When it comes to the roles they are assigned in Hollywood, African American actors have every right to be aggrieved. Once depicted only as nannies, pimps, prostitutes, thieves, simpletons and savages, the possibilities have grown in recent times but the opportunities are nowhere near where they could or should be.
But to aim that grievance at black British actors, as Samuel Jackson did earlier this week, is perverse in the extreme. Black British actors are not responsible for casting or movie budgets and run no major studios. They are not acting in black face – they have black faces already. So there are not fewer portrayals of black people on screen, or fewer black actors getting work. This is just black people who are not African American playing African Americans. But then they are actors.
Arguing that black Britons should not be cast in those parts does nothing to challenge the people with the power to put more black people in movies. It simply sets black people of different nationalities against each other, while those with the actual power to make a difference are let off scot-free. It does not advance the case of anti-racism one jot. It simply shifts the focus of identity politics from racial equality – where it is useful – to an ethnic bun fight – where it is worse than useless. Like the Ukip campaigner who blames immigrants for driving down wages rather than bosses for paying lower wages, having identified the problem – there are not enough good roles for African American actors – Jackson then misidentifies the culprit: studio executives.
It is not difficult to see where this comes from. African Americans have been in the US longer than almost every other group bar the Native Americans and a few pilgrims. For 200 years most lived under slavery, for a hundred under apartheid and only in the last 50 years have they been part of a non-racial democracy. Meanwhile, every immigrant group, including many black immigrants, arrived and were able to leapfrog them.
Jackson’s not wrong to argue that African Americans might have brought something different to the roles of Martin Luther King in Selma or Christopher Washington in Get Out. But he was wrong to imply that the black British actors cast in those roles didn’t bring something significant.
Black Britons are the product of ancestors who endured slavery or colonialism or both, and have to navigate modern-day racism – even if racism in Britain and America operate differently. An understanding of black Americans in film, and indeed black Americans in history, would be significantly diminished if it were reduced to those whose forebears were brought to America in chains and then stayed there and excluded those with roots elsewhere. It would count out Sidney Poitier (Bahamian), Malcolm X (Grenadan), Shirley Chisholm (Barbadian), Stokely Carmichael (Trinidadian), Marcus Garvey (Jamaican) and, of course, Barack Obama (Kenyan), to name but a few.
Rather than squabbling over the crumbs that fall from the table, it would be smarter to argue not just for a greater slice of the cake but for more chefs who might bake it.
It’s easy to criticise Samuel L Jackson on this. Yes, actors are trained to play anyone; yes, the real problem is there are so few roles for black actors; he should show solidarity with fellow thespians who have experienced racism; and his real target should be the industry.
Those are all true. As is the fact that British actors have given commanding performances as black Americans in recent years: from Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave to Naomie Harris in Moonlight, both Oscar-nominated.
Yet, beyond all that, Jackson has a point. He specifically pointed out the role played by Daniel Kaluuya as an African-American man falling victim to white liberal racism in the satirical interracial date movie Get Out. “I tend to wonder what that movie would have been with an American brother who really feels that,” said Jackson. “Daniel grew up in a country where they’ve been interracial dating for a hundred years. What would a brother from America have made of that role?”
Though some have taken this as an attack on black British actors, for me it’s clear that he’s challenging the box-ticking diversity thinking among those running the industry – who feel that there is only one “black experience” and therefore all roles are totally interchangeable. For a man raised in the deep-rooted inequality of the US, it’s not surprising Jackson feels black roles should go to those who’ve had to overcome this systemic injustice; whose family history is of segregation, school exclusion, vote denial, police brutality, and who can call on all aspects of this in the roles they play.
This is especially significant for roles dealing with racial separation – and, as Jackson also pointed out, for roles steeped in US civil rights history such as Dr Martin Luther King, played by Brit David Oyelowo in the 2014 movie Selma.
Instead, Hollywood apparently feels it can parachute in a black actor from anywhere in the world to give the illusion that things are changing, while opportunities are still being denied to African Americans. Not surprisingly, black US actors have come to Jackson’s defence – “can’t we tell our own stories?” they ask.
It’s something I’m sure black American audiences will feel too.
Jackson clarified his comments today, saying his target was the industry itself, and not his fellow black actors. “It was not a slam against them, but it was just a comment about how Hollywood works in an interesting sort of way sometimes,” he told the Associated Press.
And I empathise with him because we’ve seen the same in the UK. Former BBC executive Samir Shah once pointed out what happens when TV chiefs don’t think beyond “race”. Referring to the casting for the soap EastEnders, he said: “If you were to cast an Asian family in the East End, it should have been Bangladeshi [there is a large community in this part of London]. Instead we had a family of Goan descent.” And he continued: “The plain fact is that this tick-box approach to equal opportunities has led to an inauthentic representation of who we are.”
It happens in other fields too: it was great that Prudential appointed Tidjane Thiam as its chief executive in 2009 – he became the first black person to lead a FTSE 100 company (he’s since moved on to head Credit Suisse). But he was born and raised within a powerful west African family, so his rise had little to do with tackling inequality in the UK. Indeed, last November’s Parker Review found there is still only a tiny number of ethnic minorities on FTSE-100 boards.
So, as for Jackson, let’s be clear: black British actors are not to blame. But is it a valid point to raise? Absolutely.