- Savanna Mae
Black People On Screen, Are We Truly Seen?
The Truth Behind What It’s Like to be a Minority on a Film Set.
To be black in a white world is to never feel truly seen. We live in a time where eurocentric beauty standards are still the norm, resulting in a bombardment of pale faces in the media and on our television screens, subliminally telling us that we aren’t good enough.
Some would say that things are ‘getting better’ and I slightly agree. I am seeing black faces on billboards, in adverts, as supporting actors, and as background extras now more than ever, which gives me hope.
But as someone who has worked regularly in the UK as a background actor (often referred to as an Extra) I know that we, as people of colour, have a long way to go when it comes to experiencing real recognition.
For those who don’t know what a background actor is, it’s a non speaking role where you’re placed in the background of a film or television scene - the actors you see walking around behind the main actors.
You don’t need any special skills to become one as a variety of looks are required due to the array of scenes that have the potential to be created.
As the push for diversity becomes louder, production companies are eager to hire black extras and while this looks like a step in the right direction, it makes me think that their new found love of equality is nothing but a performance.
The only reason I say this is because as a biracial woman who has worked on many sets as an extra, the experience is always an anxiety inducing one for me.
Getting your hair and makeup done to spend the day on a film set should be exciting. I however, have nothing but nerves when I get booked for a job and my race is at the forefront of those worries.
How will they deal with my natural curly hair? Will they do my makeup in a way that flatters my skin tone? Are a couple of the questions that fly around my head.
It’s nerve racking not knowing if the hair and makeup ‘professionals’ have experience, not only working with people of colour, but with appropriately adapting and catering to the needs of them.
My needs aren't met
I wasn’t always nervous about it, this developed after being on a few shoots and realising that my needs aren't being catered too.
I recall being on the set of one of the latest Fast and Furious movies, the part I’d come along to play was a glamorous party guest. My outfit was beautiful so I was very excited to spend the day feeling glamorous!
We were all asked to queue outside of the hair and makeup room and we’d be called in one by one when a space became free.
When I get called into the room that has rows of mirrored makeup stations, I frantically search for a black makeup and hair stylist whose seat I can sit in. Alas, there was none.
Instead I am placed with a middle aged white woman who looks at me as anxiously as I look at her. She asks the head hair stylist how they want my hair to look, to which they reply “bigger”.
Now, before arriving to set I’d wet my hair and combed some cantu cream through it so my curls were popping but very flat as it had dried.
All this woman needed to do to create a bigger look was use oil in the palm of her hands to drag my hair out to elongate and fluff out the curls. If she had any knowledge on Afro hair she would have known this, instead she treats it like European hair and picks up a brush. A brush! On dry curls! *sigh*.
The mirror reflected both of our faces screwed up in pain as she pulled and tugged her way through my hair. She gives up halfway and sweeps the brushed out top strands across my forehead like a fringe and considers that a complete look.
The walk back to the holding room with my hair looking a way that I cannot even describe, was humiliating to say the least.
Luckily, I’d brought the cantu cream with me so once I’d grabbed my bag, I frantically ran to the bathroom. While all of the straight haired girls were busy getting their hair put into glamorous styles, I had my head in a bathroom sink. Very glam!
I managed to salvage my hair and vowed to never allow a hair stylist on these shoots to touch my hair again.
It was easy to avoid getting your hair and make up done by them, as the groups are usually very big, they sometimes encourage you to do your own before you arrive.
Me being the lazy person that I am wishes I didn’t have to prepare beforehand and could just rock up bare faced with my natural hair out to truly enjoy the thrill that should come with getting made up by a professional.
On one shoot I was cast as a Featured Extra which is a slight step up from a normal Extra as you have more of a developed character and are seen on screen more, but you still don’t have lines. I was playing a Love Chalet contestant (a fake version of Love Island but in the snow).
After attending my fitting a few days before the shoot to try on the outfits I would wear, I was so excited. I had numerous different looks that were killer and the fact that I would be getting more money to be a featured extra and there were to be almost two weeks of filming, had me pumped!
On this day I also met with the makeup and hair team who talked me through the looks they were aiming for. I had my hair slicked back into a bun during the meeting but my natural curls were out and proud on the headshot they had of me.
My hair had not been mentioned once so it had gone well, or so I thought.
An issue with my hair
A couple of days later I receive a phone call from the head makeup and hair stylist. She asks me if I would relax my hair for filming.
I told her no but I wouldn’t mind them straightening it (which was a lie because I hadn’t straightened my hair in almost a year and was really proud of myself for this as I’d really struggled in the beginning of my natural hair journey).
I was initially very shocked at the request that basically translates to ‘“we can’t be bothered to train in how to work with your hair type so it’s easier for us if you permanently damage it”.
You can imagine how anxious I was arriving on set for the first day of filming as she’d not confirmed what they were going to do.
There was no way for me to avoid getting my hair and make up done by them as I had slightly more importance this time due to my featured extra status.
Thankfully, they end up tying it up and giving me cute updos which was a huge relief for me and my worn out bag full of cantu products. I did however have to direct the hair stylist to pull out her gel when she started to scrape my hair back, but it wasn’t a huge disaster.
We never get to feel beautiful
Even though I didn’t look as good as I knew I could, I had to remind myself that I am there to play a character. For once I’d just love to get up out of one of their seats feeling as beautiful as the other girls seem to feel in their looks.
The saddest part of it all is that it’s a general consensus known by extras of colour, especially black women, to dodge the makeup and hair stylists at all costs. Because if it’s not
our hair being treated like unwanted vermin, they do our makeup looking ashy and lackluster.
If you are a black woman thinking about becoming an extra, please don’t let this post put you off, just take your makeup bag and hair products with you! It really is good fun minus the makeup and hair debacle.
There are many experiences shared between extras of colour - I’ve personally told the being asked to relax my hair story to anyone who will listen. These stories only highlight how much is still left to do in regards to equality.
A black girl shared her experience with me of being at a fitting trying on hats and the wardrobe stylist pulled the hat off her head so vigorously that her wig came off with it. The stylist found this hilarious and was telling everyone on set about it during filming.
I heard from somebody else that during filming Aladdin, instead of hiring Asian extras they just lathered white girls in dark fake tan.
I was also told that on the set of the movie Yardie (a black film) the make-up artists didn’t know what they were doing resulting in black extras being dissatisfied with their looks.
Are we really headed in the right direction?
It makes me wonder whether we truly are headed in the right direction.
Although it is amazing to be asked onto a set and to be given a chance to shine, it’s like inviting wheelchair users but failing to put up any ramps. The intent is there but the execution is poor.
To ask any minority group along means that a level of adaptability is required to ensure a smooth welcoming.
Instead it is us who must adapt. Who must feel like a burden for our lack of eurocentric features. Who must change the way we look to appease others.
Our invitation has conditions. We are only allowed into the party if how we look fits into the already set standard. And the crazy thing is, they don’t even realise they’re doing it.
But at least their diversity quota is filled, ay!
Should of spoken up
I reflect back onto these instances and kick myself for not being vocal about my grievances, but like many black people, I was afraid of standing up for myself. Of being labelled ‘difficult’.
I understand that those hair and makeup artists aren’t intentionally causing upset, no one wants to be offensive which causes my fear of speaking up. Me pointing out these flaws could result in getting blacklisted within an industry I otherwise love or causing drama and tension which I detest.
The frustrating thing for me is that these stylists claim to be professionals. But in my eyes, you are not a hair stylist if you can only style certain types of hair and you are not a makeup artist if you can only do great looks on specific shades of skin.
I do show compassion for them however as their educational training doesn’t include anything about black hair, which shows a fault in the system.
But to be a true professional you should be able to cater to ALL types of people so that everyone who sits in your chair gets up feeling better than when they sat down. Especially if you are working on diverse shoots!
Now I get that in this line of work you may be playing a character where you won’t look your best but for the most part, black people should be able to sit in those seats without feeling like who they are is an inconvenience.
Hopes for the future
Hopefully these stylists take the initiative to get trained in Afro/Caribbean hair and alternate their approach to painting the faces of darker skinned people.
That’s what authentic inclusivity is, people going out of their way to truly see and accommodate us. It’s really that simple.
Coincidently as I write this piece, there has been an official regulation adjustment for hairdressing that states that all UK hairdressers will be taught how to manage Afro hair as part of their basic training. What a win!
There is hope that the next generation will never feel the pain and insecurities many of us have felt in regards to getting our hair done professionally.
As black people continue to take up space it gives the world no choice but to listen.