EXCLUSIVE: UK creative industry union Bectu has opened an investigation into an alleged racially insensitive incident involving Ken Ashley-Johnson, the chairman of its grip branch, on the set of a recent shoot. As part of the process, Ashley-Johnson has been suspended pending the outcome of the inquiry.
Deadline has seen a letter sent by the producers of the shoot to the union detailing the allegations, and the specifics have been verified by those with direct knowledge of the incident. The Instagram account @advertising.accountability, which exposes racism in the creative industries, has also published documents that match the report filed to Bectu. The production was a music video for the British rapper Shygirl and Ashley-Johnson was employed to operate a crane on set.
The letter details an incident that took place on May 20, 2021, during which Ashley-Johnson, who is white, is alleged to have used the N-word in front of Black crew, referred to Black people as “the Blacks”, and to have said that the U.S. is “stuck on slavery”.
Contacted by Deadline, Ashley-Johnson did not respond to request for comment. He specializes in crane work and car rigs and has film credits including jobs on James Bond film Spectre and a 2014 Star Wars shoot, alongside TV credits such as Big Brother and The X-Factor, according to an online CV.
The letter notes how multiple statements from crew corroborate an incident where Ashley-Johnson approached three Black members of the production and greeted them by saying “Wagwan” while speaking in a “caricature of a Jamaican Patois accent”, which he had not done in front of non-Black crew members. He is then said to have begun an unprovoked conversation about differences between racism in the UK and the U.S., stating that racism in the UK “didn’t seem to be as much of an issue” and that the U.S. is “stuck on slavery, even though it was a 100 years ago [and] they just can’t get over it”.
The statements allege Ashley-Johnson subsequently made inappropriate comments comparing interracial couples from the UK and U.S., during which he used the N-word, “enunciated with a hard ‘r”.
Ashley-Johnson is also accused of telling three production personnel of color that if they were not able to do their job, they should “look at being a bus driver or nurse” because the creative industry “takes skill”. Producers say this was discriminatory as it stereotyped work associated with immigrant communities in London.
Two of the statements are outlined in the aforementioned Instagram post, which is linked to at the bottom of this article. One says that Ashley-Johnson’s comments left crew “startled”, “uncomfortable” and “quiet”. Another states that they were “lost for words” after the rant, which lasted five-10 minutes, and that such comments inflict a “level of burden, duress and trauma”.
Producers say in the Bectu letter that Ashley-Johnson was dismissed from set after they were informed of the incident. According to the letter, the grip excused his actions by claiming that many of his friends are Black, and that he was from a neighborhood of London that has a large ethnic minority community, before adding that “you can’t say anything these days” and “political correctness was going too far”. He is also reported to have been “quite threatening” when leaving.
Producers state that the behavior was “discriminatory” and add that “malicious intent does not define racism and discrimination” and that crew were “traumatized and upset” and “didn’t feel safe in his [Ashley-Johnson’s] presence”.
The musician Shygirl also commented on the @advertising.accountability Instagram post, writing: “This was on my shoot… on top of all the misogyny experienced on a daily basis while filming this has really been the cherry to top it off… So many people let this shit slide and it has to be women to come and complain in the end.”
The Instagram post features an email from Sue Yardley of Suz Cruz, which books crew for UK productions, addressing the alleged incident. It states that Ashley-Johnson had meant no “malice or intent”, noting that he had been brought up “with West Indian families in London” and that “some of his best friends and work colleagues are Black”.
Contacted by Deadline, Sue Yardley said that she was unable to comment during an ongoing investigation, but that her company was “committed to improving diversity and inclusivity, and to doing whatever we can to ensure that shoots are a safe and inclusive”.
Bectu sent the following statement to us:
“There is no place for racism in the creative industries or in trade unions. Bectu will continue to challenge and root out such abhorrent views wherever they occur, including any incidents that involve union representatives.
“We received a complaint last week concerning an incident involving a Bectu branch rep. We have taken decisive action, immediately starting our disciplinary process to deal with this case. We are also in touch with the production company and the complainants about next steps.
“The trade union movement is built on solidarity. Campaigning for equality and challenging prejudice is central to who we are. Bectu will continue campaigning for a more diverse and inclusive creative sector.”
The @advertising.accountability Instagram post is linked here.
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