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

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.

Fast & Furious 6: one of the most racially diverse films I've seen all year. Image: Getty
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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.