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What’s the Problem When Black British Actors Play Americans?

There are deeper questions than whether they’re taking jobs from black African Americans.
Director/producer Ava DuVernay, actor David Oyelowo, and actress/producer Oprah Winfrey accept the award for Outstanding Motion Picture for Selma onstage during the 46th NAACP Image Awards on February 6th, 2015, in Pasadena, California. (Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

Director/producer Ava DuVernay, actor David Oyelowo, and actress/producer Oprah Winfrey accept the award for Outstanding Motion Picture for Selma onstage during the 46th NAACP Image Awards on February 6th, 2015, in Pasadena, California. (Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

Last month, Samuel L. Jackson took part in a radio interview on Hot 97 to promote his latest film, Kong: Skull Island. In passing, he noted the increase in black British actors who have landed roles playing black Americans. This, in itself, is nota newdiscussion, nor is the rise of British actors in American film productions exclusive to black Brits. When the interviewer asked Jackson about Jordan Peele’s Get Out, a horror-comedy about a black American man meeting his white girlfriend’s family for the first time, Jackson confessed to not having seen the film yet. Nonetheless, he suggested that casting Daniel Kaluuya, a black Briton, might have been a missed opportunity on the director’s part. “I tend to wonder what Get Out would have been with an American brother who really understands that. I mean, Daniel grew up in a country where they’ve been interracial dating for a hundred years,” Jackson said. “What would a brother from America have made of that role? … Some things are universal, but everything ain’t.”

Jackson’s remark about interracial dating is, plainly, inaccurate. At best it’s a nod at the recency of Loving v. Virginia, or how roughly 60 years ago a black child in America could still be lynched because a white woman lied about him flirting with her. The backlash to Jackson’s commentary was swift. Some were mad because they thought Jackson was complaining about British actors taking jobs away from black Americans. Others objected to the notion that Kaluuya was unqualified for the role because black Brits had somehow been unaffected by racism. The real problem, they concluded, was unsupportive black Americans. Black Briton and fellow actor John Boyega tweeted definitively: “Black brits vs African American. A stupid ass conflict we don’t have time for.”

Meanwhile, various Americans on Twitter argued that non-American blacks have often, if not always, benefited from a form of “passing” in the United States — their otherness frequently recognized by their accents — and that a considerable amount of anti-blackness has often, if not always, been aimed by black immigrants at black Americans. Such people from the Caribbean, Africa, and elsewhere were black, yes, but at least they weren’t black Americans, whom they sometimes looked down on. Over the next couple of weeks, there ensued a series of back-and-forth accusations on social media concerning issues of black identity, referred to on Twitter as #diasporawars. Jackson has since clarified that his criticism was aimed at Hollywood and its lack of substantial roles for black Americans — not at Kaluuya or at British actors in general. He also commented on the dearth of British roles for black American actors — the door doesn’t swing both ways. “We don’t get to do that that often,” Jackson said. “They don’t ask us to come over and adapt to the British accent.”

When we dismiss the black American experience, one uniquely shaped by structural racism in America, we help no one while erasing the struggles of many.

The reality is that black Brits have few opportunities themselves to play Britons or anyone else back in their home country — not least thanks to the popularity of period pieces that leave little room for black actors. Recent research by the British Film Institute shows that 59 percent of the films made in the United Kingdom in the last 10 years had no black actors at all, and that crime, sci-fi, and fantasy films were the genres most likely to cast them. Mastering an American accent is essential for any British actor looking to work outside the the U.K.; for black Britons, the ability to perform an American accent means the difference between working and not. The opposite is untrue for their American counterparts, for whom the delivery of a British accent (or any accent, really) is neither a strong suit nor any kind of necessity. Actors such as Will Smith, who played a Nigerian-American doctor in Concussion in 2015, can make their millions just fine starring in American roles while occasionally botching accents without significant repercussions.

It is also important to qualify Jackson’s comment about black Brits playing Americans. His concern is not that black Americans aren’t getting any roles; it’s that the black films receiving the most recognition and praise within the industry, such as Selma and 12 Years a Slave, frequently star British leads (who, to their credit, have been outstanding). Until more than a handful of American films centering on black stories are written, financed, and widely distributed annually, talented black British actors who cannot find work in the U.K. and talented black American actors — who are struggling to tell their own stories in an industry that marginalizes them — will continue to vie for the same, limited number of strong roles.

Peele himself had, at one point, been adamant about casting an American actor in Get Out. “I didn’t want to go with a British actor,” Peele said, “because this movie was so much about representation of the African-American experience.” Yet, after Skyping with Kaluuya, Peele changed his mind. “Once I’d wrapped my head around how universal these themes were,” Peele said, “it became easy for me to pick Daniel, because, at the end of the day, he was the best person for the role.” In an interview with GQ, Idris Elba addressed the flap over Get Out by offering similar platitudes about universality. “I mean, we’re all human beings. Experience is experience, let’s just be honest. Let’s not try and dissect suffering into a race, or whatever you want to call it. We’re all human beings, one way or another. All races have gone through times that are challenging; that’s part of being a human.” Kaluuya himself, despite his role in Get Out, apparently can’t fathom a context in which black people might be considered a minority of any kind. “Even people who say that black people are minorities, there are a billion black people in the world. A billion white people,” Kaluuya stated. “What part of that is a minority?”

These are false arguments, based on the false idea that the experience of racism can ever be independent of the system that enacts it. In other words, such thinking distorts and minimizes the specifics of systemic racism. The argument, as such, is a form of benign erasure. It asks that we focus on what unifies us in spite of other struggles. It is what lies behind a feminist that asks women of color to put their womanhood first. It is why some black people disregard how colorism affects the daily lives of people with darker skin by arguing that we are all black. It has been clear for some time now that black British actors are more than qualified to play American roles. Yet when we dismiss the black American experience, one uniquely shaped by structural racism in America, we help no one while erasing the struggles of many.

Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out. (Photo: Universal Pictures)

Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out. (Photo: Universal Pictures)

Several black American directors have also intimated that British actors are better trained, often pointing to these actors’ strong traditional background in theater. In 2013, Spike Lee, verging on classism, explained to the Guardian why he admired black British actors. “They’re good,” he said. “They’re well trained. They came through on the stage not on a music video or whatever. So their acting’s impeccable and then they go into films.” Ava DuVernay, who cast Brits to play both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King in Selma, also nodded to the U.K.’s reverence for the stage. “Their work is really steeped in theater. Our system of creating actors is a lot more commercial,” she told BuzzFeed in 2015. “There’s a depth in the character-building that’s really wonderful.”

These, again, are far from new sentiments. In 2011, English director Stephen Frears told a BBC radio audience of a “crisis in American acting.” “If I were being tedious I would say it’s the lack of a theater,” Frears said. “When you work with someone like Annette Bening or Glenn Close, they are highly trained. It’s like working with Judi Dench. They are the real thing. But a lot of American cinema doesn’t have that background.” Four years later, Michael Douglas took things a step further and claimed it wasn’t just the absence of theater training but the focus on one’s image that made American actors as a whole less dynamic than their British competition.

Even more disconcerting is the apparent belief among some directors and producers that black American actors might have greater difficulty getting to the heart of a character they already knew about—almost a kind of fetishization. “They had a distance,” DuVernay said of the black Brits she cast in Selma. “It’s that whole idea of the reverence — if you don’t have the reverence and you’re not putting [the characters] up on a pedestal, then you’re more apt to get to the truth and the heart of it to explore.” Carmen Ejogo, who played Coretta Scott King in the film, agreed. “I’ve been trying to convince myself that being British has had no bearing on any of this, but actually I think that’s where it served me well,” Ejogo said. “I’m not as entrenched in the history so immediately. I didn’t go to school and learn about Coretta. I didn’t know who Coretta was until I played her the first time. It wasn’t as daunting as it might have been for an American actress. An African-American actress … that might have been a bit more of a challenge.”

In this way, British actors are deemed more prepared not only thanks to their theater training, but also by being less prepared in their knowledge of the text at hand. Under these conditions, black American actors are left with fewer paths forward, while black Britons continue to thrive by erasing the clearest identifier of their Britishness: their voice. My intent here is not to victimize either side. There are black American actors who are happy with the roles they get, as well as black British actors who do not view the need for an American accent as a form of erasure; Boyega chose not to have a British accent in Star Wars: The Force Awakens because, according to him, it simply “didn’t work.” But the opposite is also true — there are good actors who remain displeased with the lack of roles, or with what they have to do to get them. The people involved in this discussion on social media are asking several related but distinct questions related to opportunity and identity. Is otherness necessary to make the black American experience palatable to casting directors or audiences? If otherness is undetectable to the American viewer through use of a convincing accent, does its privilege disappear? These are not the metrics by which most filmgoers decide what to see, but they do ultimately affect what gets offered to begin with.

An interesting thing to consider is how Get Out would have played had Kaluuya kept his British accent. Such a move might have broadened the horror of the film away from an explicitly American black male experience (a singular one) to the black male experience in America (a general one). I’m speculating, of course — but the imaginary exercise serves to emphasize Jackson’s original point: At best, our differences are an opportunity for Hollywood to tell stories from increasingly diverse perspectives. At worst, denying them might be our undoing.