Television has always been a form of escapism for Michelle Owusu. As a child she spent many a weekend cross-legged in her living room, ploughing through Disney films. “The Little Mermaid was my favourite,” says the now 32-year-old of the animated fairy tale that she can still recite word-for-word. But it wasn’t until years later that the British-Ghanaian recalls first seeing other black girls like her, tuning in to American shows such as ‘Fresh Prince of Bel Air’, ‘Sister, Sister’ and ‘Moesha’. Though diversity is increasing on screens, “there’s still a long way to go”, laments Owusu. That starts in the boardroom. “I’m often aware that I’m the only black person in the room,” says the marketing manager for Channel 4, where she’s worked for the past six years.
Owusu says she has used her position to her advantage: “If I’m the only woman in the room, and the only black person, obviously what I’m going to say is going to be perhaps something that no one else has thought about.”
‘BLACK WOMEN HAVING FUN’
It isn’t enough to show more diversity on screens, but more importantly to showcase more positive black content, says Owusu.
In theatres, those types of films are finding huge success, with this year’s Black Panther becoming one of the highest-grossing films of all time.
Girls Trip, a brazen gender-flip on The Hangover, smashed box-office records because, she argues, it “showed black women just having fun” rather than the usual “grim, black experience”. The brassy Londoner, who got her start through a competitive television training scheme run by the Edinburgh International Television Festival and later at MTV News, has been passionate about showcasing non-stereotypical stories.
She led marketing and business development for the popular British web series Brothers With No Game when it made the transition from a text-based blog.
Owusu laughs when recalling how she altered the perceptions of a student from Thailand during her Master’s course. “Before meeting me, this friend thought all black people spoke like, ‘yeah yeah yeah’ and ‘pow pow pow’, and were all gangsters,” she says.
The student’s candid confession revealed just how much of an impact the media can have, particularly in a country where interactions with black people are few and far between.
“People think the media is just entertainment,” Owusu says. “It’s not.”