Sitting opposite 26 year old Samuell Benta, clad in a bright-orange cardi and baggy jeans, he leans off the edge of his chair at the Bush Theatre Café, the grind of wearing several hats shows on his face.
Hailing from North West London, Benta has lived more than nine lives. He is the creator of the hit web dramedy, All About the McKenzies (AAK) with over 3.1 million YouTube views, an LA Web Festival Award in 2012 and 18 thousand Twitter followers. He also models in his spare time, he was the ‘face’ of FootLocker’s Spring Campaign earlier this year. Kudos.
“People go “I’ve never been to film school”, “I’ve never been drama school,” but yet, I’m getting attention like I have.” So how did this North West Londoner become his own brand?
After seeing his actor cousin star in Hollyoaks, Benta demanded, “How comes I’m seeing you on screen not me?” and started hunting for opportunities in the Yellow Pages, looking for local acting workshops. Eventually he found an acting studio that just happened to double-up as an agency. After two years with The Harris Agency he found himself on the South Wimbledon set of the Bill where he felt the buzz of being on a national series.
Since then, he’s gone on to star in a variety of projects, as Donnie in Eastenders: E20, Ray Treat in Silent Witness and he fulfilled every 90′s child’s wish, becoming Will Aston, the Black Power Ranger in the Disney/ABC series Power Rangers Operation Overdrive.
However, his path into the media-arts was not so smooth. Benta laughs when describing his time at Copeland Community School in Wembley, London, saying: “I was young and stupid.”
So what made him stick to the dramatic-arts merry-go-round? Atypical to most Damascus-Road stories, Benta cites literature as his remedy: “My transformation year was when I was about 21 years old. I just started reading literature that opened my mind to nature, universal laws and it just changed the way I started seeing life.”
One book in particular impacted him more than most, The Secret by Rhonda Byrne, was recommended to him by a friend.
“I had just got back from doing Power Rangers in New Zealand and I was depressed because I wasn’t getting a lot of acting work after that,” he said, “I didn’t know where I was going.”
This state of disarray even provoked Benta to consider joining the army: “I had actually done the training and everything,” he recounts, “I got to the stage of contract and stuff and something told me, “No, don’t do it.” And I’m glad I didn’t”.
Adding to the pressure was personal relationship issues. Samuell voiced the concerns that seem specific to black actors, saying: “Anytime I went up for auditions they were always stereotype roles and I refused to do those kind of roles because even though its acting…I think is false in terms of who we are and where we come from.”
The black male gangster, bad-boy is what Benta considers to be stereotypical.
His Power Ranger past seems to have given him an invincible attitude in real life, his grand aim for creative projects is to “raise the consciousness level of humanity” which he feels is a reasonable goal, given the authoritative role of the media on society. He is headstrong, set to counter what he sees as the negative portrayals of the black community on screen, like Top Boy: “The only reason it seems real is because that’s all that’s portrayed and if you want to get scientific about it, what you consistently repeat, it becomes hypnotic.” According to Benta this creates a vicious circle which reinforces a certain reality.
Consequently, he consciously chose to centre the script for AAK on a black family, he reasoned that: “With a lot of black families there’s not really families, it’s more single parents nowadays, which is on the rise and I thought,”Right, I need to get that family unit back.”
Benta filmed the first series over 5 days, with short web-friendly episodes,released weekly, which made the series eligible for the L.A Web Festival. The series was filmed with a minimal cast of 7, some of them hungry media graduates recruited off the back of their showreel Benta found online.
As with many Web series, the principle family of All About the McKenzies is comprised of 7 actors with varied to zero level of experience, for instance, the grandad, played by Jason Pennycooke is choreographer in real life, with a CV that includes Michael Jackson and the Spice Girls and Ria, who plays the eldest daughter Charlene, has done some theatre.
YouTube Analytics figures for AAK prove the global reach of the brand, with viewers as far as Russia and the Ukraine, however roughly 100,000 viewers tune in from the UK, over 100,000 viewers come from the United States, with the disproportionate majority of viewers coming from Germany. Benta believes this is down to one of the international interviews he did when flew out to Los Angeles Web Festival to promote the series speaking to international press.
Despite web success and subsequent exposure, this self-made man has had to fight to take AAK to a new level. The family-focussed programme was rejected for Community Grant sponsorship and even Levi Roots partnership failed.
Benta become patently cynical when he recounts his experiences pitching the series to television. A meeting promised by Channel Four still has not come to fruition. A meeting with BBC Manchester which looked promising spawned particular feedback. The two female, middle aged-Caucasian executives said the show was “very black”, “and I said, “Well, it is a black family.”
Benta felt misled after they said CBBC would be more interested in a spin-off featuring the young actress Angel, from the show, only to return with a full script treatment and to find that the Controller he’d dealt with had changed to someone else, who didn’t like the Angel spin-off idea: “They are ignorant, they don’t actually know that people will actually look at black face on screen, they just don’t want to take the chance.”
This is telling, as of his initial frustrations was that the majority of black programming on UK channels, was from America, “I was like, where was the British stuff?”
“But if I can show them,” says Benta, “that it can be done online, then it can be done on TV.”
But does Britain need a Black British sitcom, aren’t we multicultural enough not to need one? Benta replies: “With the amount of black Webseries coming out now, there’s a voice already, you can tell we want our voices to be heard.It also leads to a lot of our frustration because we keep getting rejections.”
For him, asymmetries of power in the traditional media platforms play a crucial part, he said: “We’ve got great ideas, but if we don’t see the light of day by John who’s 35 and a white man who doesn’t understand our world, then what do we have to do? Thank God for YouTube, we can just do whatever we want.”
With the bullish attitude of a great entrepreneur in the making, Benta resolved that these setbacks and the zero profit margins were not going to deter him. Militant, he has produced a second series of AAK, “a bigger production, with more cast, more locations and some celebrities, including a girl who flew in from Los Angeles.”
He has even written an eBook that’ll be published online, How to Create a Successful Webseries that Sells.
“I just said to myself I’m going to show people I can do this myself and maybe people will start changing their attitude.”
His advice for media moguls is to walk in faith, “leap” the ex-PowerRanger says “and a net will appear.”
The second series of All About the McKenzies can be seen here: http://allaboutthemckenzies.com/
Also, Meet the Series 1 Cast Below: