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Black British vs Black American actors: should we even be having this debate?


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During the promotion of his latest film, Kong: Skull Island, Samuel L Jackson commented on roles of black British actors in Hollywood films and sparked a heated debate.

The focus of this discussion is Get Out, the humorous horror film examining racism in the suburbs of America. Jackson criticised the lead role being taken by British actor Daniel Kaluuya, stating: "I tend to wonder what that movie would have been with an American brother who really feels that".

Playwright, Stacy Amma Osei-Kuffour, agrees that there is an authenticity that can only be brought to these stories by US-born actors, stating it’s something “innately in us… especially with things like police brutality, how blacks are treated in America, that’s something we have to live with every day”.

It’s not a bad point. Although racism exists all over the world and has many similarities on a societal level, it’s very different in America to the UK. The largest perhaps being the gun culture in the US that allows for police brutality to hit a deadly level far more frequently than it does in the UK. Black Americans experience racism in America in a very personal way that no one else can relate to, and it's important that these experiences are given a voice.

But then the question arises, why do so many Black British actors land these roles? It’s not as if the US isn’t full of amazingly talented black creatives that wouldn’t be able to bring realism to these roles. Casting directors aren’t underwhelmed with the options. So why?

According to government data from 2013, there was a 500% increase in one year of approved visa petitions for UK actors and directors seeking to work in the US. In recent years, we’ve had Chiwetel Ejiofor garnering awards for his performance in 12 Years A Slave (2013), as well as Naomie Harris being nominated for an Oscar for her performance in Moonlight (2016) and David Oyelowo being cast as Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma (2014).

These are all-important stories about the experiences of black Americans being played by British actors.

According to Get Out director Jonathan Peele, Kaluuya was simply the best choice for the lead role: "He did the audition and it was a slam dunk”.

When justifying the choice of British actors over American, some directors and film-makers point out the prestigious training that can be found in the UK, such as at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. In 2013, Spike Lee 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”.

But isn’t that another issue in itself? An issue of class between nations?

There are more opportunities to attend schools for the dramatic arts in the UK than there are in the US. This shouldn’t mean that black Americans are not allowed the chance to represent themselves and their stories. Even in Spike Lee’s comments, you can feel the disparaging of those who have come up into the acting world through what seems to be deemed as 'less than'.

Not everyone can attend an acting school. Not everyone has those avenues open for them, especially not when paying for higher education in America can be more expensive than education in the UK, depending on what state you’re in and which ranking of college you wish to attend.

The old imperial view of England allows for a rose-tinted view of those with a British accent, regardless of the colour of their skin. Whilst this has a positive impact on black British actors attempting to break into Hollywood, it can have a negative effect on African-American actors.

Dominique Toney, a Los Angeles-based actor, commented that black American actors are often forced to play stereotypes, which can make it harder for them to break out of typecasting in the future. Believing African American films can suffer as a result, she adds: “They’re missing out on the opportunity to cast actors who can pull from their own life experiences”.

It is an interesting discussion, and an important one to have as it impacts Black Americans and how their stories can be told. However, is it the most important one to be having right now?

We live in a world where the light skinned Zoe Saldana was given darker make-up and a prosthetic nose to play Nina Simone in her biopic; where last year’s Oscars only nominated and celebrated the white people involved in the making of the two biggest films of the year, Creed (2015) and Straight Outta Compton (2015); where a black Stormtrooper in the new Star Wars trilogy is still met with abuse and disbelief and erasure of his importance within the story.

That very same Stormtrooper, John Boyega, commented on this debate with “Black Brits vs African American. A stupid ass conflict we don’t have time for.”

And maybe it is. In the grand scale of things, there are so many battles to be fought about correct representation in the media and so many stereotypes to be broke down within society, that adding this within the community itself just seems like a distraction from something larger.

Osei-Kuffour commented that she doesn’t feel the debate about UK actors is the most pressing in the industry: “When I see David Oyelowo in an American movie, I’m just happy black people are being represented”.

Get Out will be released in UK cinemas on March 17th.

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