British Actors, American History
January 25, 2015 5:26 PM   Subscribe

“I played a soldier confronting President Lincoln in the film Lincoln, and I say to him, in the winter of 1865, ‘When are we going to get the vote?’ and then there I am, 100 years later, depicting Dr. King, alongside the very same actor, Colman Domingo — we confronted President Lincoln together — we are now in a jail cell, asking for the vote again, in 1965,” Oyelowo said in an interview with BuzzFeed News. “I’ve played a preacher in The Help, I played a fighter pilot in Red Tails, I played someone who was in a sit in, was a Freedom Rider, was a Black Panther, then goes on to be a senator in The Butler. They’re all characters that took me on this journey through what it has been to be a black person for the last 150 years.”

Oyelowo stopped, paused, and corrected himself slightly here. In nearly every role he’s taken on since he arrived in the United States, he’s portrayed the sojourn for what it’s like to be a black American for the last 150 years.

Does the cultural disconnect help actors like Oyelowo portray black American heroes without deifying them? Oyelowo to the BBC: "The actor believes it may have actually served the production to have non-American actors because they weren’t that familiar with King and didn’t bring any baggage with them."

Carmen Ejogo to Reuters: "I think being British has been very helpful to me because I didn't go to school learning about Coretta as being the most important female in black history ... I was able to embrace the full scope of the woman, the frailty, the good and the bad, and recognize ultimately that I wouldn't be doing her a disservice by presenting those things, but I would be doing her a favor." And the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Or does it help for actors to still feel connected by a common history? Chiwetel Ejiofor on 12 Years a Slave: "My heritage is that I’m Nigerian, and hundreds of thousands of Igbo from the east were taken out of Nigeria and brought around the globe, but specifically to Louisiana and the south of America, so I feel connected the experience,” he said. “I feel connected to the history, to the reality of it. I feel that once we – if we’re constantly trying to separate each other then we’re missing the point."

How much does the lack of UK roles contribute to talented black actors moving to America?
posted by Eyebrows McGee (10 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
I just wish we could have more movies about black people just being normal people. My life isn't about slavery or the civil rights movement or tragic poverty or Big Things most of the time. I swear that was the best part of Dear White People. And that was still in the end about racism but at least a bit more quotidian. It's also why the terribleness of Bill Cosby was such a blow: it's almost the only example of modern middle class black folks having normal lives. So how about more of that? Or if it has to be historical, why not the Lovings? But honestly honestly, just the ability to be schlubs and still get represented — like white guys — that would be really nice.
posted by dame at 6:11 PM on January 25, 2015 [36 favorites]

And probably more fun for the actors too.
posted by dame at 6:11 PM on January 25, 2015

Roxane Gay on 12 Years a Slave:
My reaction to 12 Years a Slave is borne, largely, by exhaustion. I am worn out by slavery and struggle narratives. I am worn out by broken black bodies and the broken black spirit somehow persevering in the face of overwhelming and impossible circumstance. There seems to be so little room at the Hollywood table for black movies that to earn a seat, black movies have to fit a very specific narrative. Thoughtful romantic comedies like Love & Basketball and the original Best Man, which has a sequel later this month, fail even to be included in most conversations about movies. Sure, they're not Oscar contenders, but they certainly capture the black experience and yet, somehow, they're viewed as being less worthy of talking about than similar fare like Enough Said, which has earned many plaudits. Filmmakers take note of this and keep giving Hollywood exactly what it wants. Hollywood showers these struggle narratives with the highly coveted critical acclaim. It’s a vicious cycle.

There is no one way to tell the story of slavery or to chronicle the black experience. It is not that slavery and struggle narratives shouldn’t be shared but these narratives are not enough anymore. Audiences are ready for more from black film — more narrative complexity, more black experiences being represented in contemporary film, more artistic experimentation, more black screenwriters and directors allowed to use their creative talents beyond the struggle narrative. We’re ready for more of everything but the same, singular stories we’ve seen for so long.
posted by sallybrown at 6:58 PM on January 25, 2015 [7 favorites]

It's a hell of a way to learn American history ... that is what I took out of the first story from buzzfeed.

This is going to be one of those years when the Academy picks none of the movies with lasting impact.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:17 PM on January 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

Thank you so much for this post! Oyelowo is an amazing actor; I feel fortunate to have seen his Henry VI, in which he was the first black actor to play a King of England for the RSC. Henry VI is such a hard character to get right, and he did a fantastic job. He deserves all the success he currently has and more.

I do think that racism is rampant in casting for the British film and TV industries; anecdotally, the experience of my nonwhite actor acquaintances seems to bear this out. (Paterson Joseph also seems to agree in this 2013 column for the Guardian.) Less so, the stage; I saw the RSC's latest Henry IV yesterday, and there was a decent number of nonwhite actors in the cast.

As I was Googling for links on Oyelowo's Henry VI, I came across this 2000 interview in which there's some trenchant commentary from RSC stalwart Hugh Quarshie (whom I remember well as a fucking great Mephistopheles the one time the RSC essayed Goethe's Faust, back in the 90s):
"This is not a defining moment for black actors," he said. "It is a lot easier to have non-traditional casting with Shakespeare. In fact, this seems only possible in the classics at all these days. The real problems for black actors come with modern plays and the cinema."

Quarshie, who starred in the recent Star Wars prequel, said that only when black actors routinely play Hamlet and Henry V will casting have become truly colour blind.
Plus ça change. I hope for all our sakes, actors and audience alike, that the balance changes rapidly for the better.
posted by Pallas Athena at 4:03 AM on January 26, 2015

Sort of previously.
posted by Kitteh at 6:35 AM on January 26, 2015

I thought one of the interesting things about 12 Years A Slave was that it was a bunch of British people telling an American story. It gave them an aesthetic detachment that an American artist probably couldn't have.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 11:32 AM on January 26, 2015

so, here's an honest question, why is there such a dearth of acting opportunities for black actors and actresses in the UK? Is it that there are few historical stories to tell involving minority figures; thus leaving the only possible opportunities to be contemporary "urban" stories of varied appeal? Is it simple demographics (3% of population in Britain vs. 12% in the US) and therefore they just seem less like a credible representation of the 'everyman' Briton?

I mean, it seems like the Black British experience in Great Britain seemed far less harrowing and oppressive than the African-American experience so it would seem like Black British actors would have fewer obstacles to professional success than their American counterparts. However, this article seems to make out that it isn't the case. Or is it more like Black British actors do have their pick of domestic acting opportunities, but the opportunities in America are much more lucrative / promising? The Guardian article linked in the FPP is long on describing the existence of the problem without much explanation or reasoning into causes.
posted by bl1nk at 12:05 PM on January 26, 2015

Thinking specifically about TV; the cultural space in the UK is much smaller than the US and so the plethora of Monkfish does not leave much room for contemporary anything which leaves even less room for contemporary black stories. Class too has a lot to play as the recent spat involving James Blunt illustrated (the poshos tend to be uniformly white).

Shit, there's more Welsh actors starring on prime-time American TV than UK TV.

Combine this with a truly remarkable amount of talented actors and looking elsewhere is the only option left for most.

It's a terrible shame not just because of the lack of representations of black people in our culture but also because a TV show involving Chiwetel Ejiofor, Idris Elba and David Oyelowo directed by Steve McQueen would be insanely good.
posted by fullerine at 12:55 PM on January 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

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