By Nadine White
Simon Frederick’s debut documentary, Black is The New Black, aired in 2016 as part of the BBC’s Black and British season. Featuring British trailblazers such as Trevor McDonald, Naomi Campbell and Lenny Henry, the programme brought questions about black identity to the forefront of the national conversation.
But it wasn’t just a celebration of the contributions made by these prominent names. The programme was borne of a frustration over the lack of representation of black movers and shakers in the mainstream.
Speaking to HuffPost UK, Frederick said: “When I was growing up, there were people that I admired who looked like me, who were achieving, that were inspirational to me and others. I couldn’t understand why their achievements were not being recognised on a national level, on an institutional level. So, I wanted to do something about it.”
Two years down the line, photographs taken as part of Black is The New Black are currently hanging in the National Portrait Gallery as part of the largest acquisition of African-Caribbean portraits in the museum’s history.
But it’s a bittersweet moment for the self-taught photographer, filmmaker and . broadcaster. “Don’t get me wrong, I am hugely excited and honoured that I have made portraits of those people,” he says. “But I am also saddened that, in 2018, 40 portraits constitutes the largest acquisition of Afro-Caribbean sitters in the National Portrait Gallery’s history. Because, after all, the National Portrait Gallery is the family album of the nation’s achievers.”
Now Frederick has a new programme, airing tonight on BBC Two, in which he has teamed up with some of Hollywood’s most revered black actors and filmmakers – including Laurence Fishburne, David Oyelowo and Barry Jenkins, to tell a different story with They’ve Gotta Have Us.
The three-part series charts the revolutionary rise in just a lifetime of black actors and filmmakers as they have gone from being the backdrop to calling the shots.
It showcases the triumphs and heartbreaks of black life on both sides of the lens, from Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, to the present day triumph of Moonlight at the Oscars and Black Panther at the box office.
“I am an artist and I knew that if I could have a conversation with fellow artists about their lives, there would be a story to be told,” Frederick said ahead of the broadcast. “If you talk to an artist about their art, what you’re really talking to them about is their lives.”
“One thing that I realised about film, especially as an art, is that it’s one of the only forms where as a human being, we’re not allowed to express the full range of our artistic emotions as human beings. Because it is so controlled unless you are a white male.”
He continued: “If you are a female, LGBTQ, have a disability – then you are told what you can be, when you can be it and how you can be that. You cannot play anything outside of those – or even try to tell those stories – because if you do, you are told that there is only a minority audience that may be interested in that story.
“However, one thing that we have found in the making of this programme is that every one of the filmmakers – whether it’s John Singleton with Boyz N Da Hood, any of Spike Lee’s films from Do The Right Thing to She’s Gotta Have It – they were told there’s no audience to make that film for.
“We (black filmmakers) are constantly told ‘no, this isn’t going to work’. But as any artistic endeavour that comes out of struggle has done, it goes on, it makes money and in time becomes the thing that everyone ends up revering in the end.”
The inspiration behind the name for Frederick’s new show was taken from Lee’s dazzling debut in 1986. “I thought it was such a great name because, when Spike came out with that film, it was a game changer,” Frederick explained.
“There had never been a film that had a female protagonist who was taking all these lovers, and doing the things that men had done in films for years. It changed the game.”
Born in London to Grenadian parents, and this year profiled as one of 2018’s 100 Most Influential Black Britons, Frederick moved to LA during the filming of his new documentary, and he says he realised the British film industry has a “hell of a long way to go” to improve representation.
“We can do other things in this country than make period dramas,” he said. “There are other stories to be told. I hope that, you have the likes of Femi Iron and Noel Clarke who literally get their bums off their seat and do their own thing and have literally created an industry out of nothing.
“That’s a lonely road to walk and I think there needs to be a debate about the closed mindedness in this country as to what we can do as a film industry.”
The lack of diversity and equality of opportunity is why, in Frederick’s opinion, many black British actors such Naomi Harris, David Harewood and John Boyega have sought – and found – greater career prospects in America.
“Audiences in this country have shown, time and time again, that they will go and see films of all kinds – as long as it’s a great story that’s touching them on a human level. Regardless of what colour the cast is.
“The powers that be in this country need to open their minds.”
On the subject of Black History Month, which runs through October, Frederick sighs. “I wish we didn’t have to have a Black History Month. But we have to have something that acknowledges our existence because all we’re ever taught is white history in this country.
There was nothing tolerant or fair about that; you just don’t treat people like that. It’s that simple.
“Even my parents, who come from the Caribbean, and most countries in the Commonwealth, their education systems are based on the British grammar school system. So, even across the commonwealth, there are millions of children who are being taught English history – that doesn’t include their own history.
“Until people realise that our histories are inextricably linked and what happens to each other matters; until all of our stories are included as one story, we will have to have things like Black History Month and whatever ‘months’ that people want to include within the calendar – so that people’s stories can be included within an overall story.”
This year, a month celebrating black history is particularly fraught in the wake of the Windrush scandal, in which black British citizens were in some cases deported, or denied access to healthcare and benefits, as part of the government’s “hostile environment” policy.
Frederick’s said the scandal is revealing about the society in which we leave – running counter to values we tell ourselves we hold.
“These are people that have lived in this country and don’t know anyone other country. They came here as teenagers, in their early twenties, and now they’re in their 70s and 80s – all they know is Britain.
“We pride ourselves in Britain as being a tolerant and fair society. There was nothing tolerant or fair about that; you just don’t treat people like that. It’s that simple.”