After the Bechdel Test, I propose the Shukla Test for race in film

It’s not often that Ranjit is at the pub having a universal experience with Steve, Bob, Andy, Joe and Paul. While Steve, Bob, Andy, Joe and Paul have their universal experience, Ranjit is off somewhere worrying about being brown. Probably because of his j

New Statesman
Fast & Furious 6: one of the most racially diverse films I've seen all year. Image: Getty

The most racially diverse film I’ve seen all year is Fast and Furious 6. The film is notable for two things: one is the sight of The Rock doing an air head-butt in slow motion to take out the bad guy. The other is that the main cast comprises people from every race and ethnicity and at no point do they resort to crude racial stereotypes.

Sadly, in 2013, that fact is actually amazing. A rare sight to see.

The second best film I’ve seen all year is the wonderfully bonkers The World’s End, full of jokes and warmth and frenetic sci-fi-infused action. There isn’t a single person of colour in this film.

So what? you might think. So what? I’m not a racist. I don’t see race. Especially when it comes to art. Especially when it comes to the representation of comedy and drama and action onscreen. What do I care what colour the actors are? But if everyone who claimed to be colourblind really was, then we wouldn’t be seeing the whitewashed productions we do, again and again and again.

The lack of representation of ethnic minorities in film and television isn’t, of course, a new problem. Things are changing – but slowly, and with an abundance of people of colour cast in roles that centre around their ethnicity. Luther and Hustle have successfully shown that you can be cast in roles where your ethnicity isn’t a character trait or an elephant in the room, but a matter of fact barely ever referred to. Nevertheless, it’s rare that you get more than just one person of colour interacting with another on a matter which doesn’t concern their race.

Someone once wrote of one of my short stories in a review that it was ‘an amorphous mess of Indian names’. The implication was that, had I gone with more traditionally British names like Steve, Bob, Andy, Joe and Paul, he would have liked the short story more. The same reviewer then ended his piece by commenting that despite the fact the characters were Indian, there was a recognisable universal experience - again, the implication being that usually, Indians don’t have universal experiences; they have Indian ones.

It has occurred to me many times in the past that everyone in books, films or television is white unless they have to do something brown. It’s not often that Ranjit is at the pub having a universal experience with Steve, Bob, Andy, Joe and Paul. While Steve, Bob, Andy, Joe and Paul have their universal experience, Ranjit is off somewhere worrying about being brown. Probably because of his job or his parents.

Leaving to one side for the moment whether the film is any good, let’s take a look at the recent After Earth, a Will/Jaden Smith movie about a space detective and his scaredy-cat son. A film like this is rare. Two black actors, in the major roles, converse with each other on issues entirely removed from race: they talk about fear, survival and weird goofy space creatures. Race is, unusually, not at the forefront of these characters’ personas. They manage to achieve an entire narrative arc without a single moment defining either one by race. That’s why the Fast and Furious franchise, despite its downfalls, is commendable for showcasing a diverse cast who never resort to a racial stereotype as a character tic.

As for recognition for their performances, actors from ethnic minorities continue to lose out. 2002 was the first year in the history of the Oscars that two black actors – Halle Berry and Denzel Washington – won Best Actress and Best Actor respectively. This demonstrates the fact that it takes longer for people of colour, once they’ve cut through to the mainstream, to achieve validation from their peers. Validation from fans can seem even more remote: for every Morpheus or Django or Alex Cross, there is an online furore at actors in The Hunger Games or Thor or the Bond franchise changing the ethnicity of a character. Sadly, there is clearly an enduring perception that with the change in ethnicity must come a change in character, suddenly transforming them into a black Norse God or a mixed race CIA agent, not Heimdall and Felix Leiter, performing functional (white) roles like being the gatekeeper of the bifrost or expert on international espionage.

A common complaint from producers who whitewash their films is that they don’t want to ‘seem tokenistic’ by inserting a brown character ‘just for the sake of it’. The sad thing about that type of tokenism is that it presupposes that everyone is white, so to have anyone ethnic would look out of the ordinary, deliberately tokenistic, rather than entirely normal. And what exactly is the problem with so-called conscious tokenism, if it means that we can break down the barriers of colour casting, of affording roles to people that have been specifically delineated as ‘racial’? What TV needs is more characters like Tom Haverford in Parks and Recreation, who is more beholden to swag than ever having a conversation about his race. Or Kurt from Teachers, who was just Kurt, a selfish fool who got himself in bigger messes every time he opened his mouth, played by an Indian guy. This is never referenced.

I call for a test to be applied – (originally called The Shukla Test - or, if you think that's arrogant, we could call it The Apu Test) – akin to the Bechdel Test for gender. I want to see a film where two ethnic minorities talk to each other for more than five minutes about something other than race.

Tell me the films you’ve seen this year that pass the test… and pass it as well as Fast and Furious 6.