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‘The issue isn’t black British actors stealing roles from African Americans. It’s a film industry that has black actors scrambling for parts, in both countries.’
‘It’s not trailblazing to write the world as it actually is … believe me, people of colour are never anybody’s sidekick in real life.’
When I was in Year 6, my primary school put on a production of Grease. For many kids, including me, the prospect of missing lessons to wear a pink satin jacket and to hand-jive was as exciting as if the fake cigarettes we were fake-smoking had been real. I leapt at the opportunity and went for the joint largest role – the archetypal white girl next door, Sandy.
When auditions came around, I was confident. I knew I was unlikely to be scouted by Disney and carted onto their conveyor belt of terrifyingly precocious child stars, but I could dance, carry a tune and show off a great deal – which, aged ten, is essentially indistinguishable from acting. I learnt my lines, hit some notes and strutted away convinced that my performance had been enough for me to be crowned with the blonde wig of Miss Olsson.
But I wasn’t. I didn’t get the part of Sandy – a blow supposedly softened by the silver lining of being given the role of resident bad gyal, Rizzo. While anyone in their right mind knows that Rizzo is the true star of Grease (Sandy was just a land-Ariel, giving up her legs for a bloke, but in her case legs were a cardigan and good grades), she wasn’t the biggest part and the biggest part was meant to go to the person who had given the best audition. And I knew that person had been me. You might think that this is simply my embittered, self-aggrandising interpretation, but it’s not. You see, while talent is often subjective, the teacher’s decision to cast a blonde-haired, blue-eyed schoolmate of mine and then rewrite the script so I had to sing Sandy’s songs because she couldn’t sing at all, pretty much cemented my suspicion that the decision had been an aesthetic one. The girl who was chosen didn’t have a single solo in the school musical, but boy did she have a killer set of baby blues.
This reverse Milli Vanilli routine was the first time I realised something that now barely raises an eyebrow from me: black women’s voices are wanted, but not if they come from our own mouths. If you look at the music charts, blue-eyed soul artists dominate simply because they sound like their black peers, who can’t seem to catch a commercial break in the UK themselves. White artists are given award nods for sounds that not only came from black women, but also often relegate those women to outside of the top 40. Similarly, white actors are able to flourish in their own countries first, while black actors must often achieve success overseas before they are championed at home. Thankfully, my singing and dancing dreams pretty much began and ended aged ten, but for those who go on to follow them, the problems persist even when they do come true.
‘BAFTA stands for black actors fuck off to America.’
Gina Yashere, Black is the New Black
Over the years, the same inability to think outside of the box has seen our favourite actors up sticks to America in their droves, in the hopes of a more welcoming reception in Hollywood. And while America is hardly known for its racial cohesion, in terms of diversity within acting, they’re a great deal better off. Lenora Crichlow, Nathalie Emmanuel, Freema Agyeman, Carmen Ejogo, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Ashley Madekwe are some of the actors that have followed the trail left by Idris Elba, David Oyelowo, Naomie Harris, Marianne Jean-Baptiste and so many others, who jumped ship long before and found success abroad. America still has a long way to go in terms of diversity, but Britain has further. America’s black population is around four times bigger than the UK’s – 3 per cent vs 13 per cent – which explains the increased visibility for black actors in America. But in both countries representation remains below the national average.
One of the UK’s largest exports to the US is arguably our actors, but what’s interesting is how different the journey is for the various actors who decide to head across the pond. The plummy-voiced, pale-skinned British men, before they attempt to crack the US, are firstly championed over here as national treasures – they have already conquered the hearts of their own nation, and now simply hope to do it all over again in America. Black actors and musicians, however, often leave out of sheer necessity. Idris Elba has long been one of the US’s biggest stars, while back in the UK we continue to argue over whether our British icon Elba can portray another of our British icons, James Bond. These artists leave the country relatively unnoticed and underrated, only to return to a hero’s welcome once the Americans have given them the nod of approval. The situation is so brazenly bad that even politicians have commented on it: Labour politician Chuka Umunna has called it ‘unacceptable’ that black British actors cannot achieve mainstream success in the UK without having to break the US first.
Actor and singer Cynthia Erivo is something of a poster child for the black British entertainers’ American dream. After being spotted by an American producer while performing in a show, she moved from South London to the US and has since won the 2016 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical performance for her role as Celie in the Broadway revival of The Color Purple, as well as the 2017 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album. She has now landed a starring role in Steve McQueen’s Widows and has been cast in the lead for an upcoming Harriet Tubman biopic.
‘I feel like it takes a while here [in the UK], it really does, and I can understand why black female actors have gone over [to America] and found more things there, because I think people are able to take more of a risk over there,’ she says. ‘And I’m not saying it’s perfect, I’m not saying they have it all together completely, but I definitely think they’re more open to trying new things and putting different faces in, working with different writers, working with different stories, so that you can see it happening and you can see more faces like mine on TV, in theatre.
‘Whereas here I think we’re still slightly behind, really. I think I was lucky in that I was able to do a show that was really brought here by an American producer who saw me and thought, “She’s really great, I’m going to take her to Broadway.” In essence, I feel that America was brought here for me and I went back with it.’
Sarah-Jane Crawford, who has a successful career in the UK as a TV presenter, agrees that America’s attitude towards diversity within the media is miles ahead of Britain’s. Not only was she quick to secure a gig hosting for E! news, but she has also found the country to be incredibly receptive to her as an actor.
‘Over the last few years I’ve been up for some massive roles – as a new actor I’d never be put up for these roles if it wasn’t for the fact that they are so enthusiastic about seeing fresh black talent. And casting directors are looking for black people more than ever before because of the success of black shows like Empire, How to Get Away with Murder, Scandal, etc. I’ve had about eight or nine auditions in the last six months for major shows, whereas here [in the UK] I wouldn’t necessarily be considered for British drama.
‘Another important thing to remember is that when you are black over there, there are a lot of other sub-genres that are successful. Tyler Perry is a massively successful director. Think about the Spike Lees of this world. Black cinema is huge in America – much bigger than it is here in the UK. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve worked on urban films with people like Femi Oyeniran – he put me in the first proper film I ever did, It’s a Lot. So there is a lot of black and urban talent in the UK doing majorly well, but over there, black cinema is huge and we’ve all grown up watching films like Boyz n The Hood and all those rom-coms, and Love & Basketball and people like Gabrielle Union, who have come through the ranks of that and now are huge, because she’s doing things like Being Mary Jane, as well as Kerry Washington. So all of those beautiful, really talented, successful black actors have all probably done their fair share of “white cinema”. But that’s amazing, because even if I went over there and had a career in black cinema, that’s still cool because it’s more successful over there.’
Black British actors and entertainers continue to make huge waves across the waves. Their success has been so great, in fact, that it has attracted its own controversy. In an interview with radio station Hot 97, Hollywood veteran Samuel L. Jackson suggested that Jordan Peele’s satirical horror film Get Out, which starred British actor Daniel Kaluuya, would have been better off with an African-American in its lead.
‘There are a lot of black British actors in these movies,’ Jackson said. ‘I tend to wonder what that movie [Get Out] would have been with an American brother who really feels that. Daniel grew up in a country where they’ve been interracial dating for a hundred years. What would a brother from America have made of that role? Some things are universal, but [not everything].’
He also pointed to Ava DuVernay’s historical drama Selma, which cast David Oyelowo in the role of Martin Luther King, as another example. ‘There are some brothers in America who could have been in that movie who would have had a different idea about how King thinks,’ he said.
Similar logic hasn’t stopped African-American actors from playing black British parts (Don Cheadle’s accent in Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen is infamously awful), but what really irks is the fact that the likes of Michael Fassbender, Emily Blunt, Ewan McGregor, Kate Winslet, James McAvoy, Emma Watson, Rachel Weisz – white British actors who have dominated US cinema for years – are not under the same scrutiny by their white American counterparts. The issue isn’t black British actors stealing roles from African-Americans, it’s a film industry that has black actors scrambling for parts, in both countries.
Perhaps the lack of options for actors of colour in the UK has something to do with the stories we’re willing to tell. A British staple like EastEnders should be brimming with roles for black British women: though Walford is fictional, it’s made even more unbelievable with its utter lack of Jamaican hairdressers and cloth-selling African aunties. But that’s not the Britain we’re trying to export. That’s not the Britain that sells. As Riz Ahmed writes in his essay ‘Airports and Auditions’ in The Good Immigrant, ‘The reality of Britain is vibrant multiculturalism, but the myth we export is an all-white world of lords and ladies. Conversely, American society is pretty segregated, but the myth it exports is of a racial melting pot, everyone solving crimes and fighting aliens side by side.’
‘Black’ and ‘British’ are often presented as oxymoronic identities. The concept of labouring, hard, cool blackness is perceived as diametrically opposed to the widely exported notion of polite, coddled, flustered, bumbling Britishness. For many audiences across the world, even now, the idea that someone can be black and British – from the bad-weather-ridden, chronic tea-drinking, red bus-riding, whitest of white countries – is truly mindboggling. British identity is contingent for minorities. Our claim to Britishness often depends on how well we’re behaving. It’s often said that if you’re competing for the country in the Olympics, the papers will refer to you as British, but if you’ve just been done for petty theft, you are suddenly described as being from the place of your parents’ birth.
Denise Lewis OBE is one of the country’s most successful Olympians, winning the gold medal in the heptathlon at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. Though it hasn’t happened to her personally, she has seen ‘Britishness’ awarded to individuals based on the kind of story being told about them:
‘I recall a couple of instances when sportsmen have been described as “Jamaican-born” or “Somali-born” in the tabloid press when to me it would be appropriate to just refer to them as British, as they hold British passports and have represented the country at the highest levels possible in sport. It appears that your “Britishness” comes under scrutiny when the media story is not a positive one.’
So, black Brits are considered British when it suits. During the 2012 Olympics, the Britain we celebrated was multicultural and multifaceted, but the recent rise in the popularity of period drama has seen British TV at its whitest. I used to joke that if you rode a time machine back to Georgian England, every woman you would encounter was Keira Knightley in a bonnet. And for years this has been the Britain we have exported – the Britain of Downton Abbey and The Crown, of royals and debutante balls, where black people apparently cease to exist for a hundred-odd years. When asked about a lack of roles for black Brits in an interview, black British actor Sophie Okonedo responded, ‘I think a lot of it is [due to] costume and period drama, which must be, what, at least 40 per cent of what we do here? Which means that 40 per cent of opportunities are closed to me already.’ I’d bump that 40 per cent to 60 per cent: we do love a good period drama in the UK and we especially love to leave all the slavery, colonialism and racism off-screen, even in our most historically accurate depictions. No one wants to acknowledge the thieving from the African continent while they are swooning over Lord PerkyBottom, with his hands down the knickers of a virginal chamber maid. It’s not sexy. It kills the mood. But the ‘counting out’ of actors like Okonedo in period dramas must be taken for what it is: an active decision. Black period dramas addressing the realities of the past can have commercial success – Amma Asante’s critically acclaimed Belle being a recent and relevant example. In America there were the 2013 films 12 Years a Slave and The Retrieval, both of which were hugely successful internationally. This country can make period dramas featuring black actors, too, but it would also mean coming to terms with a past that is far less pretty than the one with the elegant frocks in it.
While things are bleak for black actors, full stop, black female actors have it particularly hard. The lack of worthwhile roles for women, multiplied by the lack of worthwhile roles for black actors, equals very few worthwhile roles for black female actors. Black British actor David Harewood received acclaim for his portrayal of Nelson Mandela in BBC drama Mrs Mandela, and Martin Luther King in the London play The Mountaintop. ‘Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King are great roles, but they are very few and far between for us,’ he lamented.
Few and far between they may be, but they are certainly recurring ones: Idris Elba played Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom in 2013 and David Oyelowo played King in Ava DuVernay’s Selma a year later. There was only one Nelson Mandela and only one Martin Luther King, however, so despite the seemingly endless adaptations, the number of reincarnations is finite. But at least the stories of great black men are told, albeit rarely.
Hollywood is only just starting to tell the stories of great black women. Hidden Figures, the true story of three African-American women at NASA who helped launch astronaut John Glenn into orbit, was a box office success but still remains an exception to the rule. And while there may be some roles for black British female actors over in the US, there are still far fewer than those for their white female counterparts – white female counterparts who also lament the lack of good roles for women. If that’s the case in America, the ‘land of opportunity’, you can imagine how much worse things are over here. A study by the British Film Institute (BFI) analysed the representation of black actors in more than 1,000 UK films over the last decade and found that despite the black British population growing, the number of UK films with roles for black actors had plateaued. It’s worth reiterating that the black British population is only 3 per cent, compared to 13 per cent of the US African-American population, but even in dramas and films set in London, where some boroughs can be up to 50 per cent non-white, representation is distinctly lacking.
The same study also found that 59 per cent of British films did not feature any black actors in either lead or named roles. Only 13 per cent of UK films have a black actor in a leading role. According to the BFI, a small number of films will feature a high number of black actors in lead roles in what they call ‘clustering’. More than half of all the leading roles for black actors were in just 47 of the 1,000 films analysed, meaning that less than 5 per cent of the 1,000 had cast a black actor in a named role at all. So, as British society becomes more diverse and integrated, our films are depicting an era that is long gone.
Roles for black...
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APA 6 Citation
Adegoke, Y., & Uviebinené, E. (2018). Slay In Your Lane ([edition unavailable]). HarperCollins Publishers. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/680018/slay-in-your-lane-the-black-girl-bible-pdf (Original work published 2018)
Adegoke, Yomi, and Elizabeth Uviebinené. (2018) 2018. Slay In Your Lane. [Edition unavailable]. HarperCollins Publishers. https://www.perlego.com/book/680018/slay-in-your-lane-the-black-girl-bible-pdf.
Adegoke, Y. and Uviebinené, E. (2018) Slay In Your Lane. [edition unavailable]. HarperCollins Publishers. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/680018/slay-in-your-lane-the-black-girl-bible-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Adegoke, Yomi, and Elizabeth Uviebinené. Slay In Your Lane. [edition unavailable]. HarperCollins Publishers, 2018. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.