“…Not easy to market as a black person”

Exotic sex worker in Sunday night’s crime thriller or perhaps refugee drug dealer. Clichés like such often limit the landscape of roles for POC actors in German film and television.

Most of the roles offered to me and other POCs in Germany are heavily clichéd and often maintain a degrading and discriminatory world view. The strange thing about it, however, is that, for the most part, this does not correspond to my reality and experience in German society. They say art imitates life and life imitates art, but the diversity of German reality does not seem to have really arrived in German film yet.

Of course racism and discrimination are problems, that to this day, still plague our society. Perhaps living in multicultural Berlin can sometimes keep you sheltered in a bubble that, from time to time, lets you forget that Germany still has a real problem with racism. A problem that becomes especially visible in light of the international Black Lives Matter protest movement, that has shone a light so bright on these issues, that no one can look away any longer.  

One can say, however, that the concept of diversity isn’t merely a fantasy or utopia, in Germany, but rather a reality and part of everyday life.

As a kid, only rarely would I feel alien in my home country. While the feeling of being different or foreign was bound to happen at some point, I had the privilege of attending International schools, that I guess preserved my naivety. I certainly owe this to my school environment, because I was always surrounded by children from the most diverse backgrounds at the international State European Schools. So it was all the more shocking and upsetting for 17 year old me to hear from an agent that I was not easy to market as a black person. That fulfilling my aspirations of becoming an actor would be so much harder and therefore she wouldn’t be representing me.

A good friend and fellow actor explained that the question often is: “How can we explain to the audience that the actor is black? Editors often think that being black is an obstacle between the audience and the story. Either the character mustn’t speak German – or the skin colour must be the subject of the film”.

To this day, like 85% of the roles I am offered are refugee roles. It is a rather sobering and depressing feeling when you are confronted with the discrepancies between your own perception of your role in society and the role that society assigns you. In ‘Black Looks’ Bell Hooks says: “it struck me that for black people, the pain of learning that we cannot control our images, how we see ourselves (if our vision is decolonized), or how we are seen as so intense, that it rends us. It rips and tears at the seams of our efforts to construct self and identity.” Those words resonate with me and perfectly encompass the struggle of my experience with the German Film industry.  

In order to illustrate my experience, I created a series of pictures to show scenes from a role I was offered. In the film I was supposed to embody a young refugee who sells his body as a means to survive. Of course, it is important to give a voice to people who actually suffer such a fate, but that shouldn’t be the only thing I am considered for. Especially when my reality couldn’t be further from it. After all, if black people are cast exclusively for such roles, a certain narrative, which ultimately plays into the hands of racism is communicated to society.

Fortunately, positive developments can be observed. For example, in February of 2019, for the first time in TV history, we had a Black Detective on “Tatort”, one Germany’s longest running and most watched series. I too, am able to extend my series of pictures with images that form a counterpart to the ones depicted here. In September of 2019, “Get Lucky” was released in the cinemas. A film that more closely reflects my reality – a film in which I was allowed to play a perfectly normal German boy in a leading role. A small beacon of hope.

Small because there is still so much more to be done. These small developments are decades in the making. Decades.

I’m calling on Casters, Directors, Editors, Writers to acknowledge and reflect their part in a system that almost crushed the dreams of a 17 year old me. A system that constantly fails People of Colour. I’m also calling on fellow people of colour to stay resilient and to claim a seat at the table, even if it isn’t given to them.

Photographer: Leander Rau

Models: Benny Opoku-Arthur, Marco Serrano