It’s A Sin’s Omari Douglas: ‘There Are So Many Stories Out There Waiting To Be Told’
Two months after It’s A Sin debuted in the UK, Omari Douglas is still fascinated by the triumphant reception to the Russell T Davies show that carved a new path for LGBTQ representation and became All4’s most-streamed series ever.
He’s still processing the digital fanfare and deluge of fan art he’s received, created by audiences responding to his character Roscoe, a young queer Black man who leaves his socially conservative family for the bright lights of London.
Of the fan responses, he says: “I was fascinated that we were seeing so much fan art. You really do have to be moved by something to go away and make your own art.”
Sharing the story of a recent remarkable interaction with one fan, Omari says: “Someone tagged me in a Twitter thread of a guy who had lost touch with his uncle. He’d seen lots of pictures of him when he was young and he posted these pictures in this thread.
“His uncle was this very flamboyant Black man with dreads, very punky, similar to Roscoe. Basically this guy watched the show and it encouraged him to reconnect with his uncle, who he’s not spoken to for years.”
This has been the pull of It’s A Sin – not only has it been lauded by critics for bringing to life both the humanity and the joy of the era in which it’s set, it also acts as a fitting tribute to those that lost their lives in the early years of the AIDS epidemic.
“Taking on something of that size as my first television experience, the imposter syndrome is huge. To step into an environment like that and join this cast of really stellar people, and have all of these cameras around you, having this huge learning experience from the get-go.”
The immense popularity the show has enjoyed has given Omari a platform which he hopes to exploit to create more work representing minority communities, such as the queer Black community he is a part of. His intersectional identities, and the communities they form, are the subject of his upcoming talk.
He hopes to write, as well as star in, more work representing the lives of queer Black Britons, and admires the likes of I May Destroy You’s Michaela Coel for driving forward the culture of actors from minority communities telling stories which are different from what has been seen before.
However, he insists there’s still a long way to go.
“I can only imagine that there are so many stories out there that are waiting to be told,” he says.
What is the block in having more diverse stories told, following the huge success of shows like I May Destroy You and It’s A Sin?
“I think a lot of it has to do with the gatekeepers who allow those stories to be put on screen because a lot of the time these things are seen as risks,” he says.
“Everything is considered a risk, and yet time and time again – go back to Michaela Coel, you only have to look at how her ownership of storytelling created something so unique and pivotal in television history.
“Yet it’s funny how things are still considered risky and people are constantly having to prove things work. You look again at Russell pitching It’s A Sin. It was meant to be given eight episodes, it was given four and then he pushed for a fifth.”
Now that there’s a track record of shows representing minority communities succeeding in ratings terms, as well as culturally, what’s still got to change to get more diverse shows commissioned?
“A lot of that has to do with people thinking, ‘How does the world as a whole relate to this fundamentally queer story?’” he says. “And yet you only have to look at the results and go, well,I think we’re very much past things being niche.”
Omari describes “such broadness and universality in these stories” – and hopes for change. “I just hope that the people who hold the power to let those people in and put those stories on screen and on stage, they just give way and allow for more of that.”
Another recent blockbuster show that sparked a lot of conversation on the topic of representative storytelling is Bridgerton. It enlisted a racially diverse cast and employed “colour-conscious” casting, where actors from diverse backgrounds are consciously chosen for certain roles.
However, Omari thinks the fanfare around Bridgerton and its diversity misses the point. “It was interesting seeing the media reaction to it,” he says. “People were sort of reacting to it as if it was a stylistic, creative choice, when actually, again, it proves how we’ve been spoon-fed such a contrived and concentrated viewpoint of history.”
“The fact people were so shocked to see Black people moving in aristocratic circles when that happened,” he adds, laughing in disbelief. “Do you know what I mean? I think it just proves we’ve got so much work to do in terms of making those parts of history visible, because otherwise you’re always going to get that reaction. ‘Oooh that’s an interesting stylistic choice’.”
He says of Bridgerton in particular: “It felt like some of the reaction to it was quite patronising and a little bit condescending. ‘How brilliant to look at it from that angle,’ and it’s like, no.
“People were so shocked to look at people like Queen Charlotte. ‘Oh my god I didn’t know that.’ So yeah, I think we’ve just got lots of work to do.”
The issue goes deeper. “When I think about the UK and the things we consume, we’re really quite obsessed with white British period dramas, and I think about where non-white characters come into play,there’s never any sort of like real spotlight on those stories and again, it’s about how high up the chain we’re looking,” he says of how to enact change.
“I think obviously people like Julian Fellowes have had such great success with Downton Abbey, but when people latch onto images like that they take it away as being the one set image of what British history is.”
He continues: “We have a responsibility as people who make television, we forget how formative television is. It’s education to people, it’s the stuff you see when you’re outside of the classroom and if we’re not showing a broad enough perspective then we’re just white-washing history.”
I was just completely blown away by just seeing so much art – that’s been really touching”Omari Douglas
Omari hopes his own work in this field will particularly focus on more historical revisions, to tell Black stories that have previously been excluded. He found some inspiration for his own writing while rifling through the BFI archives when researching for his role as Roscoe in It’s A Sin.
“So many fascinating bits of archive footage,” he says. “Amazing artists like Isaac Julian. It’s a matter of going out there and hunting for it, which is what it feels like, because some of it doesn’t feel that readily available. We need to press on and make more of this stuff, otherwise it’s like hunting for a mine. It’s like, you’re scraping to look for these things when really they should be readily available to us.”
While his next acting role is yet to be announced, the 27-year-old – who’s based in Wolverhampton – doesn’t correct me when I say offers must be flying in.
In the future, he says he’d love to write and star in historical queer Black stories that “open up narratives that we haven’t seen at all,” he says, adding: “There’s a lot of queer Black historical figures that have been given no limelight.”
But for now, there’s more It’s A Sin fan art to get back to. “I was just completely blown away by just seeing so much art right from the get-go,” he says. “That’s just been really touching.”
Omari’s event is a part of The Great United festival, which takes place online at 3pm on April 3. Tickets are available here, and free for those who cannot afford the full price. 10% of proceeds will go to Cultural Survival, a global charity which advocates for Indigenous Peoples’ rights.
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