Christiana Ebohon-Green meets Wunmi Mosaku: 'It's exhausting being the non-threatening black woman'
The TV director and actor talk candidly about how racism is draining, limiting and ingrained. But is leaving to work in the US the answer?
Thu 25 Jun 2020 10.00 BST
Last modified on Thu 25 Jun 2020 16.26 BST
The director Christiana Ebohon-Green (EastEnders, Call the Midwife, Soon Gone: A Windrush Chronicle) and the actor Wunmi Mosaku, 33, (Luther, End of the F**king World and Misha Green’s upcoming HBO/Sky Atlantic drama series, Lovecraft Country) have met before. In fact, they have worked together, on Ebohon-Green’s Bafta-longlisted short, Some Sweet Oblivious Antidote. They both have fond memories of the sun-dappled shoot by the Thames, with a (mostly black) cast of actors. But not every experience on set has been so joyful. Amid some laughter, a few tears and many weary sighs, they swap horror stories of industry racism, discuss solidarity among black creatives, and the opportunities and risks involved in a move to the US.
CEG: I’ve worked on a lot of mainstream television drama, so I’ve often been the only [black person] on set. For me [having this wider conversation about racism] is a relief. Sometimes, you air issues and people are like: “Oh yeah, we know! We’ve solved that! Can you stop going on?” So I’ve been very careful about what I said and assumed people understood.
WM: I’ve always been quite scared about talking about race. You don’t wanna rock the boat because you want to keep working. That’s been a real revelation to me these last few weeks, that we all need to speak up! This is real, and you’re not crazy and you don’t have to just be grateful.
Wunmi Mosaku, picking up a best supporting actress Bafta for Damilola, Our Loved Boy in 2017 Photograph: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images
CEG: Often it’s just this feeling that it’s me going round in circles trying to fulfil these never-ending lists of expectations, that they wouldn’t ask of other people. Some years back, there was a big thing in the paper about: “We’re going to tackle diversity at the BBC.” So I wrote to them and said: ‘Well, what about those of us that are experienced, mid-career? I’ve been trying to progress and I’m just hitting brick walls.’ I then had all these painful meetings with people who sat me down and told me why I wasn’t ready, in their opinion, to do slightly bigger, long-running series. Then, later, somebody said to me: “Oh, I heard you were playing the race card” and I felt so offended and hurt. Like, what does that mean? I’m trying to get things I shouldn’t? Then, finally, it’s like: ‘Oh, no, you’re playing the race card, but you’re upset with me for calling you out on it.’
WM: I think, for me, just trying to be the “non-threatening black woman”, constantly being, like, super-bubbly! And relatable! It takes a lot of energy! The energy you have to put into playing into the system of white supremacy, so that you can be just given a chance … Like the other day, my friend said to me: “You’re just always so happy on set!” And I was like: “Oh my God! No, I’m fucking not!” Do you have period pains today? So do I! I just don’t feel like I have the freedom to have a sour face without it being seen as a bigger thing. The amount of time black people spend trying to placate, be accepted; if we could put that into our work, into our families, into our dreams …
CEG: Yeah, you spend a lot of time, early on, trying to figure out what they want us to be. I can’t figure out who that person is … Apart from a white male. And I can never be that.
WM: Ha ha! Right. If I were to [produce] a TV show or a film, I think that representation would be paramount. But it’s also about the opportunity for those people to become the heads of department. I’ve had someone in costumes say to me, right at the beginning of my career: “This outfit would work, if it wasn’t for your stupid thighs.” My thighs! That can press 200lbs! I feel like I have a very typical west African physique, and that is part of my blackness!
CEG: I’d like to see people just hiring, and for it not to be about schemes and training; assuming that people don’t have the experience, or are a risk. They need to know that diversity is going to strengthen the product. There isn’t going to be a black person doing something that just doesn’t feel realistic … Y’know, the black character in a world where they’ve got no black relatives or friends. I have these stories that I want to tell – about black women, incidentally – and it’s been really frustrating. At some point, I might follow you to America, Wunmi. There’s more work, I think, but aren’t you scared about the guns? I’m scared about the guns.
WM: Terrified of the guns! I honestly never wanted to come to America. It wasn’t part of my goal as an actor. It was because of my husband, who’s African American. But being here has completely opened my eyes to, first of all, what the African Americans have done globally. Iif it wasn’t for the likes of WEB Du Bois, the creation of Pan African Congress and the collective Pan African fight for freedom and decolonisation, maybe Nigeria’s independence may have come later. As much as I have been scared of guns and violence, and police brutality, I have grown in a way that I never would have [in the UK], because I was always trying to be nice and, like, not talk about racism … But it is scary. My husband went to the store yesterday and I heard sirens and helicopters and he didn’t come back for like a while and I was scared.
CEG: Here [racism] is much more undercover, but it’s definitely stopping creatives getting further. Over there, it seems there are more opportunities, but there’s more risk?
WM: Yeah, but there’s also more community. Misha Green has created this amazing show, Lovecraft Country, and her passion is showing the whole spectrum of blackness and celebrating it. That’s something that I really appreciate being here.
CEG: I think there is more of a community among black directors here [in the UK] than I’d realised. Somebody has created a WhatsApp group! There are a lot of people coming through, which is a good thing. It’s just, then, that competitiveness over jobs. Hopefully that will change when there are more opportunities.
WM: Well, the hierarchy of race … it’s so ingrained. It’s not just one costume designer, it’s the whole system. I had an executive tell me drunkenly that “colonialism wasn’t all that bad”. She managed to turn the conversation to gender inequality: in her opinion, the most important fight. That “Women are the niggers of the world” quote was brought up. She said: “It’s true! We are!” It’s exhausting. Even when you fight back, she’s still in power. She and others like her are still in control of the stories we tell about black lives.
CEG: My parents were from Nigeria as well. As a child I was fostered into a white family, miles away and I didn’t see my family except once every couple of weeks for an hour or so. That feeling of being an outsider has always stayed. In the industry, I’ve been judged by a lot of white, middle-class men. They don’t know anything about you, but suddenly, you’re excluded. I just feel like, this time, I’m not gonna be silenced by: “You’ve got a chip on your shoulder”, or: “You’re playing the race card”. No. That’s served you all well over many years … Sorry, I’m getting a bit emotional, but just … people’s whole lives have been limited! You know, you can get killed on the street!
WM: It’s true. It’s traumatising living it and seeing it. It’s traumatising talking about it. It’s so much and then [advocating for change] falls on our shoulders? It’s too much. Like, we feel it. Globally, we feel it.
CEG: After university, I thought I’m gonna go into a career that’s just joy – no politics and difficult stuff – and, stupidly, I kind of thought that this would be it!
ITV heads back to Grantchester
Grantchester debuted in 2014 starring Robson Green and James Norton
UK broadcaster ITV has greenlit a fifth season of period detective drama series Grantchester.
Grantchester first aired in 2014, starring Robson Green as a police inspector who calls on a vicar turned amateur detective, played by James Norton, for assistance.
The fourth season, which ran from January to February this year in the UK, will premiere in the US on Masterpiece PBS this weekend.
Norton has now left the series and S5 will feature actor Tom Brittney as another investigative clergyman, while Green will reprise his role. The new season is set in Cambridge in 1957, a year after S4.
Grantchester is a coproduction from Endemol Shine UK-owned Kudos and Masterpiece. It is distributed by Endemol Shine International and has been sold into 176 countries.
S5 will begin shooting this summer in Cambridgeshire and will be executive produced by Emma Kingsman-Lloyd and Daisy Coulam for Kudos and Rebecca Eaton for Masterpiece. Gordon Anderson will direct alongside Christiana Ebohon and Rob Evans.
Adapted from the Grantchester Mysteries novels by James Runcie, the series was developed for TV by Coulam, who shares writing duties with John Jackson, Carey Andrews, Jake Riddell and Joshua St Johnston.
- May 2019. Soon Gone: A Windrush Chronicle nominated for a Broadcast Award.
April 2019. Soon Gone: A Windrush Chronicle wins a Screen Nation Award 2019.
25 FEBRUARY 2019
In The Spotlight: Director Christiana Ebohon-Green
Christiana Ebohon-Green is an award-winning drama director, and 2015 WFTV Mentee. She graduated from the National Film and Television School’s Directing Fiction MA and found early success making shorts. In 1998 she directed In Your Eye, which won her the Kodak Award USA that same year, and was screened at the Kodak Emerging Filmmaker’s Showcase at Cannes the following year. She went on to hone her directing skills on a number of well-known TV series, including EastEnders, Father Brown and Holby City.
In 2015, as well as being on the WFTV Mentoring Scheme, Christiana was selected for Directors UK’s prestigious High-End TV Drama programme, where she worked alongside director Carl Tibbetts (Humans, Black Mirror) on The Tunnel. In 2017 she was selected for BAFTA Elevate, a programme which was designed to support female directors progress in their careers, and her Creative England and BFI funded short, Some Sweet Oblivious Antidote (which starred Sir Lenny Henry, Wunmi Mosaku, Colin Salmon, and Arinze Kene) was longlisted for Best British Short at the 2018 BAFTA Awards.
Fast forward to 2019 and, in February alone, two episodes of the BBC’s hugely popular series, Call the Midwife that Christiana directed were broadcast, and two episodes of BBC Four’s Soon Gone: A Windrush Chronicle. WFTV caught up with Christiana to find out what it’s like directing on some of the UK’s most well-known TV series, how she preps for jobs and works on set, and what advice she would give to the next generation of directors…
“It’s often hard to know if you are a million miles away from your goal, or almost there, so keep at it.”
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BAFTA Elevate 2017 | Female Directors
BAFTA Elevate launched in May 2017 for female directors looking to progress in high-end television and features.
The inaugural programme included networking introductions, industry mentoring and expert workshops, all designed to elevate these talented women to the next stage of their career.
The 2017 programme was designed in response to research we carried out to examine the career success factors of film, television and games practitioners from under-represented groups, in partnership with Creative Skillset and the BFI. From that research, it was clear that the disparity between the ratio of male and female film school graduates (50:50) and the ratio of men and women industry directing hires (87:13) had to be addressed. We also felt compelled to address the claim that female directors were in demand yet hard to find.
Meet the female directors of BAFTA Elevate 2017
- Bafta Elevate unveils 15 female directors
BY MANORI RAVINDRAN, BROADCAST18 MAY 2017
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Participants revealed for year-long initiative.
Bafta has named the 15 female directors taking part in its inaugural career development programme for under-represented groups in film and TV.
Launched in February, Elevate will initially focus on helping women progress their directing careers in high-end television and film. According to 2016 data from Directors UK, only 13.6% of working directors between 2004 and 2014 were female.
The programme, delivered by Bafta in association with indie Pia Pressure, was developed following a consultation period with commissioners, television execs and producers, agents and directors.
Bafta film committee chair Pippa Harris added: “The women identified through Bafta Elevate demonstrates just how much female directing talent there is in the film and television industries, and how important it is to support these women and ensure that their talents are being recognised.”
This article first appeared on Screen’s sister publication Broadcast.
FEB 05, 2019
Best of the Fest Winner, Christiana Ebohon-Green’s “Some Sweet Oblivious Antidote” is now available to view online. If you didn’t get chance to attend TriForce Short Film Festival in 2018, you can now view the winning film in full on Vimeo.
NOV 08, 2018
The shortlist of films for the 2018 TriForce Short Film Festival (TFSFF) has been announced at an exclusive launch at the BFI, Stephen Street. This morning, TFSFF also announces the final four films selected for the ‘Best of the Fest’ award, to be screened at a red carpet Gala event at BAFTA on 1st December.