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Ryan Griffen is the creator, writer and producer of the TV show Cleverman, and creator of the Cleverman comic book.
Growing up, I loved my television, it was something I could get lost in or something that I could go outside and re-enact after watching. But the older I got, the more I started to realise that I couldn’t see myself on the screen. There wasn’t anyone I could relate to on Australian television. By contrast, I watched a lot of American and British television, and they had at least one thing I could relate to – and that was diversity.
In the early 70s, shows like Sanford and Son hit American television and quickly spread around the world. A black cast? In leading roles? How can it be?
Shows like that were game changers for black storytelling. These were roles that easily could have been played by white people – bar the racial humour, of course – so you can see the breakthrough they made. What? Two black men running a successful business? And I can laugh?
But why do we have to point out their skin colour, or their cultural heritage?
Let’s jump ahead 30 years or so. Today I watch Australian television and still find it hard to relate because diversity is limited on our screens. Sure, we are getting better, and commercial television networks are finally trying to break that mould, but we can do more. It doesn’t take a genius to scroll through the channels to see we are missing something. It’s like we moved from black and white television to colour, but forgot to bring the black with us.
There has been some progress: shows like Redfern Now, Black Comedy and Gods of Wheat Street all paved the way for Cleverman; not only making Indigenous stories accessible to a wider audience, but by upskilling cast and crew so that we can all compete on a global scale.
The fact that Cleverman has now been sold to the US and the UK markets demonstrates that our stories resonate internationally. We also now see shows like Ronny Chieng: International Student, Benjamin Law’s The Family Law, and Here Comes the Habibs on television. These shows are breaking out and building their own followings.
There were several things I wanted to see happen after Cleverman finished its first season. The first was for my son to have a superhero that he could look up to – and a few months ago, I saw him pretending to be the Cleverman in his bedroom. The second was to get our culture onto the world stage, which we did in Paris and Berlin last year.
But there are two more things still outstanding that I can’t wait to see happen. That is to see more Aboriginal actors and people of colour on our screens across all networks; and for more smart, sexy genre television to be made in this country, the types of shows that will draw international audiences to our stories.
I don’t have all the answers as to how to make this happen, but I know we can do more. Maybe opening up the discussion is the best start. One thing I do know is that a black actor can do a lot more than play black characters. We have a huge pool of multicultural talent in this country and each person brings their own story. Imagine what we can make if we dive into that pool more often. And imagine the unique and untold stories we will find when we have more people of colour in the writing room.
As an Aboriginal man, there is one thing that is glaringly obvious here. At a time when unique stories are in demand, this country holds 60,000 years worth of stories that will blow the world’s audiences away.
This story was first published on 13 July by Guardian Australia as part of their collaborative partnership with IndigenousX
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