Growing up a dark horse, a black girl dreaming, her head in a book, in a corner somewhere – the words ‘you can’ weren’t words I, or many of my peers, heard very often.
Neither from the lips of male teachers or white heads of year – but every so often there was a black teacher, a woman, in the science or English department, who would take us aside and give us a stern talking to.
Something along the lines of, ‘You can’t be like them because you’re more. You’re special and must use it. They’ve already peaked, but if you focus you can go far’. I pray those women are basking in universal gifts.
For those that don’t know who I am, *insert insulted Naomi Campbell gif here*, my name is Michelle Tiwo – a 25-year-old Togolese/Nigerian actor, poet, writer and freelance facilitator via south-east London. Big up the south crew.
This, however, is not a tale of woes.
For those that do know me, my life hasn’t changed dramatically since ackee & saltfish: sorry to disappoint. Truth be told I still live at home with my parents and sisters, my account is (probably) still in minus and I’m still very much agent-less.
But this, however, is not a tale of woes. It’s a moment for realness.
For years when I was younger and obsessed with Sister Act 2 – Whoopi Goldberg and Lauryn Hill in one film were my idea of glad tidings – I would admire actors I thought were beautiful. Actors like Viola Davis, Taraji P. Henson, Angela Bassett, Regina Hall and Gabrielle Union, thinking to myself, how I wanted to be there too. Amongst them, inspiring another little brown girl out there to go after something bigger than herself, even if she doesn’t know what or how to reach it just yet.
My sisters, in all our shades, are still invisible, still slipping through the cracks.
Representation matters and erasure is real. Black man are praised for being dark-skinned – their skin seen as an addition to their masculinity rather than a crux – but that is not the case for women. We watch them rise and excel far beyond British borders and boundaries. I mean props to them of course, always happy to see the brothers shine but my sisters, in all our shades, are still invisible, still slipping through the cracks, still struggling for our own spot and I don’t understand why.
My years of rebelling and doing as I creatively pleased have got me to this very point. A good friend of mine introduced me to Cecile Emeke – though we’d met before – in January 2014 when a group of us came together to speak about what we wanted to do with our year. She said she wanted to film more, I said I wanted to do more short films and thus, here we are. That’s basically it.
Working behind the scenes of ackee & saltfish with Cecile Emeke and Vanessa Babirye, was and has been the most refreshing and empowering experience I’ve had. There’s so much power in black women coming together to create art. No-one can convince you afterwards that you’re not a force.
It was honestly an organic meeting of creative minds.
We weren’t expecting to bond quite the way we did over scripts, tea and fruit. We had no clue our ideas and ideals would be so aligned, heck we didn’t even realise what an impact the trailer for ackee & saltfish would have let alone the short film or web series, not to speak of our friendship. It was honestly an organic meeting of creative minds. Vanessa and I met when we were 19 to 20-year-old baby unicorns finding our wings, our friendship and mutual respect for each other’s hilariousness solid after four years.
We were excited to be working together on an authentic project specifically for black British women – women who look like us, joke like us, argue petty the way Olivia and Rachel do. We were so in love with our characters we constructed their entire back story way before the camera; from their style and family to their uni courses, dreams, fears, hair goals and celebrity crushes. Fam, inside and out.
I know it all sounds very ‘la la la’, sunshine and happy days but I assure you it was every bit as magical as you can imagine. Those women are funny as fuck, we came away with toned abs after each reading/workshop/rehearsal. And we were open to talking about anything from sex to loss, micro-aggressions, sexuality, just all of the tings.
It’s amusing though, when some people have asked in the past about working behind the scenes, they’ve seemed somewhat disappointed there was no drama. I’m… Sorry, I guess?
What my point here is, these ladies are my friends, and those are the best kinds of projects to work on. The show would fail if the cast/crew didn’t have the same kind of chemistry off-screen as it does on-screen and that comes naturally when you’re working with friends. At least that’s been my experience.
If you’re agentless but determined, it’s not the end of the world. Yes, castings for higher profile roles are a little out of your reach, but between me and you, HBO’s Broad City reached out for a casting because they enjoyed our characters in the web series. Though we didn’t get it, it was a sign that it’s not impossible, you’ve just gotta, y’know, start? Somewhere. Anywhere. Write a short story, script or poem, whatever you fancy. Team up with a homie that likes filming cool stuff and has a camera, film it together, put it out there.
If you haven’t noticed, black women are on trend.
It helps to think of yourself as a sort of independent rapper but you’re an actor obviously – you call your own shots and keep the money too in this wonderful internet era of ours.
Also, if you haven’t noticed, black women are on trend and not just our features on other women (the pillaging is still rampant of course) but our actual selves. The internet has provided a space and endless platforms for us to connect with each other. A place our talents, skills, personalities, flaws, strengths and insecurities can be expressed, explored and the most beautiful part? HEARD and SEEN, supported, comforted, uplifted and understood, by each other. Watching our fellow sisters be themselves and live in their truth is disgustingly encouraging to be just as unapologetic. I constantly find myself in a state of gratefulness for it.
Beyonce’s Lemonade came out just as I was writing this. As a poet I’ve never felt so affirmed in my art, and all praise goes to Warsan Shire for that. Her words moving as thread through such a powerful visual-album for THE Queen B, has to be the beacon that shows other UK poets there is a place for our voices, and it might not necessarily be here.
I feel the exact same about actors, especially black actors, more so black women. The film and TV industry have opportunities to offer elsewhere. That’s not saying we’ve all got to flee the country for success just because actors like Sophie Okonedo have travelled (hope you’re watching or planning to watch Undercover). Remember, the amazing Michaela Coel did and has been writing her own material for years now, and she really couldn’t deserve that BAFTA more.
*Lightbulb moment or nah?*
Ah what a time to be a black millennial woman. The pickings are slim in the UK and there are many of us dreamers dreaming and hoping to make it out of the books and shadows. We could write and create our own ways out.
We have the power to tell our stories on our own terms.
It can be beautifully daunting but equally inspiring, to know we have the power to tell our stories on our own terms if we so choose – we are the ones we’ve been waiting for and all that jazz.
If you had told me at 19, I the black sheep of my family, would be doing everything I wanted to do – teaching poetry, performing and featuring in a show for the BBC at 25, I would have laughed but probably believed you. Running in the direction of your dreams, as I’ve seen, pays off. Not in a huge sweeping way, but piece by piece it comes together. So run.
Follow Michelle on Twitter @ChelleOT