BIPOC Representation in Canadian TV & Film

As our firm delves into the local TV and film industry, we have been doing tons of research and speaking to industry members about any issues of sustainability. One significant problem lies in the marginalization of BIPOC individuals both on- and off-screen in Canada. This article is an introduction to the issue of marginalization in the industry.

In Canada, diversity and inclusivity are commonly touted as widespread values for local governments and industries. Even so, adequate representation and opportunities for Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) are lacking in many areas. This is particularly true of the TV and film industry. 

Canadian screens are often dominated by stories centring on white people and their experiences. In such stories, the portrayals of BIPOC characters can be limited to cliche supporting roles, such as the “Black best friend” or the “gangster/thug”. Two examples of these tropes in popular media include Dionne Davenport (Stacey Dash) in Clueless as the “Black best friend” and Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) in Empire as a “drug-dealing thug” (see figures 1 & 2). This limited portrayal in Canadian TV and film has marginalized BIPOC communities, providing fewer opportunities on-screen and behind the scenes. 

In 2021, Haitian actress Fabienne Colas did an interview with Yahoo Canada, where she spoke of her own experience of feeling marginalized and invisible in the industry. When she first moved to Montreal in 2003, she thought she would quickly conquer, but quickly met with the realization that the industry was extremely lacking in diverse opportunities. Unsurprisingly, Colas was confused at the disconnect between the melting pot of Canadians she saw on the streets, and the sea of white faces on her TV. 

Figure 3 – Fabienne Colas

Fabienne Colas’ experience encouraged her to establish her own foundation, which works to amplify Black voices on screen and provide opportunities for creators. Over the years, she has managed to make a name for herself in the industry and has created spaces for the Black community in film, such as the Toronto Black Film Festival. Colas’ story is not an outlier in Canada. In the United States there are a number of Black-dominated shows (e.g., Black-ish, Atlanta, Insecure, Empire) centring on Black stories and experiences – that illustrate the diversity of Black communities. Alternatively, in Canada, there are no equivalent series with all-Black casts in mainstream media. In fact, it wasn’t until 2019 that a Black woman secured a lead role on a prime-time drama in Canadian TV history (see figure 4).

Figure 4 – Vinessa Antoine

Not only must Canadian TV and film work on proper BIPOC representation on-screen but also behind-the-scenes. In 2021, the 6th On Screen Report from Women in View was published. This report is split into 2 and tracks women’s employment with publicly funded productions. The first part of the report was released in March and illustrated that overall, women are making headway in the TV and film industry; however, the second part of the report (released in June), reported significant gaps in funding allocation and opportunities for non-white women.

According to the report, of the 43% of women holding key creative TV roles in 2019, only 6.44% were Black women and women of colour. Additionally, only 0.94% of these roles are held by Indigenous women. As well, for projects that received funding from Telefilm (over $1M), only 26% were directed by women, 3.7% were directed by Indigenous women, and zero were led by Black women or women of colour. This illustrates the marginalization of BIPOC women in leadership and behind-the-scene creative roles in addition to on-screen. Not only that, but this report illustrates the chasm between women and men in the industry in addition to the significant gap between women and BIPOC women.

Conclusion

In 1972, Junius Griffin, president of the Hollywood branch of the NAACP wrote: “If black movies do not contribute to building constructive, healthy images of black people, we shall have lost our money and our souls. We shall have contributed to our own cultural genocide by only offering our children the models of degradation, destruction and dope.”

Whether it be on-screen or off, the proper representation of BIPOC communities and cultures should be supported and promoted across Canada. Creating TV series or films centring on BIPOC experiences goes beyond being visually represented in mainstream media. To accurately represent these experiences, BIPOC creatives and talent have to be the ones to tell them.

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