Recently the Labour politician Chuka Umunna placed the blame for so many black actors heading out to the US in search of more fulfilling roles in American productions firmly at the door of the British Film and Television industries, demanding they put an end to "lazy stereotyping" of ethnic minorities on screen. He cited the example of David Harewood, recently of Homeland and now on the Broadway stage, who recently bemoaned the lack of strong authoritative roles for black performers on the UK screens.
This is a topic that has been alive amongst my fellow black performers pretty much since I began my career. In fact, once I'd been in the business about five years and had decent credits to my name, it became a constant companion to the usual actor repartee; so that:
"Are you working?"
was quickly followed by :
"When you going over to America then?"
There would then follow a debate about the merits of leaving or sticking around. The main argument for leaving was that here for a long time the roles for black actors consisted of muggers and pimps and other such negative stereotypes that fed into the prevailing image of us in the media at that time. Indeed, some of my mates tried to talk me out of joining a profession that would entail me participating in that very denigration of us all. Growing up on an estate in South East London, I was acutely aware of how we as 'Black Youth' were seen by those outside and certainly didn't want portray anything that I considered demeaning.
The argument against leaving was that things were changing. The industry, it seemed had become uncomfortable with these old stereotypes and wanted to do something about it. No longer was a black actor required to don a balaclava, brandish a knife and utter:
"Gimme the money I will rob you!"
There was much rejoicing and patting each other on the backs.
I must confess, for a while I was in the latter camp; with series like Cracker and Prime Suspect, British television was on the up. Lynda LaPlante, Jimmy McGovern and Tony Marchant were writing characters not colours.
Alas, all was not as it seemed; these writers and one or two others aside, in their well-meaning attempts to portray positive images the industry had fallen into another trap. Now the black actor was required to don a white coat, brandish a stethoscope and utter:
"Gimme the pills I will heal you!"
Therein lay the problem: it was (and is) less to do with the occupation of the character you portray than it is with the content of the character. This is true of all actors of all ethnicities and both genders. I remember reading an article by Guardian columnist Gary Younge which stated that white people had no problem imagining black people as worse than them and no problem imagining black people as better than them; the problem arose when they tried to imagine us as the same as them. Having never been white I have no notion as to the accuracy of that postulation but it certainly went some way to explaining ethnic actors' complaints then and to some extent now.
Despite having shifted position to the "Just give it a try over there" camp, I think things are much better here now, it's just that progress is so damn slow and the US is so far ahead. Not just with shows like the rightly lauded The Wire but also Six Feet Under, the above-mentioned Homeland, Without A Trace, Dexter, I could go on, really I could. All shows with characters from different ethnicities but characters all the same.
David Oyelowo, another actor from over here doing very well over there, cited the argument of the British film industry "that there was no audience for black films." That may well be the prevailing belief here, which also feeds into why so many of my colleagues have decided to ply their trade Stateside. It makes you wonder though, doesn't it? Should we still be looking at film and television in such bald terms? Isn't story enough? When I watch Harrison Ford searching for his missing wife through the streets of Paris, I empathize with a man trying to rescue the woman he loves; when I watch Denzel struggling with substance abuse issues and survivors' guilt, I empathize with a man trying to conquer his demons; their respective races really has little to do with my enjoyment or otherwise of the movies.
One last anecdote to illustrate the differences; I once read for a role in a US pilot. When I finished, the LA casting director told me she thought I was wonderful, too good for the part I had read for, and would I come back and read for the lead? But the lead's white, I said. She looked at me:
She explained they just wanted a good actor and they could "work stuff out" if they liked me. I didn't get the part but I was extremely happy and jealous of my American counterparts if this is their auditioning experience.
I'm lucky, my career thus far has been pretty varied and especially in theatre, not constrained or defined by my colour. Indeed I have two TV projects airing next year that have nothing to do with my ethnicity so I remain optimistic.