“If you’re surprised it means you don’t see enough black people in major roles.”
Shiden Tekle was startled to see his own face grinning at him from the side of a bus shelter. The 17-year-old was looking at a poster advertising hit E4 sitcom, The Inbetweeners, with one major difference: all the actors in this incarnation were black.
“The first I knew was when I saw a poster of myself at the bus stop,” said Tekle, in an interview with The Guardian. “I was just [like] wow.”
The poster was part of a project by activist group Legally Black, which Tekle formed with three friends, all aged 17. Frustrated at the lack of black representation in major films, the quartet decided to recreate famous TV and film posters but with black individuals taking on the roles of iconic characters like Bridget Jones, Harry Potter and James Bond.
“I’ve been racially abused since I was 12,” said Tekle, who played Jay in Legally Black’s re-imagining of The Inbetweeners. “And we are always looking at the media and never seeing any positive representations of black people.
“In big films, black characters are often playing criminals and drug dealers, and that quickly conditions people to believe that all black people are like that,” he continued.
“We decided to put black faces in the big movies, and challenge people’s perceptions and assumptions.”
Tekle and his friends produced the posters with the support of social enterprise group The Advocacy Academy. Originally, the designs were only intended for them to enjoy – until subversive advertising organisation Special Patrol Group brought the concept to the streets of London.
“We spotted the posters online, loved the concept and jumped in to give [Legally Black] and [The Advocacy Academy] a much wider audience,” the SGP tweeted, after they spent hours secretly placing seven posters on bus shelters in Brixton during a blizzard.
Neither Legally Black nor The Advocacy Academy knew about the planned action, which was done to coincide with the former group’s graduation from the AA last Thursday.
The posters have now been replaced with McDonald’s adverts by JCDecaux, the company who owns the billboard spaces. However, their impact is still growing as images of the work spread across social media.
It’s unsurprising that the teenagers’ posters have resonated with so many people. Last year, a BFI study found black British actors played just 0.5% of lead roles in 1,172 British films released over the course of a decade.
Legally Black member Liv Francis-Cornibert said that the group wants to raise awareness of this dearth of black British stories in film and TV.
“At the moment I’m in love with Black Panther,” she told Mashable. “It’s phenomenal, but I feel like a lot of the time when we say things like ‘Oscars so white’ it’s focused on America and American media.
“In the past there were a lot of shows like Desmond’s [a Channel 4 sitcom that aired from 1989 to 1994 and starred a British-Guyanese cast]. But people our age couldn’t name any shows like that.”
While their viral campaign recast roles originally played by white actors, Francis-Cornibert said that this was not the way forward.
“It’s not about taking a typically white show and making it black, it’s about making a black show,” she explained. “Or a southeast Asian show.
“Any person of colour should feel like they’re accurately represented in the media. It should be about making shows that are authentic to those people.”
Images: Legally Black