Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Arguing about black actors

There’s an entertaining transatlantic argument going on about whether it’s appropriate for black British actors to play African Americans.

Rather a lot of those actors have been working in the States. There they’ve picked up roles requiring an American accent, and have been performing them rather well. For instance, Chiwetelu Ejiofor playing the American free black sold into slavery in Twelve Years a Slave. Or David Harewood as a senior CIA executive in Homeland. Most remarkable of all, David Oyelowo playing that most iconic of figures, Martin Luther King, in Selma.

David Oyelowo in Selma
A Brit playing MLK? Horror. Heresy. Blasphemy
Among African American actors this development has, it seems, bred a degree of resentment. The Guardian quotes Samuel L. Jackson questioning whether Daniel Kaluuya was the right actor to play an African American in an interracial relationship, in Get Out.

I tend to wonder what that movie would have been with an American brother who really feels that.

The suggestion is that to play the African American well, you need to have experienced his suffering. Otherwise, you might be unable to express his being adequately. However, the Guardian quotes David Harewood as claiming that:

… he and other black British performers are able “to unshackle ourselves from the burden of racial realities – and simply play what’s on the page”.

In other words, they act.

This reminds me of the conversation Laurence Olivier reportedly had with Dustin Hoffman, when Hoffman mentioned he’d stayed up three nights to prepare for a scene of exhaustion in Marathon Man. Olivier replied, “why don’t you just try acting?”

The story is probably apocryphal – it apparently comes from Hoffman himself, and he says his claim to have stayed up three nights wasn’t true anyway – but the point is a good one. You can actually play Martin Luther King without being Martin Luther King, or American, or indeed, I suspect, even black – if you’re an actor.

Another of Jackson’s Guardian comments caught my attention. He said of Kaluuya:

Daniel grew up in a country where they’ve been interracial dating for 100 years.

It’s quite flattering to know that, among some African Americans at least, Britain has a reputation for being open on racial matters. Indeed, the suggestion that it has been for rather a long time. It’s almost enough to give Brits a smug sense of anti-racist superiority. At least, until we remember why those black British actors go looking for good roles in the States.

They just don’t get them in Britain.

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