A response to Joseph Harker on Benedict Cumberbatch

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The internet is currently buzzing with debate over British actor Benedict Cumberbatch’s referral of his black colleagues as “coloured” when speaking to Tavis Smiley on PBS. The comment has been met with a combination of indignation and defensiveness, with the Guardian’s Joseph Harker summarising that in making the outmoded remark, Cumberbatch highlighted his own point: that the film industry is not diverse enough. Thus, Harker continues, rather than condemning Cumberbatch we should accept that he probably did not mean any harm and the very crucial point raised about the 21st century movie business is what we should be more focused on.

It’s true that Cumberbatch seems like a decent guy, decent enough at least to be one of very few white British actors to speak out against the lack of diversity in film casting. It is also true that he apologised swiftly, taking full responsibility for his comments and noted the added significance of using such a term when discussing, as he puts it: “racial inequality in the performing arts in the UK and the need for rapid improvements in our industry.” While I agree with Harker that we should not be too hard on Cumberbatch and in doing so lose sight of the bigger issue at hand. I also feel that there is room for personal critique or at the very least additional analysis.

We know that Cumberbatch played slave owner William Prince Ford in 2012’s 12 Years a Slave but while Harker states that 12 years “does not even come close to balancing out all the other inadequacies” he also seems to imply in the rest of the article that being a posh white boy, Cumberbatch probably has not interacted with many artists of colour. Somehow, Cumberbatch’s lack of exposure to brown and black folk in life and specifically his profession is a justifiable reason for his linguistic blunder and therefore the industry should apologise for the remark and its treatment of black actors. However, in order to agree with this point of view, one is required to ignore several other facts. Have we forgotten for instance, that Cumberbatch also portrayed William Pitt the Younger in Amazing Grace (2006), a film following the abolitionist movement in Britain, which also starred Youssou N’Dour?

What about the time he played xenophobic Bernard in the BBC’s adaption of Andrea Levy’s novel Small Island in 2009. This two-part series co-starred Naomi Harris who recently portrayed Winnie Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom in 2013, and David Oyelowo who plays Martin Luther King in this year’s Selma. Notwithstanding the clear fact Cumberbatch has actually worked alongside numerous black actors throughout his career, I cannot imagine that surrounded by such actors, who would go onto be involved in these timeless projects, that the topic of race did not arise especially when 12 years, Amazing Grace and Small Island are films about race. Furthermore, in all three films his characters were key to the storylines.

Don’t get me wrong, I find it commendable that Cumberbatch has taken on roles in such important works, which have brought what is not just “black” history but British and North American history to a more mainstream audience. I applaud his attempts to draw attention to the persistence of discrimination in the film industry. However this isn’t about intention or personality.

As Pitt, Ford and Bernard, Cumberbatch has built a successful career. Besides all of the actors of colour he has collaborated with, Cumberbatch has actually been faced with the origins of terminology such as “negro” and “coloured” in the material of his work. Thus, did he think not about the mechanisms of dehumanisation carried over in language leading to the social realities that he has helped to re-tell on film? Arguably, without the politics behind the term “coloured”, these narratives would not have existed for Cumberbatch to illustrate and build his career upon.  Yet apparently, in preparing for these roles, it didn’t cross his mind how the privilege of each of his characters mirrors his position in society in real life, with regard to class and gender as well as ethnicity. Do actors who portray racists not have some sort of social duty to consider the real life Bernards of Britain who still want all the “wogs” to go home? Should they consider those who claimed that 12 Years’ Ford was a “model of morality” rather than a cruel and racist slave master?

Joseph Harker is right. The film industry in the US and the UK needs to be more accountable for its casting decisions as well as for which versions of history it finds acceptable, as we can see from the treatment of Ava DuVernay’s Selma. Here we have to also consider the diagonal power imbalance of white men and women of colour in a global film business. Having said this, individuals also have a role to play and have a responsibility to educate themselves by being fully engaged in the social meaning of their craft. Rather than shame, that is what I hope Cumberbatch and other actors like him take away some sensitivity as artists from this incident.

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