Samuel L. Jackson revives debate on British black actors in American roles
(CNN) — A wave of critical and word-of-mouth praise has helped Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” become the first stealth hit of 2017. But Samuel L. Jackson has turned up the heat on a long-simmering debate by pointing out what he thinks is a key oversight: that a film about the American black experience stars an actor that doesn’t have any first-hand knowledge of the American black experience. The star of “Get Out” is British.
During an interview with New York radio station Hot 97.1 earlier this week, Jackson criticized the casting of actor Daniel Kaluuya, who plays an African American photographer in the horror movie, mixed with biting social commentary. Allison Williams plays the character’s love interest.
“I tend to wonder what that movie would have been with an American brother who really feels that,” he said. “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? Some things are universal but [not everything is].”
Jackson has since softened his comments, telling the Associated Press he did not mean to “slam” the film but rather point out “how Hollywood works in an interesting sort of way sometimes.”
Kaluuya has not yet returned CNN’s request for comment.
But Jackson’s observations are nothing new.
After winning an Academy Award for his performance in “Moonlight,” Mahershala Ali joked with reporters backstage that he was thankful his plum role in the coming-of-age film did not end up in the hands of actors he viewed as potential competition. They both happened to be British.
“I’m just so fortunate that Idris [Elba] and David Oyelowo left me a job,” Ali quipped. “It was very, very kind of them.”
In 2014, Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” drew some criticism for casting Oyelowo to play Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The role of Coretta Scott King was also played by a British native, actress Carmen Ejogo.
Oyelowo said his casting was beneficial because he entered the project without the pressures an American actor might feel taking on the role.
“I know for a fact that when Lee Daniels, who was the director attached at the time I got cast, was in place he said: ‘David, the reason why I cast you as Dr. King is because you didn’t come in with any of the baggage of this icon. You just came in and played the man,'” he told NPR.
Some say the seeming influx of black British actors is a result of limited opportunity in the U.K.
Morgan Freeman made this point as far back as 2012, when he told the Telegraph that he knew at least three British actors who’d made the move to the States in search of onscreen work.
“The British film industry definitely has more work to do on that front,” he said. “It needs to catch up with the times; it has much more progress to make.”
Much like #OscarsSoWhite controversy, the BAFTAs — the British equivalent of the Academy Awards — has been slammed for its lack of diversity.
In 2016, Elba was the only black actor nominated in the four main performance categories at the BAFTAs for his role in “Beasts of No Nation.”
And while American television is often praised for being more inclusive than American film, in Britain, the lack of diversity is especially apparent on television.
Last year, Elba spoke to members of the British Parliament about the limited number of roles for black actors, saying it made him turn to America for opportunities.
Elba, star of BBC’s “Luther,” did not score that starring role until after he’d gained acclaim in the U.S. for his work on HBO’s “The Wire.”
“When you don’t reflect the real world, too much talent gets trashed. Thrown on the scrapheap,” he said, according to The Guardian. “Talent is everywhere, opportunity isn’t. And talent can’t reach opportunity.”
Actor David Harewood (“Supergirl”) agreed when interviewed by Vulture a week later: “American television, for all its faults, still has a black presence in shows and even in commercials.”
American TV and film still have work to do.
A 2016 study out of the University of Southern California Annenberg found that 22% of the more than 100 films and 305 television shows they evaluated failed to depict a black or African American speaking character.
A 2015 survey of 800 films released from 2007-2015 revealed that that only 12.2% of characters in those movies were black, while 73.7% were white.
Ultimately, there’s a need for more roles for both British and American actors of color.
English actor, John Boyega, who starred in the 2015 film “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” tweeted a response to Jackson’s comments: “Black brits vs African American. A stupid ass conflict we don’t have time for.”
Jackson likely agrees. During his radio interview, he also acknowledged that there are more opportunities for black actors in Hollywood than across the pond.
“It’s all good. Everybody needs to work,” Jackson said.