Arts

Blackness isn't a monolith says Unsaid Stories short film writer Nicole Lecky

Unsaid Stories is a series of short films that explores the experiences of black people in the UK in the light of the Black Lives Matter movement. Georgia Humphreys finds out more from some of the people behind the project

Amanda Abbington and Nicole Lecky in Unsaid Stories, Lavender

TELEVISION has the power to spark public discussion about poignant – and often, uncomfortable – topics. And that's what the writers of Unsaid Stories hope to achieve, when the series of short films airs on ITV next week.

The four 15-minute dramas explore and confront racism and prejudice, and have been filmed with safety measures in place because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

They're inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, which has been ignited most recently in 2020 by the footage of George Floyd dying at the hands of Minneapolis police.

“I just hope that people watching it maybe feel like they're seen, that their voices are heard, and it speaks to them in a different way,” notes Nicole Lecky, who has written the short titled Lavender, and is also known for her play Superhoe, which is being adapted for TV by the BBC.

“Most forms of racism aren't really obviously physical or blatant – I'm talking about the insidious racism or comments you may get – and we don't really talk about that side of racism.

“People think that it's something that doesn't apply to them, and that's why I think it's really important.”

Here, three of the writers – Lecky, plus Anna Ssemuyaba and Jerome Bucchan-Nelson – tell us more about the process of putting these brilliant films together.

Ssemuyaba, who used to work in TV development, is the woman behind I Don't Want To Talk About This, starring Peaky Blinders' Joe Cole, and Adelayo Adedayo, who has appeared in The Capture.

They play Tom and Thea, a former couple who bump into each other at a party and end up assessing the impact racism had on their relationship as a middle-class black woman and a working-class white bloke.

Nicholas Pinnock, star of ITV's Marcella, and Yasmin Monet Prince, known for Amazon Prime series Hanna, take the lead roles in Generational, written by Bucchan-Nelson. It looks at how dad Oliver responds when he catches his teenage daughter Justina sneaking out of the house to attend a Black Lives Matter march.

Meanwhile, Lavender focuses on an uncomfortable conversation new mother Jordan (played by Lecky) has with her white mother Lyndsey (Sherlock star Amanda Abbington) after giving birth to a baby with a black man.

Lastly, Look At Me – from playwright and director Lynette Linton – follows a couple called Michael and Kay, played by Paapa Essiedu, who has recently been seen in the amazing I May Destroy You, and Pippa Bennett-Warner, who you'll recognise from Gangs of London (which also stars Essiedu).

The drama shows the young professionals being stopped by the police while on the way to a date, and the impact that has.

“Blackness isn't a monolith, and it's really important to have loads of different stories,” says Lecky, when discussing the aim of her film.

“Having a mixed-race black woman during this climate, who has white family members and finds it difficult talking about race, and still feels all the hurt and the pain of what's going on, I think it's a story that's really needed. And to be cast in it too means I'm able to do what I actually want to say with this piece.”

Meanwhile, Ssemuyaba wanted to show – through her characters who first met as children, and are now in their late 20s/early 30s – how the way we talk about race has changed.

“In the past, ‘I don't see colour' was seen as a very progressive thought, whereas I think now everyone understands that that's not the point.

“I am a black person; if you don't see colour, that means you don't see the microaggressions and the macroaggressions and you also don't see the way the world treats me differently from people of other races.”

As for Bucchan-Nelson, who has worked in TV for a long time, and has “often been the only black person in the room”, he felt that “there is a perception that all black people feel the same way about most things.

“And so even with the Black Lives Matter movement, I wanted to kick off my film with two black people disagreeing on the validity of the movement,” he explains.

“Just to shock people into sitting up and understanding that there are conversations and differences of opinions within this community, just like every other community.”

All the writers say that putting their stories out there has been an emotional process – and a surprising one too.

“This is what I love about being a writer: sometimes you don't know that you have something to say until you're given the opportunity to say something,” reflects Lecky. “It kind of just came out of me, really.”

“For me, the politics of my writing is usually the subtext; I Trojan horse it into a bigger and glossier story,” Ssemuyaba adds.

“And so to do something where it's very much in the foreground, it is the text, was quite emotional, but also quite daunting, because you're laying yourself out there and dealing with quite sensitive and nuanced topics so I wanted to make sure I was getting it right.”

Bucchan-Nelson, who has worked on Sky One drama Bulletproof, opens up about how researching the Black Lives Matter movement for his script had an impact on him emotionally.

“Having to pull on the real-life trauma that has inspired this is not fun,” he says. “It's really taxing to constantly read about people in the world who undervalue my life.

“But I guess the reward is getting to write something that hopefully, in some small way, works towards correcting that.”

There seems to be more and more conversations surrounding diversity in the TV industry, but have the writers noticed a shift yet?

“I'd say I've noticed a frenzy rather than a shift!” responds Ssemuyaba. “You just want the same level of respect and treatment as white writers.

“We're still in the midst of what's going on and I'll be excited and intrigued to see what's happening.”

“Yeah, I've noted something, but I think it's too soon to say whether it's a change,” muses Bucchan-Nelson, before adding: “I am encouraged by the conversations.

“There are certain people I've worked with for a very long time, where we've never spoken about race, it just hasn't come up, and we've just worked together and we've got along, and they have gone out of their way to call, to ask me questions about my experience of working with them and how can it be better…

“I can only see it as a good thing, really. Let's keep it going: let's keep talking.”

:: Unsaid Stories will air over consecutive nights on ITV from Monday August 10.

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