LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When George Floyd was killed on May 25, 2020 - the day after Cephas Williams was expecting his first child - the renowned British anti-racism campaigner felt compelled to act.
In a letter to his son, Zion, Williams promised to work to create a world where Black people can be European leaders, own football clubs and run film studios - and “not just the person generating the multibillion-dollar creative output”.
With financial support from Sony Pictures, Williams is now creating a video series - Black British Stories - of people talking about what it means to be Black in the UK, from African students and hair salon owners to executives and entrepreneurs.
“I want to use the power of film to tell stories that are more representative of the world we live in,” 29-year-old Williams told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview from his London home.
“Our stories are almost always told by white people ... I want to make sure that these stories are amplified all throughout the year and not just for Black History Month, and not just (stories of) racial trauma.”
Britain’s annual Black History Month spotlights major Black historical figures, but the Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd have fuelled calls for greater, and fairer, media representation of the community.
With demonstrations against police brutality taking place around the world last year, organisations came under pressure from staff to do more to confront racism - and some turned to Williams for expert advice.
Trained as an architect, Williams won acclaim for his 2018 photography project ‘56 Black Men’ - a series of portraits of Black men wearing hoodies to spotlight their achievements and counter negative media coverage of knife crime.
“After George Floyd was killed ... a lot of senior business leaders and CEOs spoke about what happened and invited me to these ‘townhalls’ they started,” said Williams, mentioning the supermarket group Sainsbury’s and social media giant Facebook.
“They said they were shocked by what they heard – they couldn’t believe what they were hearing, and it challenged them to change,” he said, as Americans prepared to mark the first anniversary of Floyd’s murder on Tuesday.
Less than 5% of Britain’s most powerful roles are held by non-white people although they make up 13% of the population, according to the Colour of Power index, which monitors racial diversity in public and private institutions.
Despite the initial enthusiasm for change at the townhalls after Floyd’s death, Williams said the momentum for reform often “lived and died in those rooms”, with discussions usually led by white people, not Black organisations.
“Those conversations and candid stories were one of the most powerful things that came from last year, but ... those stories only existed in those Zoom and Teams meetings, with no life outside those spaces,” he said.
“A lot of companies went back into their silos and corporate envelopes ... Because these stories weren’t extracted in a way that was publicly visible, they could not go towards shaping the change.”
So Williams set up the Black British Network to bring Black British professionals together to push for economic equality and champion a more reflective response to racism.
He also decided to create short films to “help Black people better appreciate their identity in the UK and the diaspora” and to “help non-Black people have a resource to learn about the real experiences that Black people go through in the UK”.
Williams found support from British actor Simon Pegg, famous for his roles in the 2004 cult classic zombie apocalypse film “Shaun of the Dead”, “Star Trek” and the “Mission: Impossible” series.
“Simon was interested in using his privilege as a white person, and as someone who is connected in that industry, to do something about it beyond feeling ‘enraged’,” said Williams.
Pegg, co-founder of film production company Stolen Picture, offered to back Williams and put him in touch with Sony Pictures, which has “put in some money behind getting the first videos going”, Williams said.
The videos will be made by a Black director with a diverse film crew, Williams said, adding that he wants to hear stories from all walks of Black British life, and to see the films aired on major television networks and social media platforms.
“One of the aims ... is how we can bring up our own stories that are more representative of the world we live in,” he said, rather than talking about police brutality - which was the main focus of media coverage of the Black Lives Matter protests.
“News teams with a microphone under Black people’s faces (were) saying, ‘Come and share your trauma with us, come educate us’, which becomes very problematic because it ends with the hype and once again, we don’t control that narrative,” he said.