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Are Black Brits Black Enough to Play Black Americans?

Samuel L. Jackson questioned the casting of black British actors in American roles on Hot 97 earlier this week, but his comments neglect both shared history and the reality of Britain’s entertainment industry

(a24/Paramount/Focus Features/Ringer Illustration)
(a24/Paramount/Focus Features/Ringer Illustration)

“There are a lot of black British actors in these movies,” Samuel L. Jackson by-now-infamously said on Hot 97 earlier this week. He was speaking most immediately about Jordan Peele’s hit new horror satire, Get Out. “What would a brother from America have made of that role? And I’m sure the director helped, and, you know, some things are universal, but everything ain’t.”

For Jackson, the casting choice is a question of authenticity. “I tend to wonder what would that movie have been with an American brother who really understands that in a way,” he said. Jackson later clarified that his comments weren’t about the British actors themselves, but about the Hollywood system that seems to favor these actors, as in the casting for the lead roles of films like 12 Years a Slave and Selma.

As has by now been well explored, black actors have been mainstays of British cinema since as early as the 1910s. Yet a 2015 survey in Sight & Sound tallied data from 1,172 British films and showed that a mere 13 percent of British films made in the last 10 years featured at least one black actor in a leading role. And 59 percent of those movies surveyed had no prominent or named roles for black actors period. There’s talent, but no opportunity.

It’s no wonder that black Brits — the likes of Idris Elba, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Naomie Harris, David Oyelowo, John Boyega, and numerous others — have flocked to Hollywood. “[There’s an] idea that there’s this devious British onslaught on American talent,” Ashley Clark, a black film critic and historian from England, told me, “when in fact, it’s not the case.” The decision to come to the U.S. to further their careers, he says, is “very pragmatic.”

Clark reminded me of Marianne Jean-Baptiste, the exceptional costar of Mike Leigh’s classic British family drama Secrets & Lies. Jean-Baptiste became the first black British woman to get an Oscar nomination, for her role in Leigh’s film, as a black woman who learns after her adopted mother dies that her birth mother is white. Jean-Baptiste was wonderful in the movie; more importantly, she was memorable. But the role opened no doors for her in the British film industry — hence her escape to American movies and, more especially, TV, where she finds roles to this day, in shows like Blindspot and Without a Trace.

Hollywood being the center of the West’s film industry, there are simply more opportunities for black actors of every stripe. That explains why black Brits come here. It doesn’t explain the perceived advantage they seem to have when going up for American parts. Jackson’s take on this is predictably cynical: Perhaps black Brits are simply cheaper to hire, he told Hot 97, which (the implication goes) might be because they’re more willing than black American actors to work for less than they’re worth. Cheap shot, if you ask me, but it’s hard to imagine a British A-lister like Idris Elba having the bargaining power in Britain that an actor like Will Smith has in the U.S. A black British star simply isn’t A-list in the same way a black American star could feasibly aspire to be. Even when the talent is comparable, the (already low) ceilings of the entertainment industry place black Britons at a comparative disadvantage.

The bothersome thing about Jackson’s remarks isn’t merely that they mobilize pay disparities against other black actors rather than the industry itself–or even that they’re tinged with reductive ideas regarding black British actors’ ability to be, from an American perspective, believably black (enough). The biggest danger is that they’re apparently commonly held — enough so that claims of systemic, if unconscious, preference for black British actors over Americans begins to feel plausible.

It’s certainly true that there are intraracial biases at play here — Peele himself has admitted to them. “I didn’t want to go with a British actor,” he told The Guardian, “because this movie was so much about representation of the African American experience.” A Skype call with his eventual star, Daniel Kaluuya, convinced him the movie’s pointed conceit was in fact universal enough for Kaluuya to “get” the part. For Ava DuVernay, whose Selma cast was largely composed of black Brits (including its two leads, David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo), the casting choice hinged more on training method: “I’m sorry — they were just really good!” DuVernay said after the release of that film. “David,” she said of her star, who played Martin Luther King Jr., “is just an extraordinary artist. He is unlike anything I’ve come across in terms of his depth of his preparation, the openness of his heart with this part — totally sinking in and a desire to disappear into this, to give his whole self over to it.”

“I think there’s something about the stage, because they have that stage preparation,” DuVernay continued. “Their work is really steeped in theater. Our system of creating actors is a lot more commercial. … There’s a depth in the character building that’s really wonderful.” There’s a strange fetishization of “preparedness” at work here — the same kind, you might say, that keeps many production companies from hiring black women filmmakers like DuVernay unless they have a high minimum of experience. The bias is laid out with the same insinuating language — words like “preparation.” “There might be a kind of subconscious or even conscious veneration of that idea of the stage tradition,” Clark told me. “That’s when class comes back into it as well. … David and Chiwetel have public school backgrounds. They’ve got that level of status.” (British public schools are comparable to American private schools.)

The irony of this stateside veneration, of course, is that in their own country, black British actors’ ostensibly advantageous training and experience still gets them nowhere. British movies are simply, on the whole, too white for black actors’ rigorous training to bring them acclaim within the industry. One barrier to entry for black British actors working in that film industry, points out Clark, is that there are so many British movies about the history of the island. “So much output of British film and television is so focused on heritage and period drama, because it sells,” says Clark. “There is very little room at the table for actors of color in these productions.”

To make way for actors of color in British film and TV you may need to make fewer Downton Abbeys, The King’s Speeches, and (unfortunately) Austen adaptations. Or you might need cast them creatively, as Andrea Arnold did in 2011’s Wuthering Heights, in which, for the first time in the history of the role, the “dark-skinned gypsy” Heathcliff was cast as a black actor. (The movie is unique in that regard — an accurate sense of imperial Europe’s racial diversity is often missing from period pictures.) The actor Arnold chose, James Howson, is British — unlike Denzel Washington, who was once creatively cast in a British production of Much Ado About Nothing.

The reciprocal nature of casting choices on both sides of the pond is something Jackson’s comments overlook. Washington, who also starred in the 1989 For Queen and Country as a British Falklands vet, is, in fact, one of several black American actors to act a British film role, a narrative decidedly absent from Jackson’s observations. Those actors range from contemporaries like Don Cheadle (assuming you’d call whatever is going on with his accent in the Ocean’s movies British) and Forest Whitaker (The Crying Game), to the legendary ’40s star Paul Robeson — and to Samuel L. Jackson himself, who once starred in the British action comedy Formula 51.

I keep wondering what the need to make versions of this point every few years does for people, both within Hollywood and outside the industry. It’s too common a point of tension to signify nothing. In Jackson’s case, there’s a legitimate claim being made about what feels like an industry distinction working to the detriment of the careers and livelihoods of black American actors. But Jackson’s comments themselves seethe with a strangely pronounced sense of suspicion. “There was a bad-faith argument to it,” Clark said. “Like, ‘They’re coming here, taking our jobs.’ It seemed weirdly off pace with some of the rhetoric that’s happening more broadly at the moment.” “Black brits vs African American. A stupid ass conflict we don’t have time for,” tweeted John Boyega after Jackson’s comments, gesturing at our larger moment. Just as Hollywood must continue to make more space for black writers, directors, and actors, so must Hollywood’s black community embrace its own intraracial diversity. It’s a diaspora: There are plenty of stories, and the industry benefits from the range of them, written and directed and acted by a range of black people. If the system cannot yet acknowledge that, at the very least, its stars should.