Prince William's Baftas tirade was insultingly misdirected – he should resign as its president | David Cox

Is the Duke of Cambridge sabotaging the voting system? Or simply saving face by attacking an acceptable – if innocent – party?

The other day, I wrote to Prince William, urging him to resign. Not from his second-in-line thingy: he seems to do that job OK, if nowhere near as well as his wife does hers. The post I called on him to renounce was the presidency of Bafta. As a voting academician, I felt obliged to take this step after puzzling over the opaque remarks he read from notes at Sunday’s awards ceremony.

The purpose of the academy’s annual awards is “to recognise, honour and reward individuals for outstanding achievement in feature films released in the UK within the awards year”. In casting my votes, I aimed to observe this rubric. From what I know of my fellow academicians, they would have done likewise. Yet our president appeared to think we had done something wrong.

Introducing Bafta’s highest award, its fellowship – which this year went to Kathleen Kennedy, one of Hollywood’s most powerful producers – the Prince upbraided us thus: “In 2020, and not for the first time in the last few years, we find ourselves talking again about the need to do more about diversity in the sector and in the awards process. That simply cannot be right in this day and age.” What can he have meant?

Presumably he was referring to the dissatisfaction that has been expressed about the paucity of women and individuals from ethnic minorities among the awards nominees. Presumably he thinks that things should have been different. So what does he think went wrong?

The most obvious explanation is that he considers us voters to have been making biased judgments. Surely, he didn’t imagine that we academicians say to ourselves, “Director X’s achievement has been greater than that of any of her peers, but I won’t vote for her because she’s a woman.” Or that we adopt a similar attitude to ethnic minority actors. If he did take such a view, he would want to resign anyway, rather than preside over an institution with this kind of membership.

Does he imagine that bias is distorting our decision-making, but that it’s unconscious? Even this doesn’t feel plausible. Of the things that might cloud an assessment of directorial achievement, unacknowledged misogyny must be a long way down the list. The ethnicity of an actor cannot be overlooked, but in 2014 Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave won best film, Chiwetel Ejiofor won best actor and Barkhad Abdi won best supporting actor, while Lupita Nyong’o received a nomination. So this electorate cannot really be in thrall to covert racism. The harsh reality is that this year’s judgments continue to seem defensible, even when re-examined in the light of the royal critique.

Some excellent films were directed by women last year. I admired Little Women, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, The Souvenir, Harriet, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Hustlers, Booksmart, Honey Boy and Atlantics. As I wrote last week, I consider The Farewell the year’s most illuminating picture. But, when compared with the competition, I don’t think any of these constitutes the year’s “best film”. Many of these titles were well-directed, but they tended not to require the outstanding directing skill required to snag the director award.

As it happens, For Sama won best documentary and three of the five films nominated for film not in the English language were directed or co-directed by women. All the same, it would be extraordinary if the nominations overall featured as many female as male directors. The reason for this is simple enough. A tangle of causes, which extend beyond patriarchal discrimination, mean there are many more male than female directors. Only five per cent of the 1,300 top-grossing films made between 2007 and 2019 were directed by women.

Similarly, more white than ethnic minority actors win awards because there are more white roles. Colour-blind casting might help redress the balance in a romp such as The Personal History of David Copperfield, but in a predominantly naturalistic medium this process can only go so far.

Cynthia Erivo in Harriet
More white than ethnic minority actors win awards because there are more white roles ... Cynthia Erivo in Harriet. Photograph: Glen Wilson/Allstar/Focus Features

As long as the industry is dominated by white males, they are likely to dominate awards lists. This has long been understood. Even Bafta’s president has surely clocked this unwelcome fact, which led me to decide that he couldn’t really be suspecting us of faulty discernment after all. His beef could only have lain elsewhere. Presumably he thought we ought to be saying to ourselves: “Director X may not have been the top achiever of the year, but she was pretty good. I should vote for her because she’s a woman: women need a leg up.” I took the view that if this was indeed his message, his resignation was even more urgently required.

To pollute the awards process with social engineering objectives would make a nonsense of it. Awards shindigs are pretty ridiculous anyway, in all sorts of ways. But the recognition of excellence in art matters. It’s one of the ways in which we show we value it. Commitment to the idea of ranking runs wide and deep, as shown by the otherwise absurd attention paid to awards, or the passionate engagement with things like top 10s or the Guardian’s Oscar hustings.

Anyway, rigging the Baftas in favour of the supposedly disadvantaged would prove counterproductive. Female and ethnic minority film-makers are at last making headway in the industry, if not as speedily as many might wish. Artificially misrepresenting their progress would do them no favours. All that would happen is that the standing of those minority award-winners who might otherwise have made it on merit alone would become tainted. This would undermine their ability to provide their peers with convincing role models.

Still, this seems to be the direction in which we’re heading. The Duke reminded us that Bafta’s management “launched a full and thorough review of the entire awards process” after our chief executive, Amanda Berry, declared this year’s nominations “deeply disappointing”. Perhaps this review will yield a drive to flood the membership with more diverse if necessarily less experienced candidates, as is happening with the Oscars. Perhaps all categories will be subjected to a diversity box-ticking threshold as outstanding British film and outstanding debut already are.

Doubtless many will argue that it’s worth breaking eggs to create a diversity omelette, even if that omelette sticks in the throats of some. Perhaps Prince William is of this mind. If so, he should be honest enough to come out and say so, rather than trying to sneak subterfuge through in a dribble of weasel words.


David Cox

The GuardianTramp

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