Parsing the Idris Elba Plagiarism Battle

Idris Elba FB Photo

Last week, as much of the United States was preparing to celebrate the Fourth of July (and I was taking some vacation time), a major plagiarism battle was coming to a head in the United Kingdom.

The battle pits Idris Elba, a major movie and music star, and Kwame Kwei-Armah, the director of the prominent London theater The Young Vic, against two relatively unknown authors, Sarah Henley and Tori Allen-Martin.

However, this isn’t a traditional plagiarism battle. Henley and Allen-Martin don’t claim that Elba and Kwei-Armah ripped off their earlier work. Instead, all four admit that they have worked together on the project and the issue comes down to exactly how large their role was in the final product and what credit they deserve.

Henly and Allen-Martin feel that they were unfairly pushed out of the project and that the final product uses a great deal from their contributions, for which they receive no credits (or royalties). Elba and Kwei-Armah, however, claim that they felt the need to take the project in a new direction and, though they offered opportunities for the other two to remain involved, they were rebuffed.

Ultimately, it’s a plagiarism story that doesn’t just bleed into the often-opaque business of theater, but into issues of discrimination, abuse of power and more.

That makes it well worth dissecting, even if parts of the story are not just unknown, but likely unknowable.

The Story So Far

Parsing the Idris Elba Plagiarism Battle Image

Back in October 2018, the Manchester International Festival, announced it would be hosting world premiere Tree, a stage production by Idris Elba and Kwame Kwei-Armah, before the musical would go on to its regular run at the prestigious Young Vic theatre in London.

Based upon and inspired by music from Elba’s album Mi Mandela, the story focuses on a mixed-race Kaelo, who is forced by tragedy to return to visit South Africa for the first time.

However, the production had been in the works for years before that. According to an account of the events posted on their Medium page, Henley and Allen-Martin said that the production’s story began in January 2015 when Allen-Martin was invited by Elba to come up with an idea for a musical.

Allen-Martin had spent a month in Africa performing on the album and helping Elba with it. She brought in Henley on the project with Elba’s permission and the two began working on it. They signed a commissioning agreement in March 2016 and worked on it throughout the year, including workshop in May that featured an abbreviated script and additional music written by the pair to cover gaps that the album left open.

Two years later, in May 2018, Kwame Kwei-Armah joined the project and, according to Henley and Allen-Martin, that was when things started to go sideways. They claim, shortly after then, they began to get shut out of the project and only started receiving updates from social media and not from others on the team.

According to Henley and Allen-Martin, they were then offered £2,000 a piece to ghostwrite a new draft of the production, which would be created under Kwei-Armah’s creative control. They counter-offered but refused any creative meetings until the dispute of authorship was cleared up. The two writers say that refusal to meet was part of the reason for their dismissal from the project in November.

The duo then took matters to their lawyers but, without the financial resources, they said they couldn’t hope to compete with either Elba or Kwei-Armah. As such, they decided to make the public statement.

Both Elba and Kwei-Armah has responded via their Twitter:

In both of the statements, Elba and Kwei-Armah minimize the role of Henley and Allen-Martin in the final product saying that they were a part of the team for the workshop and pitching phase and that they went a different direction with the actual production. However, Henley and Allen-Martin have contended that many elements they wrote remain in the production script, even if a great deal has been changed.

Kwei-Armah said that he tried repeatedly to bring Henley and Allen-Martin into the fold but were rebuffed (likely due to the ghostwriting clause). Both men also stated that Henley and Allen-Martin were both credited, just not as writers or as creators of the original story. Instead, they were in a list of names of people who were on the “original journey”.

The story, however, has been picked up by a wide variety of mainstream media. It was first reported on by The Stage and has since also been reported on by The New York Times and The Hollywood Reporter, just to name a few.

In the end, it comes down to a very simple disagreement. Elba and Kwei-Armah claim that the new work is a completely different project and that Henley and Allen-Martin aren’t owed any credit. They simply went a “different direction.” However, Henley and Allen-Martin claim that the final script still uses a great deal of their work and that they should be given the credit they deserve.

But, while and more people are coming forward with similar stories in the theater industry, these types of disputes happen anywhere that there is collaboration.

The Pitfalls of Collaboration

Collaboration is a beautiful thing and a requirement to make many of the biggest and most important works of our time. However, wherever there is collaboration, there is disputes over authorship. Whether it’s music, movies or books, disputes over who deserves what credit are rampant.

The reason is that this isn’t just an issue about giving credit where it’s due, but about money. In the music industry, for example, every person listed as a songwriter for a track gets royalties for the composition. For a large, successful track, that can amount to a lot of money. It’s one of the key reasons why musicians often push for songwriter credit regardless of their actual contributions to a song.

But while public lawsuits and blowups about these issues are common in the music and movie industries, they are much less common in theater. One of the themes of this story has been that many writers have come forward with similar stories of being replaced and not getting credit for their contributions.

Couple that with the fact Henley and Allen-Martin have openly raised questions about whether they would have been treated the same if they were men, it raises issues of gender discrimination as well.

The sad thing is that this behavior is likely the norm for theater and I only say that because it’s surprisingly common in other creative industries. The motivation works both ways: To push out creators so others get a larger share and add people to the credits artificially as a means to pay them extra.

In short, what happened to Henley and Allen-Martin is, most likely, very common and the conversation from others in the industry seems to back that up. Writers that are brought in during the early phases of a production are often pushed out when the project reaches its later stages and goes “a different direction”.

However, being common doesn’t make something right. Henley and Allen-Martin presented a lengthy account of how they worked on the project for years, providing dates and photographic evidence. It’s difficult to argue that they weren’t key figures in the project and deserve credit.

If they are accurate and they were only offered £2,000 apiece for months worth of work to ghostwrite the production, that is an amount that is insultingly low and is anything but the “incredible opportunity for Tory and Sarah to collaborate with MIF and Young Vic,” that Elba claimed it was. Instead, it’s an attempt to get a large amount of work for little money when those doing it have already contributed so much.

If you truly want to support and nurture young talent, they need to be paid and credited appropriately. It’s hard to build much of a career when you work on a project for years and the best reward you’re offered is a two thousand pounds and no credit.

Regardless of whether or not Elba and Kwei-Armah were doing something normal or even that they believed to be ethical, they were clearly not benevolent benefactors they are trying to position themselves as.

Any good will they were hoping to get by having Henley and Allen-Martin on board is gone, not just from the writers, but the public at large.

Bottom Line

The response to Elba and Kwei-Armah’s Twitter posts are, to put it mildly, less than good. Those comment express a great deal of doubt about the completeness and veracity of the statements and, further, they doubt the intentions of both men.

Elba, in particular, is a much beloved figure in pop culture. He is an international star best known for his looks, his talent and his kindness. Even as this story was unfolding, he was noted for coming to the aid of a woman that fainted during one of the production’s performances.

When you have such an amazing public persona, it is a wonderful thing. However, it also comes with the weight of living up to it. Elba, clearly didn’t here. Even if what he did is par for the course in the industry, it’s not up to the standards the public holds him up to and that’s visible in how his response is being received.

Elba and Kwei-Armah should both be aware that their positions and prominence give them a power and authority over people like Henley and Allen-Martin and they have a duty to not abuse it. Whether their intents were malicious or not, they did.

Elba and Kwei-Armah’s responses don’t refute the worst allegations that Henley and Allen-Martin. While it’s impossible to say how much of their work ended up in the final product and if they do have a legal ground to file a lawsuit, they were clearly more than just two people along for the “original journey.”

While it’s often difficult to know how to deal with collaborators that weren’t able to finish a project or otherwise were not there at the end, being openly dismissive of years of hard work isn’t the answer.

Elba and Kwei-Armah did not handle this well. Whether that will harm Tree‘s success or force a better settlement for Henley and Allen-Martin is impossible to know but it should be a lesson for others in Elba and Kwei-Armah’s shoes.

Just because an approach is “normal” or “standard” doesn’t make it right, especially when viewed by those outside the industry. In an increasingly public age, very few industry secrets remain secrets and, if something like this does become public, they aren’t going to be judged by the actions of those that came before, but by their own.

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