I learned to centre the African American experience growing up as a Black British child. Growing up black in South London, my experience was so rarely represented in British television, film or music. Last year, I explained how I exclusively looked to the Americans for affirmation that my blackness was beautiful and mattered when I was younger. I understood, at least on a purely aesthetic level, the nature of the African American experience because I consumed their varied representations while the UK was still floundering to fully articulate the similar but ultimately different Black British experience on the small and silver screens. Grime artist Stormzy’s number one album and Michaela Coel’s BAFTA Award winning turn creating Chewing Gum herald a new age for the Black British community where we are finally cementing our autonomy as worthy participants in the global creative community. This visibility of British Blackness, on our terms, has never before been seen in the multifaceted way it is today.
Forward to 25:30 for his conversation about the influx of Black British Actors to America
While promoting Kong: Skull Island, Hollywood juggernaut Samuel L Jackson said he felt there was space for an American actor to play British rising star Daniel Kaluuyah’s role in Jordan Peele’s smash hit horror Get Out. When challenged as to why there were so many Black British actors working in America, he responded simply with “they’re cheaper than us for one thing. They don’t cost as much unless you’re a known brother...” As well as showing a lack of value in Black British actors imported into the country, Jackson’s comments “what would the film have looked like with an American brother who really understands that…” speak to the myth that African Americans have a monopoly on black pain. While African Americans have been and continue to be disproportionately disenfranchised at every conceivable avenue, on every imaginable level in their country, it cannot be denied the supremacy of the American narrative in general means the African American story often takes precedent over the stories of black people across the diaspora. It is why I can tell you that Compton and Harlem are on different coasts but many Americans, regardless of their race, wouldn’t be able to tell me if Lambeth and Southwark were in the same city or cities themselves. More importantly, the dominance of the African American dialogue unintentionally works for delegitimise the Black Diasporic narratives and herein lies the solipsism; the inability to acknowledge to be black in any country outside of Africa, from Pakistan to Australia, is to experience oppression and even within Africa, the remanence of colonial rule yet stains the motherland. How presumptive to assume sole ownership of the clawing fear one feels when alone in a sea of unfamiliar, white faces. Very cheeky indeed.
When Black British actors appear in American television or films, from Chiwetal Ejiofor in John Singleton’s Four Brothers to Cush Jumbo and Delroy Lindo in The Good Wife and currently The Good Fight, their performances are of such high quality Americans rarely notice mid-performance they aren’t kinfolk. The charge has been levied against black people outside of America, that we are not receptive of performances of African Americans when they play roles that aren’t American when the truth it is not their heritage we do not like; we take umbrage to trash accents. Most recently Will Smith’s performance in Concussion was criticised, not because he is not a talented actor but because his Nigerian accent was laughable. While there have been brilliant African American performances in African roles, Rebecca Theodore points to Forest Whitaker’s Academy Award winning Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland and Don Cheadle’s powerful performance in Hotel Rwanda, there are other performances such as Taye Diggs in How Stella Got Her Groove Back and the entire cast of Cool Runnings where African Americans butchered the Jamaican accent. These performances are not ridiculed because of the actors were African American, but because they did a disservice to the roles with lazy accents. The supremacy of American cinema allowed these actors to inhabit roles they were ill-equipped for. When asked why British Black actors work so often in the States, the real answer is because they are good, not because they are cheap.
While African Americans make up 13% of the population, Black British people only make up 3% of the UK and if the state of representation of African Americans on screen is dire there best believe it’s worse here. Only 5.4% of the British TV workforce is non-white and there are no figures for how many of those are specifically Black British while in America 21% of primetime roles on network television were played by African Americans. Black British people support African Americans in music, film and television financially and with our voices. There is a lack of reciprocal solidarity with the Black Diaspora from African Americans and it can be seen across the board from our creative industries to our social justice movements. Artists and filmmakers daren’t miss the UK leg of their promotional tour because it is lucrative to do so yet Samuel L Jackson’s comments speak to a deeper rot in our relationship. African Americans are happy to accept our support but unwilling to offer the same in return and ready, willing and able to criticise Black Diasporic actors for wanting to share in the glory we contributed to forging. A divisive mixture of arrogance and ignorance are how it is possible for many African Americans to assume they alone are in the fight against white supremacy, they alone work to centre blackness and worse still, they alone must reap the rewards of the resistance. The African American experience is specific, both beautiful and horrific in its existence but to pretend being other is easier here in Britain than it is in America works to erase the depth and wealth of the Black British experience. Scarier still the argument echoes the exclusionary tone of the current British and American governments’ “these foreigners coming here, stealing our jobs.”
“The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work” Toni Morrison opined in a 1975 lecture. Our work, well mine anyway, is to dismantle white supremacy and see black people across the diaspora uplifted. While we’re here spending time and good energy theorising the value of each other’s black experience, white people are doing their work and running off with our things. As a British Black woman of Jamaican descent, my grandmothers' grandmothers were slaves so I’m not competing in the Oppression Olympics with African Americans to prove whose history was more harrowing; there’s work to be done.
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