I love nearly everything about the United Kingdom; its futbul -I root for Arsenal while wearing a City jersey (blasphemy), its melting pot of Metropolitan culture, its avant guarde style, and irreverent dry wit, but most of all what I love about London is its Black Brits -by origin, and hue they convey that Black is not a monolith. How divine is that! Now, I am loving their men, specifically their actors, for being unabashed in their pursuit to do great work independent of origin. Quietly they've become one name stalwarts of 'oh, yeah that will be good;' Idris, Oyelowo, Chiwetel and now Boyega. Something is brewing across the Atlantic and it is taking over roles that Black American actors have long decried avoided them. We asked journalist Amy Elisa Jackson to evaluate the matter for an ICON MANN Exclusive (I.M.E) and this is what she found. Do you agree?
By Amy Elisa Jackson
In 1964, Beatlemania swept the nation. Before young girls could could scream “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” or mop-topped boys could grab electric guitars, a British invasion had become a full-fledged phenomenon.
“I Want to Hold Your Hand” hit Billboard’s Top Forty and the Beatles, in their heeled boots, kicked the door open. Thanks to the hysteria of youngsters and the insatiable radio airwaves, the proverbial door was held enthusiastically by John Lennon welcoming a rock & roll flood that included the Rolling Stones, the Animals and a slew of other long-haired Redcoats.
Now the year is 2016, and the British invasion 2.0 has taken hold. No, Adele and Sam Smith. Sit down, no one is talking about your record-breaking vocals.
The Black British invasion of actors has reached a fever pitch in Hollywood and there are no signs of the mania subsiding. Lennon has been replaced by Idris Elba, and chart-topping singles have been swapped for box-office hits. From the silver screen to binge-worthy streaming faves like Homeland and The Walking Dead, Brits are making their mark on stateside storytelling.
Elba. David Harewood. David Oyelowo. Chiwetel Ejiofor. Adrian Lester. Eamonn Walker. Adewala Akinnuoye-Agbaje. Lennie James. Alfred Enoch. John Boyega.
The phenomenon may have reached its unignorable peak in last year’s Selma, where four of the iconic roles, including Martin and Coretta, were played by Brits. However, this is not just a fleeting fad, a brief obsession with foreign flavor. This has been a strong and steady build, with Star Wars’ John Boyega gripping the baton for a new generation.
Playing lead stormtrooper Finn in The Force Awakens, Boyega defied racist reactions to his casting and Twitter campaigns calling fans boycott the film. Like a true Millennial he took to Instagram to respond. The Londoner simply wrote, “get used to it,” followed by a cheeky smily face.
“I am grounded in who I am, and I am a confident Black man,” Boyega said unapologetically in a later interview. “A confident, Nigerian, Black, chocolate man…To get into a serious dialogue with people who judge a person based on the melanin in their skin? They’re stupid.”
Fifty plus years after the Beatles ushered in a counterculture, the mop top has been replaced with a rough, tapered fade but the cavalier British swagger, now donning Ozwald Boating bespoke, is just the same.
COMING TO AMERICA
Young and brash, The Fab Four hopped a transatlantic flight with little doubt of the success that awaited them. George Harrison bluntly told TIME, “We heard that our records were selling well in America.” However, Black Brits are forced to make the professionally risky exodus with less assurance.
“Unfortunately there really aren’t that many roles for authoritative, strong, Black characters in this country. We just don’t write those characters, that’s a fact,” said Homeland actor David Harewood.
Born in Birmingham and trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Harewood enjoyed some success across the pond on BBC single dramas and even played Martin Luther King in the theatrical production of “The Mountaintop.” However, he is best known for playing David Estes, the Deputy Director of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center, in the Showtime series.
“I can remember talking to Idris years ago about these frustrations and he told me ‘I’m going to America’ and I kind of thought, ‘What are you doing that for?’”
After a streak of smart decisions, a couple HBO hits (including cult favorite The Wire) and the right mix of on-trend Black American roles mixed with the occasional African turn (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and 2015’s Beasts of No Nation), Elba gave his fellow Englishman an answer.
“Look at him now. He’s a huge star,” said Harewood. “He made the right decision. I knew what I needed to do. I simply wouldn’t have been given a role of that strength and authority in the UK.”
However, America still has a ways to go, as is evidenced by this year’s #OscarsSoWhite boycott controversy. “Every young British actor asks me should I go to America to become a successful actor?" Elba said this month. "And I'm always in a quandary because its not always true that the grass is greener…Change is coming, but it’s taking its sweet time.”
Like the millions who don’t possess an IMDB page but are vying for visas nonetheless, Black Brit actors are seeking an American dream of sorts.
How to Get Away With Murder’s humble hottie Alfred Enoch made his debut to American audiences as the young quidditch pal of Harry Potter, then fully immersed himself in Tinseltown because of that dream. In an interview, Enoch admitted, “the real attraction is the sophistication and the depth of the work.”
Talent agent Femi Oguns offers a less artful reasoning. As the gatekeeper of many of the Black British talent making their mark on Hollywood, including Boyega, Oguns expertly navigates the racist attitudes that permeate portions of the UK industry.
“I was speaking with an old-school casting director, who said ‘I’m actually looking for an actor with more negroid features’. Then she said, ‘This other character is really educated – he’s more like a white person in a Black body’.”
Oguns remembers, “I thought ‘Wow!’ I put her in her place, so to speak. I said, ‘We’re going to have quite a hiatus until you realize what you just said’. I kept her in exile for 18 months. She was very apologetic after that.”
His reaction, this exchange both highlight where the power now lies.
If Idris Elba can stand on the shoulders of Stringer Bell to earn a Globes nod for this season’s Beasts of No Nation all while fans cheer for him to be the first Black James Bond; if David Oyelowo can nail America’s most iconic civil rights leader and instantly become an in demand leading man; if a 23-year old south Londoner can be propelled to galactic stardom in a film that is projected to gross over $1 billion worldwide, then casting agents, directors, and studio heads worldwide know that the Black man—speaking the King’s English or otherwise— is not someone to be fucked with.
HE GOT GAME
While promoting his film Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, filmmaker Spike Lee discussed the growing trend of talent moving across the pond and acing meatier roles. In true Spike style, his comments were raw and not without much-intended controversy.
“They get their chops on stage, so their theatre game is tight,” Lee said of British actors. “Here in America, they’re not doing the work, you gotta put the work in. You gotta take class,” Lee told The Grio.
Selma director Ava DuVernay chimed in on Brits versus homegrown actors, albeit without Spike’s brand of bitchslap.
“I think there’s something about the stage, because they have that stage preparation,” DuVernay told Buzzfeed. “Their work is really steeped in theater. Our system of creating actors is a lot more commercial.”
In contrast, up and comer André Holland (42, Selma, and Cinemax’s The Knick) honed his acting chops while receiving an MFA from NYU. In a podcast interview with critic Andy Greenwald, Holland argued the biggest obstacle for Black American talent has nothing to do with training.
"The fact is, every spring, all the drama schools around this country graduate classes of actors of color who are trained," said Holland. "They've done Shakespeare, they’ve done Ipsen, they've done Chekov. And the only thing that those actors are missing is, as Viola Davis said, opportunity. And for anybody who's in the casting community having a hard time finding them, call me—I'll put you in touch.”
He continued, "I'm really, really passionate about that, because it’s divisive, number one, and it's also, I think, a real slap in the face to the people who have been out here working, and hustling, and doing plays downtown for $100 a week. It's really disrespectful.”
Fellow thespian Anthony Mackie—born in New Orleans and trained at Juilliard—firmly agrees.
"There are a lot of limitations and stigmas that are placed on young actors, specifically young black actors," Mackie concedes, "but I think there's a way of breaking out of that if you keep yourself open to the fold. You can't limit yourself.”
ALL BLACK EVERYTHING
Indeed, despite what critics may say, a strong case can be made that for Black actors—American or British—the limits are endless. One only need to look at the horizon.
This February, newcomer Stephan James laces up legendary cleats as groundbreaking runner Jesse Owens in Race. Chadwick Boseman is prepping to helm Black Panther, directed by Ryan Cooler and due out in 2018. Taye Diggs, Morris Chestnut, Terrance Howard and Harold Perrineau will dazzle audiences yet again as the best friends turned brothers in April’s The Best Man Wedding. Anthony Mackie and Don Cheadle will transform into The Falcon and War Machine in Captain America: Civil War due out May 6. And one of Hollywood’s highest paid actors, Will Smith, teams up with Nigerian-Brit Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje for the much buzzed about Suicide Squad this August.
But don’t worry, the Yanks aren’t hogging up the screen time.
Idris Elba is going ‘where no man has gone before’ this July in Star Trek Beyond. David Oyelowo will be seen in the highly controversial film Nina alongside Zoe Saldana this March. Plus, Trevor Noah is still reigning supreme on The Daily Show. (Yes, we know he’s South African, but we Americans are generous and will give you a freebie, well with the accent and all.)
From what’s coming soon to screens big and small to the national debate around diversity sparked by some of our biggest talent, one might argue it is, in fact, an auspicious time to be a Black actor, period. Black-ish, Empire, The Jerrod Carmichael Show, Chicago Fire, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and many more bare witness to our undeniable power and a ceiling shattered.
As the Beatles sing, “Blackbird singing in the dead of night / Take these broken wings and learn to fly / All your life / You were only waiting for this moment to arise”
Arise Black actors, from the UK to LA.