“I jumped for joy”: Floella Benjamin, Adrian Lester and many more in their best moments on screen | Movies
Adrian Lester – actor
In the heat of the Night
I was about eight or nine years old. We had a television in the house that people sometimes fought for control over. Back then you were watching one channel at a time and if you missed your program, well, you missed it. I was playing in the garden or something when I heard loud cries of “Yes! “” Gwaan! “You see Dat!” I went to see what was going on. It was normally sport that elicited this kind of reaction, but I found my grandfather, uncle, and aunt watching a black American man in a suit on TV, staring at an older white man wearing a apron. I was only small but I realized that something big had happened.
I forgot about the incident until a few years later. The film was screened again. This time I was a teenager interested in acting and wanted to watch what I had heard now was an iconic movie. In the heat of the night is a great job. I was excited, angry and intrigued following the plot until the moment Endicott (Larry Gates) slaps Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) and, without wasting a beat, Poitier slaps him back. I suddenly understood why my relatives had reacted so strongly. All I had to do at school was the usual name calling, and the kids who found it funny pretending to whip me on the back because they had seen a bit of Roots. But my older parents looked after their workplaces in the outside world: the military, hospitals, buses. I wonder how many times they’ve been told to clear it up, to just “take a joke”, not to be so “sensitive”. I liked this film. Endicott slaps Detective Tibbs, and Tibbs slaps him back. Endicott waits for retribution to come and defend him, set things right and when nothing happens he is forced to see that his perceived place in the world has changed and that almost makes him cry.
Baroness Floella Benjamin – actor, host and parliamentarian
I’ve been involved in broadcasting for 50 years and have continually pointed out the lack of diversity on and off screen. I worked in studios where I was the only person of color present. In 1974, when I appeared in the drama Within These Walls, I asked the producer, “Why can’t we have black people playing as doctors, lawyers or accountants, instead of crooks, prostitutes? or bus drivers? He said: “It’s unrealistic to cast characters like that.” It was then that I started my crusade to change mentalities, starting with Play School. It has been a difficult journey and I have often been told to shut up or I will never work again. When I asked others to support my mission, they felt unable to do so as it could jeopardize their careers.
Fast forward to October 2020 when I tapped into Loose Women and was greeted by the most wonderful vision of four black women – Charlene White, Judi Love, Brenda Edwards and Kellé Bryan – presenting the show. At the sight of four multi-talented women speaking out, I jumped for joy and shouted, “This is how television should be, this is what I’ve been campaigning for backstage for almost. 50 years ! It was said to be a historic TV moment and this year it won the RTS award for best daytime program!
Lenny Henry – comedian, actor
Make the good thing
A breathtaking experience. First, the opening sequence: above the credits, a dismal saxophone plays beautifully. And then, BAM! Public Enemy’s Fight the Power erupts and Rosie Perez explodes onscreen – we know we’re into something. And then the film begins in earnest: the story of a predominantly African-American neighborhood on the hottest day of the year and the tensions caused by police brutality and the stress of different minorities living side by side. The film is brilliant at showing how a race riot could start in the ghetto; Mookie (Spike Lee) works for Sal’s Pizzeria as a delivery man. Sal, the pie-thrower, is a generally nice man, a gruff Italian-American with a manner that tolerates no argument. His sons Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson) disagree because Vito is friends with Mookie while Pino – an outright racist – can’t stand him.
The other problem – and perhaps one of the reasons why the inclusion movement was obvious to me – was the “Brothers on the Wall” argument. Mookie’s friend Buggin ‘Out (Giancarlo Esposito) remarks that while there are many Italian-American celebrities on Sal’s Wall of Fame, there are no people of color. And from that point on, the narrative takes a sharp turn towards its climax – we know that when all of these factors come together, it won’t end well. But despite that, the film is funny, funky, educational, and fresh. Now who wants a slice of pizza?
David Ajala – actor
I have been a fan of Adrian Lester for many years. Although I was aware of his extensive stage work, my real introduction to him was in Hustle. A group of highly skilled crooks were led by the suave Mickey Stone (Lester). I remember thinking, “Look at this handsome black man, confident in his abilities and having so much fun!” I had graduated from drama school by the time I saw Adrian in Hustle. Authentic and talented performance is so important. Seeing Adrian do his job so easily in a role devoid of awkward stereotypes gave me the encouragement I needed to shatter glass ceilings when needed.
Michelle Gayle – actor and singer
I can destroy you
We first meet Arabella Essiedu with her lover in Italy, flaunting pink hair, a beatnik cardigan and an effortless wit while telling her, “All I did was eat four cheese pizza and a cock. ” And from then on I was sold! In recent years, seeing a dark-skinned black woman in a British drama has been as rare as… well, you might have seen a dodo first. But here Arabella was. Michaela Coel gave us our first Afropunk grande dame.
For those unfamiliar with the Afropunk festival, it started in New York and was aimed at black people who felt, at times, thirsty in the black community. People who go to Afropunk like hip-hop and dancehall music but also groups like Nirvana, Kings of Leon and Paramore; if they are not LGBTQ themselves, they certainly see themselves as allies. We were told that I May Destroy You was a drama about sexual consent, but once you met Arabella and her friends Kwame and Terry, you knew it was so much more than that. Coel told us a human story that also broadened the landscape of what it means to be black, British and on TV. We will all benefit from it.
Kobna Holdbrook-Smith – actor
The real McCoy
Real McCoy is thanked by me and my crazy props all day. It was this funny and this inspiring. All of her perspective and expression gave me access to a culture and context that growing up black outside of London or any other black cultural center in the UK I just couldn’t get. [enough of]. It was only when I saw us that I really saw myself. And I certainly used the comedy on a regular basis as a lure for some of those warmth-seeking classmates we all knew.
Caroline Hollick – Head of Drama, Channel 4
A different world
It’s strange to write about my love for A Different World, in light of what we know about Bill Cosby. But it would break my heart for his terrible crimes to take this spectacle away from me. As a teenager in the late 1980s, I was just the right age to adore Lisa Bonet’s luminous eccentricity as Denise Huxtable as a hero, and to dream of the fun and freedom of college. At a time when Métis portrayal was lacking, the young women in this series gave me permission to be the me I felt at the time: brunette, bourgeois, and a bit of a hapless nerd.
Dr Clive Nwonka – speaker in cinema, culture and society
I was relatively late in Babylon, having seen the film for the first time during my masters studies when it finally came out on DVD. The power of the film is captured in the final scene where Blue (Brinsley Forde) leads his band Ital 1 Lion in a south London soundclash.
As he sings, young black men barricade themselves in the lobby as a police squad tries to shut down their audio systems. Its resonance is drawn from what we do not see; The film ends when police walk through the barricaded gate as Blue pleads with black Britain to stand firm against police brutality. For me, it was an immersion in the racial politics of the 1980s and sparked my academic interest in British film noir politics.
Anne Mensah – Vice President of Content UK, Netflix
Pick a favorite TV show? I can not. Television is my friend. I can write about laughter until we cry watching It’ll be fine at night with my mom and dad. Watching Peter Kosminsky’s Warriors and realizing that television could make me feel like the air was taken from me, or Peter Bowker’s Flesh and Blood and understanding that could also educate me emotionally. BBC Two’s suburban Buddha and Channel 4 drama in all their daring – Queer As Folk, My Beautiful Laundrette – otherness is at the center. Counting black people in commercials with my family to understand what was missing and later what changed. I am the sum of everything I watched and liked on television. And I like it a lot.
Campbell X – writer-director
Isaac Julien’s film is a beautiful tribute to black homosexuals in the United States and the United Kingdom. This was my introduction to the possibility that the desire and identity of black gay men is not a modern phenomenon but that they have always existed in black culture in the past and that they are beautifully black. The black-and-white experimental film features stock footage and erotic dream footage, as well as poetry by Langston Hughes, Richard Bruce Nugent, and James Baldwin. Singer Jimmy Somerville makes an appearance. Stuart Hall’s voiceover is powerfully evocative. The film is a testament to homosexuality in London before gentrification and homonormativity.