What the Debate Around Black American and British Actors Gets Wrong

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Photo: Maya Robinson/Vulture

In the wake of its February release, writer-director Jordan Peele’s debut film, Get Out, has done what few others in recent memory have — it’s a genre film that became a surprising box office success and cultural lightening rod, while centering on an exploration of racism and black identity. By its very nature, it shouldn’t be surprising that Get Out has inspired fraught conversations that have real-world implications. But there is one topic that has proved to be the most intense when discussing the film.

In a Hot97 interview last month, Samuel L. Jackson reflected on how different Get Out would be had the lead role been played by an American actor. Daniel Kaluuya, a black actor from London of Ugandan descent, stars as Chris, a photographer who travels with his white girlfriend to meet her liberal-minded parents in upstate New York*. Horror quickly ensues. In his interview, Jackson said, “I tend to wonder what that movie would have been with an American brother who really feels that. Daniel grew up in a country where they’ve been interracial dating for 100 years. What would a brother from America have made of that role?” Jackson acknowledged that Hollywood provides black actors more opportunities than the British film and television industry does. “It’s all good. Everybody needs work,” he added. Even when he later softened his criticism, it didn’t matter. The damage was done. Soon enough, Jackson’s comments spurned impassioned responses from casting directors and British actors like John Boyega, David Harewood, and Kaluuya himself, as well as kickstarting a round of wars among the members of black Twitter. The criticism against Jackson’s comments were united in arguing that what he said was ultimately divisive, given the racism black actors throughout the diaspora experience in crafting their careers.

Jackson’s critique touched a nerve, reigniting an old argument about the need for authenticity within black stories, and the value of black American actors in the face of the widespread, misguided belief that their British colleagues are more well-trained. The conversation around the merit of British actors over American ones is not novel, and it typically transcends racial distinctions. This tense dynamic has existed for decades, a classic example being the chatter around Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe during the 1957 film A Prince and a Showgirl. He was a British acting titan revered for his stage and screen work. She was a blonde bombshell who at the time had only recently become enamored of method acting, an American discipline that many mid-century homegrown actors like Paul Newman and Gena Rowlands trained in and is usually curiously absent in discussions of this sort. In recent memory, this conversation was sparked in 2015 around the release of Ava DuVernay’s Martin Luther King Jr. biopic, Selma, whose leads were British, with pieces like this one from BuzzFeed News, declaring “the rise of the black British actor in America.”

I think it would be impossible to ask that all distinctly black American roles be played by black American actors. It’s also arguably a limiting way to think of art, always equating it to identity to such an extreme degree. But the rebuttals to Jackson’s comments haven’t actually engaged with what Jackson was saying. Take, for example, Kaluuya’s response in an interview with GQ: “That’s my whole life, being seen as ‘other.’ Not fitting in in Uganda, not Britain, not America. They just highlight whatever feature they want. […] I really respect African-American people. I just want to tell black stories.” He concluded by saying, “I resent that I have to prove that I’m black.” While Jackson frames the matter rather inelegantly, to put it mildly, nowhere in the interview does he question Kaluuya’s blackness. What Jackson was doing was pointing out that the black experience throughout the diaspora isn’t an interchangeable one like some filmmakers may like to believe.

As the black-American experience is proving to be seen as creatively and financially fertile territory in film and TV, you have to wonder why, if these stories are seen as vital, actual black American actors aren’t necessarily viewed as their ideal storytellers?

Generally, the answer to this question, and to arguments against comments like Jackson’s, fall into two camps: 1) That acting by its very nature is the art of evoking the lives of others, so black-American actors aren’t essential to these roles; and 2) British actors get these opportunities due to being better trained in a rigorous theater tradition that leaves them more artistically capable, whether it’s Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave, Idris Elba in The Wire, or the leads of Selma. On the latter point, a 2015 Entertainment Weekly piece argued, “[P]erhaps the biggest factor leading to the perception that American actors are falling behind is that the path to Hollywood fame in this country doesn’t necessarily go through the Actors Studio or Juilliard or the Yale School of Drama. Though Hollywood has its share of Jessica Chastains and Mark Ruffalos, well-trained professionals who studied at revered dramatic institutions, the difference might lie in the other cases, in which actors get a break in Hollywood with limited training or acting background.” The most damning statement about this ongoing feud comes at the very end of the essay, “the British are coming … because Hollywood needs them.”

That filmmakers repeat this argument is more troubling. During the promotion for Selma in 2015, writer-director Ava DuVernay, who is considered one of the most talented and politically aware directors working, explained to BuzzFeed News why she likes working with black British actors: “I think there’s something about the stage, because they have that stage preparation. 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.” That same year, Spike Lee told Slate, “Their training is very proper, whereas some of these other brothers and sisters, you know, they come in here, and they don’t got that training. The training and craft, it’s the same thing and I see it when people come in to audition and stuff, they don’t got it together.” Lee and DuVernay’s beliefs suggest that there is something inherently missing when it comes to the American talent pool. That their quotes are somewhat insulting to actors stateside is one thing, but they’re also simply untrue. If you take a look at established and fledgling black American actors working today, you’ll find that many are highly trained: Denzel Washington went to Fordham and the American Conservatory Theater. Viola Davis, Tracie Thoms, Nelsan Ellis, Rutina Wesley (who stars in DuVernay’s Queen Sugar), and Anthony Mackie all went to Julliard. Mahershala Ali, who won Best Supporting Actor for his marvelous turn in Moonlight, earned a masters degree from New York University’s acting program. (He joked after his win to reporters on Oscar night, “I’m just so fortunate that Idris [Elba] and David Oyelowo left me a job. It was very, very kind of them.”) Ali’s Moonlight co-star Ashton Sanders was studying acting at DePaul University before dropping out to pursue his career full-time. This is a small sampling, but you get the idea.

André Holland, who’s had mesmerizing turns in Moonlight and The Knick and received his masters in acting at NYU, spoke about the bias against black American actors in a 2015 discussion with Interview magazine. “There are so many brilliant, trained actors of color in America. If you just think about it, every year in the spring Julliard and NYU and Yale and hundreds of schools across the country graduate classes of trained actors, and in those classes are actors of color. So to say that there aren’t enough actors of color is factually inaccurate. But more than it being inaccurate, it’s also really divisive and damaging and frankly disrespectful to the actors who are out here working. […] It really sometimes feels like a slap in the face to hear these British actors say that,” Holland said.

When I spoke to Prema Cruz, a black American actress who most recently had a brilliant guest spot on The Good Fight and went to Yale University for acting, she echoed Holland’s view. “There are people graduating from my program — black men and women — and they’re killing it. They aren’t Hollywood stars. If we’re talking about stars that’s a whole different thing,” Cruz said. What Cruz is alluding to is that there isn’t so much a dearth in black American actors who go through rigorous training so as much they aren’t given the opportunity to lead films and series with enough regularity that filmmakers and audiences would notice them. She also spoke of the “fetishized obsession” that is attached to British actors regardless of race, which itself has an undercurrent of classism. “There’s this misconception that [British, theater-trained actors] are more elite or more sophisticated than American actors,” she continued. This is something British actress Kate Winslet touched on in a 2015 interview: “When you are an English actor and you go into another country. They automatically assume you are fully trained … Which I’ve played on, believe me.”

The language that directors like Spike Lee use insinuates that stage preparation is both essential to great acting and that American actors demonstrate a lack of this. And while there are plenty of classically trained American actors, this obsession with theatrical training is in and of itself misguided. To make that argument ignores the differences between film and stage acting as well as the lineage of actors who haven’t had such training, but have given amazing performances that in turn shaped the medium itself — from classic Hollywood stars like Joan Crawford, who in many ways wrote the playbook on what it means to be a screen actor, to modern powerhouses like Elisabeth Moss. One of my favorite performances last year was Trevante Rhodes as the eldest version of Chiron in Barry Jenkins’s Academy Award–winning film Moonlight. His turn was brimming with sincerity and intensity. It is also the work of an actor not trained on the stage. Film history is richer for such performances.

One crucial aspect missing from this conversation are the inherent class politics of who has the resources and access to make such training possible. Many black actors in the early days of Hollywood had to find training elsewhere due to the deeply entrenched, racist attitudes that barred black performers from gaining access to it. As Cruz said toward the end of our interview, “Black actors have had to carve their own path.” Her statement can be applied to everything from black American actors who had to work the Chitlin’ Circuit from the 19th century onward to classic Hollywood denizens like Canada Lee to modern icons like Gina Torres. In their own way, each of these references reflects a truth all black artists must learn: to see yourself in places the rest of the industry could never imagine you being.

While the first issue Jackson raised relates to opportunity, the second comes down to craft: How might being a black American actor inform a black American role? This conversation keeps popping up in part because there has been a much-needed rise within the last few years in stories detailing the intricate history of the black American experience — some of which are explicitly about America’s own turbulent racial history — including Selma, 12 Years a Slave, Hidden Figures, Black-ish, and Queen Sugar. It’s important to note that while the leads in Selma and 12 Years a Slave are British, many of these examples employed black American actors in leading and supporting roles. That includes Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Shots Fired, a new TV series that subverts the expectations that come with police brutality stories by making the police officer black and the victim who dies a young white man. It forces us to confront some nasty questions about how racism flourishes in America and the black community’s relationship with the police, particularly within a southern milieu. That the executive producer, Prince-Bythewood, many of its directors like Millicent Shelton and Kasi Lemmons, and its star, Sanaa Lathan, are black Americans doesn’t mean the show is necessarily any better than if British artists were involved. But in showing the particulars of an experience that is not universal, there is a perspective they undoubtedly bring to the table. Black people throughout the diaspora, whether you’re from South Side Chicago or London or Nigeria, experience racism. But to say that this racism exists at the same tenor and manifests in the same ways flattens the diversity within the black experience itself. As Jackson said in his Hot97 interview, “Some things are universal but everything ain’t.”

There are a few things that underlie the belief that, because acting requires imagination and transformation, direct experience isn’t a necessity. And that thanks to some shared history and the common experience of racism, black actors no matter their origin are interchangeable (of course, American actors like Will Smith have been criticized for taking on African roles, like his work in Concussion, which had him adopt a shoddy Nigerian accent). As Richard Brody curiously expressed in The New Yorker, “In the case of Kaluuya, the gap between the experience of being a black person in Great Britain and the United States is perhaps not as wide as Jackson assumes.”

Some British actors take it even further, arguing that they have just the right amount of commonalities and distance to bring to life American stories in ways American actors may be too mired in direct experiences to do as poignantly. Carmen Ejogo, who played Coretta Scott King in Selma, told BuzzFeed News, “I’ve been trying to convince myself that being British has had no bearing on any of this, but actually I think that’s where it served me well. I’m not as entrenched in the history so immediately. […] I didn’t know who Coretta was until I played her the first time. And I think I have permission — that’s the definition of the artist, in my opinion — to be a little deviant. It wasn’t as daunting as it might have been for an American actress. An African-American actress … that might have been a bit more of a challenge.” In a BBC America interview, Oyelowo argued that having British actors spearhead Selma may have been a wise decision since they don’t have the so-called baggage American actors have when it comes to such a towering historical figure like Dr. Martin Luther Jr. “There’s something to be said for the fact that we are able to come at these films clean,” Oyelowo noted. And actor David Harewood, who played Martin Luther King Jr. onstage in The Mountaintop, argued in a piece for The Guardian, responding to Jackson’s criticism, that “[British actors are able] to unshackle ourselves from the burden of racial realities – and simply play what’s on the page.”

Oyelowo, Harewood, and Ejogo’s comments are troubling in how they frame black Americans’ abilities to speak to their own history, as if we all have the same perspective on the civil-rights leaders whose stories were drilled into us in school, in church, in the living rooms of our homes. The relationship to this history doesn’t mean black Americans lack nuance or an understanding of the jagged edges these people had in their lifetime. Furthermore, the black experience, even in America, is not a universal one, although it is bound together by a bloody historical lineage. As Cruz said in our interview, “Being American is a very specific thing. Being a black American is even more specific. What’s even more specific than that is being a Southern black American. It isn’t a matter of just shifting your vowels and consonants and now I have a Southern accent. […] It’s a culture you come from, the mentality, the food you eat, the racial tension you’re constantly faced with. It’s slavery. What it does to your spirit and mentality. That seeps into your DNA, into your bones, into the way you see the world.”

Growing up as a black woman of Dominican heritage between Miami and New Orleans, I learned very early the weight of slavery because I could see its aftermath on the faces of my own family. When you grow up passing by plantations in which it is safe to assume that someone from your own family line was brutalized, it undoubtedly shapes how you conceive of your blackness, racism, and the legacy of America itself. It’s this history that informs my work as a writer and my life as a woman today. To pretend the presence or absence of such experiences couldn’t enrich an actor’s work is to believe the fallacy that the black experience is a monolith.

I don’t fault black British actors for coming to America for work. It’s simple pragmatism. Many have spoken about why British actors move Stateside in order to find artistic fulfillment. As K. Austin Collins wrote in an essay for the Ringer, “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.” I’m also happy to see more black talent doing well in Hollywood. That this argument rears its head so often demonstrates the paltry opportunities for all black actors, forcing them to look at their peers with wary cynicism. But criticizing black American actors and treating the black experience as if it is universal is not a way to combat this. If anything, this tactic reaffirms class biases and mistruths that deprive black American talent from having a voice in the way their history is refracted in film.

*An earlier version of the piece noted that Get Out takes place in the South. In fact, it takes place in upstate New York.

What the Black American and British Actor Debate Gets Wrong