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Opportunities For Black Actors In British Cinema

20/03/2017 15:41 GMT | Updated 20/03/2017 15:41 GMT
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The recent dispute on both sides of the Atlantic about black male actors in Hollywood has taken my interest this past week.  Critiquing the choice of casting British actor Daniel Kaluuya in the role of one half of an American interracial couple for the film Get Out, Jackson told the New York station Hot 97.1 that so many British actors were cast in American films because they are "cheaper" and because Briton thought themselves "better trained."  Both of these theories are unsubstantiated by evidence, but one has to wonder if Jackson's critique might reveal something a bit deeper than merely a knee-jerk reaction to training of movie budgets.

David Harewood's response to Jackson in The Guardian this past week directly addressed what he viewed as inconsistencies and unfounded assertions:

The idea that American producers and directors are choosing black British talent to save themselves a buck or two is ridiculous - it's because we're damn good. Jordan Peele, the director of Get Out, a film about white liberal racism in America that stars British-born Daniel Kaluuya, had initially wanted to cast an American in the lead role but was so impressed by Daniel's audition he changed his mind.

Then Harewood goes on to say, "I'd argue that it was exactly because Daniel wasn't a real American brother that he was able to do so," describing that in his own role as Martin Luther King, Jr, "I wasn't playing a civil rights legend, an American icon who should be treated with the utmost respect, I was playing a man with tired, smelly feet, who was anxious, proud, horny and flirtatious."  So far, I follow Harewood and agree with what he argues.  Then he lays out an contentious claim: "[W]e black British performers have the ability to unshackle ourselves from the burden of racial realities."  This statement had me shaking my head given that implicit in this sentiment Harewood confirms that British actors do not face the severity of racial disparity in the UK as in the US, historically or contemporarily.  And nothing could be further from the truth.

I would say that racism in the UK is entirely minimised, hidden, and absorbed, largely undiscussed both in the media and politics. For instance, while black men in the US have a disproportionate rate of incarceration, so too do they in the UK--some studies indicating their rate of incarceration is far worse than the same in the UKS.  While credit cards are virtually unattainable for black men in the US, black entrepreneurs are facing high rates of discrimination by UK banks. Ultimately, I have to wonder if black British performers have the ability to detach from racism and instead have simply learned to live with it, even internalising racism, as is the case with any minority within monolithically white institutions whereby their visibility is never likely.  Certainly after the London riots of 2011, I had no doubt in my mind as to the power of a society to detach any critical readings of racism even from the more leftist media, despite evidence of this being very much about race as well as class.

Although, I largely agree with Harewood's critique of Jackson before this point, I cannot help but think that Jackson did not completely frame the problem correctly, perhaps because of the informality of the interview.  Certainly Jackson is not wrong in pointing out casting imbalances from Hollywood. But he stops short with Hollywood and does not speak of his potential opportunities in as an actor in the UK. Since for every Elba, Jean-Baptiste, Kaluuya, Newton, and Okoneda, there are not American counterpoints in the United Kingdom.  Even trying to discover a partial list of American actors in the UK, and there are a few mentions of a dozen actors who have had a role in a TV programme or movie, compared to the dozens upon dozens of actors who have had full-fledged careers, and not one-off pieces, in the US entertainment industry.  Even US immigration has shown a 500% increase in visas granted for UK actors and film-makers who come the US for work in recent years.

As someone who has lived and worked in both the United States and the United Kingdom, one thing I was never prepared for in the UK was the amount of discrimination on the job market, irrespective of skin tone.  It is enough to simply not be British in many fields of professional labour.  More shocking, I was surprised to watch British television and films with the character of the American neighbour/wife/friend/boss inevitably played by a Brit.  There were so few American actors on British stage or in British television or cinema, that of course, looking to the panorama across the pond, one is left confused as to how so many US television shows have casts that are almost entirely non-American, such as Without a Trace (2002-2009) where of the six primary actors, only two were American natives.  Is the United Kingdom less generous to opening up its market to foreigners?

Benedict Cumberbatch opened up this subject just two years ago stating: "I think as far as colored actors go it gets really different in the U.K., and a lot of my friends have had more opportunities here [in the U.S.] than in the U.K. and that's something that needs to change."  Grey's Anatomy star, Kevin McKidd has open criticised the class bias in which the British elite dominate the entertainment industry citing his own discrimination he faced as a working class actor before fleeing to the US.  And last year Idriss Elba spoke in Westminster about the struggle for acting roles for black actors in the UK as compared with the US.

British actors such as Kate Winslett are more candid of the advantages they face as Brits in the US film industry: "When you are an English actor and you go into another country, they automatically assume you are fully trained ... Which I've played on, believe me."  But this cannot account for the harsh reality for any American black actor coming to the UK.  It is high time that the British people, post-Brexit and all, openly discuss the growing xenophobia and racism within the country, to include the field of opportunities for foreign and black actors.