Supa styling

Supa styling

June 24, 2024


Writing for DQ, producer Sheila Nortley discusses building the young cast of Netflix fantasy drama Supacell and how the series sought to improve diversity and representation on and off screen.

Sheila Nortley

Supacell has been a real highlight in my career as a producer so far. The drama, visual effects, cultural references and multiple locations in and around South London all made it a really epic project to be a part of. We had a fantastic cast, crew and leader in creator and showrunner Rapman. It’s so exciting that we are bringing such a unique and dynamic series to the screen.

The series is about a group of five ordinary people who unexpectedly develop superpowers. They have little in common except for one thing: they are all Black South Londoners. It is then down to one man, Michael Lasaki, to bring them all together in order to save the woman he loves.

Tosin Cole plays Michael, with Nadine Mills as Sabrina, Eric Kofi Abrefa as Andre, Calvin Demba as Rodney, Josh Tedeku as Tazer, Adelayo Adedayo as Dionne, Rayzia Ojo as Sharleen and Giacomo Mancini as Spud.

Improving diversity and inclusion has a been a hot topic in television for a long, long time. There have been so many conversations and there have been some efforts made by broadcasters, streamers and production companies to improve representation, but we are still facing huge challenges and barriers to entry for people from minority backgrounds. With budgets being squeezed and DEI (diversity, equality and inclusion) roles disappearing, we need to be even more vigilant with finding new solutions to create opportunities so we can enrich our industry and bring our stories to global audiences. And a huge part of that is to allow talent from underrepresented groups the space to hone their craft and add their value to the industry.

When I started my new role as a producer on Supacell, Anne Mensah (VP of UK content at Netflix) said to me: “Sheila, make sure you’re in the room. Make sure you’re in every meeting and in every room for this show.” Her conviction struck a chord with me. The moment I accepted the role, it was profoundly important to me that I bring value to it in every way I could and that I’d do all I could to ensure our showrunner’s vision was understood and executed.

Supacell focuses on a group of Black South Londoners who unexpectedly gain superpowers

My role as a producer was extensive. I produced episodes three, four and five of the show, and also served as an associate producer across episodes one, two and six. This allowed me to have holistic input across the series, ensuring consistency and a cohesive vision throughout. I didn’t want to be involved on a superficial level but to really support the creatives and the narrative thread too, and one aspect of this that was important to me was Black female representation in the show.

Rapman and co-director Sebastian Thiel were very intentional about the kind of Sabrina they wanted, and I was very involved in casting Nadine as our female superhero. She’s an incredibly talented actress, one who has been in the industry training and acting for years and just needed her big break. And with characters like Dionne, played by Adelayo, it’d be hard to quantify as a young Black woman what it means to see a dark-skinned Black woman as a love interest worth fighting for, worth saving.

This is why it was such a pleasure working on Supacell. No show is without its challenges, and I’d be lying if I said there weren’t any. But the pleasure was in knowing how necessary it was and how worth it it was. To reimagine the superhero genre, to see ordinary Black British characters portrayed in such a heightened world but with real relatability and authenticity. To have Black-led production on Black-led stories and to work together on Rapman’s characters – characters we all had met in real life growing up in South London but who hadn’t been seen before on screen like this.

The cast includes Adelayo Adedayo, who also stars alongside Martin Freeman in The Responder

There was so much nuance brought to the screen, to see ordinary Black Londoners fronting a superhero genre for the first time in history. And to do so without having to compromise, dilute or exploit the culture in any way was phenomenal. Seeing places like Bagel King juxtaposed with time travellers and telekinesis does something to the hearts and minds of those who have never seen these two worlds collide.

The world has fallen in love with Black British culture. The Black British experience globally is stretching and expanding, and we salute and honour our American counterparts who paved the way decades before. Shows like Queenie, Domino Day, Dreaming Whilst Black, Boarders and Supacell were not created in a vacuum. We understand that post-BLM, many conversations were had, and many doors were opened. The next essential step is sustainability and a better infrastructure in place to ensure the next generation of talent get to create some incredible films and TV shows.

So, the question is, then, how do we open this door further for others? To be part of the solution, on Supacell, we ran the Supacell Six scheme. Conceived by Rapman, New Wave and Netflix, this initiative gave six chosen candidates the opportunity to grow in their chosen field throughout the production, from shadowing crew, giving access to experts in their field, to providing additional upskilling courses. The Supacell Six – Jessica Magaye, Ricardo McCleary-Campbell, Saraphina Mattis, Melissa Simon-Hartman, Cleo Young and Adrian Powell – were senior and mid-level creatives and crew members with experience in fashion, music videos, short films and online content, and the programme enabled them to take their careers to the next step, gaining first-hand mentoring, experience working on a high-end TV drama and shadowing their amazing HODs on the show.

Managing this initiative was my responsibility. From pre-production through post-production, I oversaw interviews, selections and the entire shadowing process. This programme was instrumental in introducing these talented individuals to the crew, offering insights into high-end TV – all in a safe, non-judgemental space. Ask any Black professional in the industry and they will tell you stories of how they have much less room for failure or mistakes than their White counterparts do, and so to be part of an initiative that was wholly inclusive and to be part of this new wave of talent’s journey was a real pleasure. There is so much talent out there; we need to commit to more ways to tap into that talent and give people a chance.

Former Hollyoaks and Doctor Who actor Tosin Cole plays Michael

Yet it is still so common for that responsibility to fall to the handful of Black creatives who hold prominent executive positions to provide opportunities for other Black talent. Unless there is a Black creative in a senior position on production, Black talent currently continues to largely be shut out.

You can see this on Supacell. Rapman is our showrunner, and with that there were multiple opportunities for Black talent both on and off screen, which was fantastic to be part of. Supacell shows that where there is a will, there is a way. But it cannot solely be the responsibility of the few Black senior creatives. With the growth of entertainment exploding over the last decade, it is critical for our industry to embrace diverse stories and Black talent for better representation and to harness the economic power of providing more culturally rich stories for global audiences.

In the show, a group of seemingly ordinary Black people from South London unexpectedly develop superpowers. If I were a South London superhero, my power would be to time-travel into the future in our industry where underrepresented talent is finally recognised as simply talent; in this future, Black talent would no longer need to waste time proving their worth or validating their presence in the spaces where they rightfully belong. Where we could just make great TV. I aim to continue to contribute to this future. This show is part of that legacy.

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