Actor Ariyon Bakare is reframing the conversation on inequality

A black and white photo of a man in a dark coloured jacket with his hands together

The lauded British actor, who’s returning to screens in HBO’s Philip Pullman adaptation, His Dark Materials, talks about his most personal project yet: iCARE, a place for discussion about racial inequality

By Amelia Abraham    Images by Misan Harriman    Sunday 4 October, 2020   Long read

‘I don’t want to write a story and be asked, “But how does this affect White people?”’ says actor and screenwriter Ariyon Bakare, wondering how we get to a point where a story centring the experience of a person of colour isn’t considered by White execs or White audiences to be ‘other’. ‘We need to get more of our stories out there,’ he says. ‘[We need to] get people to listen to them, to get more people of colour into the work environment – of TV, theatre and film – and across the board.’

Bakare is about to reprise his role as Lord Boreal in the second season of His Dark Materials, the successful BBC and HBO adaptation of Philip Pullman’s record-breaking book series, starring opposite Ruth Wilson and James McAvoy. The first series received critical acclaim, much of it for Bakare himself, praising a performance that was equally charismatic and menacing. But today we’re not here to discuss His Dark Materials; we’ve met to talk about the actor’s new platform, iCARE, a safe space for discussion about racial inequality.

The genesis of the idea began when someone sent Bakare a video of Amy Cooper, the White woman who called the police on Christian Cooper (no relation), a Black man who was birdwatching in Central Park. ‘I thought, wow, how many Amy Coopers have I met in my career? In my life?’ he remembers. ‘I was really upset. Then, three days later, the George Floyd video came to me and I found myself watching and crying, actually crying. I’m walking up and down my hallway freaking out, having a panic attack and wondering, “When’s this going to stop?”’

‘I just thought: I’m tired, physically tired of this. And I can’t believe in 2020 that we’re still not creating a new version of this inherited racism that we have. I called people I know and was like, are you racist? Some people said: “It’s nothing to do with me” or “It’s for those who live in America.” One person said: ‘I don’t see your colour.’ That blew me away. I said: “If you don’t see my colour then you don’t see the struggles I’ve been going through.”’ 
A black and white photo of a man sitting on a wall laughing
A black and white photo of a man in a light coloured jacket and his hand on his chin
As well as attending Black Lives Matter protests in London, Bakare wanted to do something that would sustain lasting change, so he launched iCARE. ‘I wanted to create a space where people can have a conversation about racial equality, have it honestly, and kind of demystify the whole inherited racism that we learnt from our grandparents and their grandparents. A place where people could start asking questions or talk about their experiences.’

The ‘CARE’ stands for ‘Conversations About Racial Equality’ and the website features sections on ‘Conversations’ and ‘Questions’. The former asks people to contribute their thoughts about racism and how it has impacted them, and the latter asks people to respond to questions that might prompt them to challenge their own assumptions. Bakare reached out to friends to offer the first contributions. 

‘Denise Gough wrote a beautiful piece,’ he says. The actors Stacy Martin, Eddie Marsan and Ronke Adekoluejo have also contributed. Misan Harriman, the Nigerian photographer who recently became the first Black male photographer to shoot a Vogue cover, has written a piece. It reads: ‘Over the years I have developed an extraordinary network of people in the film, fashion, music and art world and it has still been an uphill struggle for me to get the gate keepers of those industries to give me a chance, so you can imagine how hard it is for others who do not have my network.’

The platform includes people of all races, because White people need to actively dismantle their own racist attitudes by engaging in these conversations, Bakare says, and ‘because we can all do more to get rid of the inherited racism within ourselves.’ He also stresses that it’s definitely not just for famous people, either – anyone is welcome to follow on social media or get in touch via the website and ask how they can contribute. 

The project is already having a positive impact. ‘A woman called Adesola Ajilogba who works in fintech wrote a conversation that went around her company. They used it as a doctrine and changed their company policy,’ says Bakare. ‘That to me was one of the most moving things ever and that’s what I expect the outcome to be.’ 
A man standing in a garden in a light coloured suit
‘At first, it was just about my small group of friends, then it exploded in a weird and wonderful way, where I realised everybody wanted to have a conversation; Black, White, women, men, gay, straight, cis and transgender. When it went to America, I realised it was bigger than me. I didn’t start it because I want to be an activist. I’m more of an “actorist”,’ Bakare jokes. ‘But I wanted to make sure that in the next 45 summers I’ve got left on this planet, I’ve done something.’ 

As well as racial violence in the US, Bakare says iCARE was influenced by racism he’s experienced in his own life and career. As a kid who was brought up in east London, he watched as National Front members attacked his Nigerian father in front of him. Later, he recalls how he had to code-switch – that is, minimise his Blackness and assimilate – in the predominantly White acting environments such as the Drama Centre London and then the Royal Shakespeare Company, where his talent won him a place straight after graduating. 

‘I was this young guy who had a lot of passion, but I was Black and came from Leytonstone. I didn’t fit in. I used to do things like shorten my name to anglicise it. Imagine: it was the 1990s, a totally different arena from what we’re living in now. There was a certain sense of having to always feel grateful, even if I had worked really hard.’

Bakare’s big on-screen break came when he was cast as the lead in the BBC drama A Respectable Trade. He’s since appeared alongside Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson and Ryan Reynolds in the film Life (2017), and starred with Isabelle Huppert in Frankie (2019). Subtle and overt racism persisted. ‘For years I was told Black people can’t open a film,’ he says. ‘As an actor I sit in a make-up chair and they don’t know how to do my hair. So I say, “Don’t worry, I’ll just shave it off.” But I’ve realised that if you play the “don’t worry” game, that’s like saying you’re accepting it. You’re being an enabler. So now I am saying, no, understand it – it’s there.’

Wanting to see people make the effort to better their understanding is why Bakare says he doesn’t mind when friends come to him asking what books to read about racism (he recommends Brit(ish): On Race, Identity And Belonging by Afua Hirsch and Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge as a starting point). ‘That is what iCARE is ultimately all about,’ he concludes. ‘It’s about educating people through stories.’
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