Do black British actors “steal” roles from African-American actors?
On Thursday, Samuel L. Jackson sparked this debate in an interview on Hot.97, where he talked about Jordan Peele’s social horror “Get Out,” and questioned how the movie might have been different had the lead black character been played by an American actor, instead of British actor Daniel Kaluuya.
“Daniel grew up in a country where they’ve been interracial dating for 100 years,” Jackson said. “What would a brother from America have made of that role? Some things are universal but [not everything].”
Jackson’s comments drew instant criticism from some people online, including British-Nigerian actor John Boyega who tweeted:
Others weighed in:
Jackson clarified his comments later that day, insisting that he wasn’t trying to slam black British actors, but rather callout the Hollywood machine, which he believes hires Brits because they’re cheaper and “classically trained” at British institutions like RADA.
“I don’t know what the love affair is with all that,” Jackson told The Associated Press.
So, are black British actors actually “stealing” acting jobs away from African-American stars? Of course not, but the situation is still complicated. It’s true that some things are not “universal” for all black actors, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing.
David Oyelowo told NPR in 2014 that, part of the reason Ava DuVernay cast him as Martin Luther King, Jr. in “Selma” was the fact that he was British, and thus would go into the role with less “baggage” than a black American actor.
The line between which black actors can play which roles is far hazier than, say, the idea of a white actor playing an iconic black character. After all, just as black British actors like Chiwitel Ejiofor and Idris Elba have played black Americans on screen, American actors like Don Cheadle, Denzel Washington, and Forest Whitaker have played British characters. And what about African characters?
There have been at least five movies and a mini-series made about Nelson Mandela ― none of the actors who played him (Danny Glover, Terrence Howard, Idris Elba, Morgan Freeman, Laurence Fishburne) were South African. Should we draw a line there as well? Is it OK that African-born actors rarely get cast in African parts?
This situation is far too complex to start pointing fingers and tallying up all the times a black Brit played an African-American and all the times an African-American played a brit. Because this all boils down to the politics of the entertainment industry, both in America and the U.K.
As Idris Elba explained in an address to the British Parliament last year, there is a dearth of proper, meaty roles for black actors in the U.K. So many of them go to New York or Los Angeles for better opportunities. Indeed, Elba, David Oyelowo and John Boyega did not see their careers begin to truly flourish until they each made crossovers in American films.
And as Jackson pointed out in his radio interview on Thursday, these actors tend to cost studios less to hire ― studios which also, according to Jackson, exotify these actors because of their training.
“They think they’re better trained, for some reason, than we are because they’re ‘classically’ trained,” Jackson explained.
This clash has a lot to do with the subtle forces of class and respectability politics, which have worked to divide those in the diaspora for decades upon decades. It’s all a question of inclusion, representation, and what opportunities are being afforded to actors of all kinds. Hollywood is still racist, and its racism manifests itself in many ways.
The most damaging way, of course, is that there still continues to be too few roles for a wide pool of talented actors, and the big roles generally only go to those established black actors (like Samuel L. Jackson) who’ve put in 10, 20, even 40 years in the game. A white American actor of Jackson’s stature would probably have a very different perspective about being up for a role against, say, Benedict Cumberbatch, because there would probably be 20 more good roles out there waiting for him.
The debate surrounding context and history and how that affects a black actor’s performance certainly isn’t a useless one. Thinking about how an American actor like, say, Michael B. Jordan would have played in “Get Out” is interesting to think about, but it doesn’t make Kaluuya’s performance any less profound.