Opinion » Editorial

Black Brits vs African Americans

by Rev. Irene  Monroe
Thursday Mar 16, 2017

An unwelcomed competition for movie roles

With this year's Academy Awards showcasing the most diversity in its history the #OscarsSoWhite controversy might now be over. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) nominated six African American themed films, at least ten black actors and filmmakers with Viola Davis winning her Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in the film adaptation of Fences and Barry Jenkins winning his for Best Picture with Moonlight. Glaringly absent where other people of color except for the biographical film Lion about a five-year-old Indian boy lost on the streets of Calcutta, with Dev Patel winning best supporting actor and the film winning best adapted screenplay.

Cheryl Boone Isaacs, from Springfield, MA is president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and she's the first African American to hold the post. As a two-term president Isaacs has shaped the new direction for AMPAS from its leadership to its rank-and-file. With last year's 683 new invitations the incoming class comprised of 46 percent female and 41 percent people of color. Isaac's this year is pleased with this year's outcome.

"It just so happened that this year we had an abundance of films that represented inclusion, which is something that we are, of course, very much a part of," Isaacs told ABC News. "Our initiative, of course, has been centered around our membership and our governance."

However, there is another ongoing controversy brewing in the entertainment business that perhaps Isaacs can't fix-an unwelcoming competition between black Brits and African Americans for movie roles.

This issue scratches below the superficial veneer of diversity, and, that is, there are differences within diversity that perhaps many film writers and producers have unintentionally missed, but African American actor Samuel L. Jackson now want them to pay attention to.

The recent blockbuster hit "Get Out," a satirical horror film about racism in liberal suburbia America with black British star Daniel Kaluuya cast as the lead actor has ignited a debate about a trend many African Americans-actors and non actors-find troubling and eerily reminiscent of how minority groups are pitted against one another.

Jackson's critique of the Hollywood system overlooking African American actors for black British ones as "another form of the industry discrimination they face on a regular basis."

Jackson told a New York radio station "Hot 97", "We can't tell our own stories?...I tend to wonder what that movie would have been with an American brother who really feels that."

African born actor Abraham Amkpa, who has appeared in NCIS and The People c. O.J. Simpson agrees with Jackson.
"There's a very different shade of racism that exists in America," said Amkpa. "If it was an African American actor, I think it would've translated a bit more on the screen."
In an interview with GQ Kaluuya chimed in the debate about his casting expressing how he experiences racism which he brought to his role.

"Here's the thing about that critique" Kaluuya said. "When I'm around Black people, I'm made to feel 'other' because I'm dark-skinned. I've had to wrestle with that, with people going, 'You're too Black.' Then I come to America, and they say, 'You're not Black enough.' I go to Uganda, I can't speak the language. In India, I'm Black. In the Black community, I'm dark-skinned. In America, I'm British. Bro!"

While the debate now has black Brits feuding with African Americans about who can best portray the African American experience the debate has also highlighted that differences within diversity is not only about race or skin-color, but it is also about ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, age, physical abilities, religious beliefs, political beliefs, to name a few. And all these variables will undoubtedly render different and legitimate interpretations brought to a role.

Case in point, British actor David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr in Selma. Many African Americans were put off by Oyelowo's interpretation of an iconic and revered figure such as MLK ,and surmised the Academy was, too, since it only won for Best Original Song for "Glory."

Oyelowo recognized the tension when he accepted the role. "There are some brothers in America who could have been in that movie who would have had a different idea about how King thinks."

As African American actors push away from Hollywood's classic stereotypes-mammies, coons, pimps, prostitutes and thugs- and its historic cinematic racial tropes seen in films-from Gone with the Wind (1939) to The Help (2011)-this pigeonhole African Americans once accepted for themselves is no longer.

While many-blacks as well as white-have stated how elated they are to see more black representation in the film industry, Brits and African Americans actors vie, in a very small market, to keep their craft alive.

Because of a lack of diversity and meaningful roles in U.K. film and television many black Brits have tried their luck here. My black Brit heart-throb Idris Elba has addressed the British parliament to "stop the talent drain" requesting for greater diversity in U.K. media.

However, in all fairness British actors of late are taking on more American roles. For example, English actress Carey Mulligan portrayed Southern-belle Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby and Anglo-Irish actor Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln.

As a matter-of-fact, data provided by the Department of Homeland Security indicates that there has been a 500 percent increase over the past years in the number of visa petitions approved for actors and directors from the United Kingdom seeking work in the U.S. entertainment industry.

While the feud between black Brits and African Americans is troubling and ongoing Jackson's critique, however, not only points to discrimination in Hollywood, but also in the U.K.