The responsibility of the new Channel 4 show It’s A Sin isn’t lost on actor Omari Douglas. In fact, he wears it like a badge of honor. “We have the privilege now to tell a story,” he explains when we chat just shy of a week from broadcast.
Omari plays the fictional character of Roscoe Babatunde, the standout star of this new drama by writer Russell T. Davies, which charts the lives of a group of young people during the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 80s. As their friendship and self-discovery grows, the years pass, and they each face the pandemic in an unfiltered and often beautifully tragic way.
“We’re so used to this narrative of things only affecting a specific group of people, which this was, people took that and then pushed them to one side even more,” he tells me. “People’s voices weren’t heard and this is a chance to give those people that voice.”
Lead by Years & Years frontman Olly Alexander and The Bodyguard’s Keeley Hawes – who delivers a performance worthy of great accolade – Omari’s desire to play truth to the script given is matched by his desire to represent the stories he’s longed to see on screen.
“It’s easy for people to think of these personalities as almost novelty because we don’t see it enough,” he starts. “We are used to seeing at least black femmeness on things like Drag Race. RuPaul is, I guess, to a degree, a household name now and I think because of that presence in the entertainment industry, people might take those personalities away as just being there for a show. No, these people are real people – I don’t really know how else to put it?
“I think what people forget is that being fabulous as an idea and concept is a reaction to the things that people have gone through.”
Here, in an exclusive conversation, Omari reveals why It’s A Sin is more than just a piece of television drama; it’s a tribute to those we lost, those who live, and those who are still fighting to be seen.
As one viewer commented online: “It’s A Sin is the most beautiful telling of a terrible truth.”
Those words, as Omari says below, seem right.
Spoiler alert: contains references to It’s A Sin, episode one.
Let’s start with the cliché of all cliché questions. Why now? Wow. I…I think we have the privilege now to tell a story with this show, that is of course fictional but based on writer Russell’s experiences, which he poured into the script. You’re following a group of ordinary kids when this disease happens to land smack in the middle of their lives and they’re forced to learn how to deal and grieve and cope. It’s really something you wouldn’t expect young people to go through.
And the impact on ordinary lives. I don’t think people think of the implications of this time on ordinary lives with the prejudice in the media and so much fear. I don’t think people realized that it was touching ordinary people and we’re now living in a pandemic today, touching ordinary people. We’re so used to this narrative of things only affecting a specific group of people, which this was, people took that and then pushed them to one side even more. People’s voices weren’t heard and this is a chance to give those people that voice.
We forget about the average person who so often faces the greatest of challenges. And here, we celebrate the normality of this group, with hope and authenticity. I kept saying ordinary just then but they’re also extraordinary at the same time as, because of what they endure, they’re extraordinary because you get to enjoy their self-discovery. They’re such unique individuals and those things that set them apart do make them special. It captures the beauty of the everyman in ordinary life.
How did you find this electric friendship as a cast we see on screen? Strangely, none of us read together in the audition process and we just got together on the first day, then somehow offscreen we are now also all best friends. (Laughs) I hope that people will invest in the friendship they’ve had – which jumped out at me when I read the scripts – but then go away and think about the landscape of Britain at the time. It was so fascinating for me to go away and look at coming out of the 70s into the 80s. The UK was so bleak financially and socially, but there’s this group of ordinary kids on the cusp of discovering who they are by living their lives. They’ve got a zest for life.
How did you personally edge away from a character that pushes into the arms of a stereotype, without being scared to embrace conformity too? I’m happy you brought this up because the visibility of gay characters is something we are still trying to push. A lot of people come up against this fear of not wanting to play into a stereotype, but in this sense, why is it a stereotype to be a certain way? When I read the script, it was clear that Roscoe is a non-conformist. He is very much a bit of a trailblazer; he carves out his own path. We look at these brilliant, bold and queer figures, and especially black queer figures, but I wanted to find out and make sure he wasn’t a product of now. These people have always been here. Because these people have been hidden away or feel present, it gives you the idea that when you do see them, it’s a modern thing. They’ve always been here.
And Roscoe pushes against this narrative that the queer black experience is but one type of person and story. It’s easy for people to think of these personalities almost as a novelty because we don’t see it enough. I go back to thinking that these people exist and are present, but without the opportunity to be part of stories. For the general public, we are used to seeing at least black femmeness on things like Drag Race. RuPaul is, I guess, to a degree, a household name now and I think because of that presence in the entertainment industry, people might take those personalities away as just being there for a show. No, these people are real people – I don’t really know how else to put it? People live their lives in this way. I think what people forget is that being fabulous as an idea and concept is a reaction to the things that people have gone through. For Roscoe, it’s a protective shield. It’s an armor. That’s not all him, he’s still vulnerable and feels things. So yeah, I think it’s a chance to flesh those things out, and I think Russell did that.
Do you think television has traditionally erased queer black characters from the narrative? Uhmm. Yeah, I think so. (Laughs) I wish I had a firm answer but… I don’t know why. They just have. Maybe because people didn’t know where they fit into narratives? But if we think of past television, I don’t think there’s been much opportunity for black writers to even think about putting those characters on screen.
Being a queer person, I often reflect on the personal experiences of not seeing my story on screen, let alone being explored or even celebrated. And so I think of the young queer kids, black queer kids, and LGBTQ people who will feel made visible by this show. Do you think not only about what the reaction will be in the UK but also across America? Ooft. The reality of it airing here is only just dawning on me, I’ve literally got goosebumps now you’ve said that. (Laughs) I think what’s so amazing about what’s been made is a spectrum of characters. Like if you think about the men in the show, they all present in such different ways and that’s amazing because I think, well at least hope, people will be able to identify with something – that’s a very human thing. That will transcend across the pond to America regardless of which narrative.
We’ve been so used to hearing the US narrative and it’s great that we are getting to see it from a British perspective. But I do think, and hope, that American audiences will still be engaged with the story as this is a human story. Because young people who are gay, or even not just young and gay but queer people across the board will be able to identify with something and see themselves in there.
And for Roscoe, I hope it’s encouraging to express themselves in the way they want to be able to. I want to say without fear but the harsh reality is that Roscoe’s situation is one that is a real experience for people still today, and that’s why this story will resonate.
And that the show doesn’t shy away from conversations that mainstream television so often isn’t brave enough to take on. What research did you undertake to ensure you paid tribute to those lost, without generalizing a narrative? One of the very first things that I did when I got the role was… I read this book, The End of Innocence: Britain in the Time of AIDS by Simon Garfield. It’s amazing because it’s like a journey and dealing with diary entries and real accounts. It makes you feel like you’re living through it, and that was important to get to grips with. Russell said to us that we needed to invest in the joy of our characters because none of you know that this is about to happen. You can never prepare yourself. It’s only when it lands and things start to change is when the tragedy starts to seep in.
Those moments of seeing the fear, you can only understand and empathize with why they do those things because this was unprecedented. Nobody knew what it was and we were living in a different world for communication. You see in episode two the desperation for Jill getting Colin to try and find material. We don’t live in being able to quickly search for a symptom. Resources were limited but compared to now and misinformation and the current pandemic, you actually wonder how different it would even be as we live with misinformation now.
What about the social element of conversation within this period? The social element was interesting as people just disappeared, and you see that. People vanished. People don’t know why. You think they’ve just moved on and it leaves you wondering how many people out there ever found out about friends. I remember seeing I think on the AIDS Memorial Instagram page a testimonial where a guy found out a friend died because they walked past a store one day and saw a memorial poster to them in the window. That’s crazy not to know a life has gone. It makes you realize how many lives were swept under the carpet.
Did you apply additional personal responsibility away from the screen? Yeah, I did. A month into filming, we were invited to a fundraising dinner in Manchester for the George House Trust and we thought of the epidemic of the 80s being the height of it, and yet we have to remember the effects of that time are lasting now. I did feel a responsibility to keep myself as clued up as possible. Hearing people and their experiences of living with HIV in the 21st century was really harrowing because of the fear and prejudice of the 80s still lasting with us now. There’s still a lot of fear that people have to live with.
What about the onset of the conversation and with your colleagues? There’s an amazing actor in the show, Nathaniel Hall, who is an HIV+ member of the cast and is very open about his experiences and has written about it. He spoke at this fundraising dinner and I think, from people opening up like he did, it opened my eyes to what it’s like to live with it now. There’s so much work to be done on its transmission.
And the current education system simply fails in this regard. I was saying the other day when thinking about my sex education and I don’t even remember talking about HIV/AIDS because it’s still a taboo. It’s a shame when you can have an open, honest and normal dialogue. It isn’t something we should be scared of and we need to keep educating ourselves about.
And now we look to the future. Queer people, queer people of color, and the queer narrative on screen. We want to celebrate and remember. Completely. We do have to celebrate it, but how can we even think about bringing variation in the stories we are telling if we aren’t even introducing people to those characters on screen. A lot of it has to do with the open-mindedness of storytellers. Russell is committed to bringing so many different lives to the screen – and I’m grateful for that. I think it’s now about giving space to those people who had those experiences to take charge of the stories, as well. I personally don’t think we will see more of those characters being visible, more black queer characters being visible because as much as there are brilliant people like Russell around to weave those stories into his work, you also need those actual people from those experiences to be taking charge as well. It works both ways.
It’s A Sin airs Fridays at 9pm on Channel 4 or stream now on All4.