Bafta likes to think of itself as a cut above its American counterparts, in terms of classiness at least, if not actual importance. Our world-beating film industry might have blurred into Hollywood more than we would like to admit, but I think you’ll find we Brits invented the “black tie” dress code. And the president of our esteemed institution is the second in line to the throne, no less. And we’ve got the Royal Albert Hall. Beat that, “Hollywood royalty”.
But when Bafta’s royal figurehead is giving the institution a royal ticking off, you know they’ve got problems. At Sunday’s ceremony, Prince William addressed the elephant in the hall: the overwhelming whiteness and maleness of this year’s nominees. His speech was surprisingly direct: “In 2020, and not for the first time in the last few years, we find ourselves talking again about the need to do more to ensure diversity in the sector and in the awards process – that simply cannot be right in this day and age.”
Considering the house of Windsor’s own issues embracing diversity lately, Prince William’s comments could put him in contention for the “biggest stone thrown from glassiest house” award. More than one presenter slipped in a gag about “Megxit”. Meanwhile, Rebel Wilson’s line about the “Royal Andrew Hall” had Wills and Kate squirming in their seats. Like the royal family, and perhaps post-Brexit Britain itself, the words and the deeds aren’t quite aligning for Bafta. While it seeks to project the image of a modern, global, inclusive institution, the reality suggests something altogether more insular, guided by outdated traditions and prejudices. Ironic that the trophy itself is shaped like a mask.
No disrespect to Sam Mendes’s 1917, which won best film, best British film and best director, but it is exactly the kind of movie that pushes Bafta’s buttons: well-trodden British history done with a twist, filled with familiar faces (predominantly of the white male variety), cursory nod to representation with the inclusion of a Sikh character. Arguably, it has not been a vintage year for performances by actors of colour, especially in British cinema, although this a bit of a Catch-22 argument – diverse talent won’t flourish if Bafta doesn’t recognise it; Bafta can’t recognise diverse talent if it isn’t there. But how to account for the lack of love for Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, a quintessentially British drama of the highest order and Sight & Sound magazine’s best film of 2019. It received not a single nomination, not even in the outstanding British film category, which raises serious questions about how cine-literate the membership of this esteemed institution really is.
Even the introduction of a Bafta for casting this year backfired somewhat. Casting is one area of the industry where women traditionally dominate – which could go some way to explaining why it never had an award of its own before. Bafta had an opportunity to really make a statement here, since the boldest nominee on the list was The Personal History of David Copperfield, a movie whose radical colour-blind casting both reinvigorated a familiar old story and reflected the very modern, multicultural Britain Bafta is always banging on about. Instead, the winner on the night was … Joker.
Once again, hands will be wrung and fingers pointed. In response to this year’s debacle, Prince William announced, Bafta had launched “a full and thorough review of the entire awards process”. It has done this before. In 2016, Bafta set new diversity criteria for its British film and writer categories, intended to encourage inclusion on screen and off. Clearly they’re not working yet. And certainly there are deeper structural problems behind British cinema’s lack of diversity than just the awards.
Modernising doesn’t happen overnight. But in today’s Britain it’s becoming less a question of rates of progress as how much we really want it at all.