing again of the BFI to present a programme featuring a blend of international and UK projects to attract interest from co-producers for international co-productions as well as UK commissioners. There will also be participation from those wishing to increase their level of understanding and performance to become very good story editors and creative producers.

Alby James and Shantelle Rochester

2 September 2021