Samuel L Jackson broke a few British hearts this week with comments he made about Black British Actors possibly being less equipt to tell historically African American stories. British Actors everywhere were enraged and the discussion has been on-going on social media since.
I think Sam has a point and a right to his opinion. He is not the first to feel this way, it’s not a new phenomenon and this is a conversation we needed to have. Hear me out, whilst I give a little history lesson on Uncle Sam:
In 1966, the height of the civil rights movement, Jackson enrolled at the historically black Morehouse College, the alma mater of Martin Luther King Jr
In 1968, when MLK Jr. was assassinated, Jackson attended King’s funeral as one of the ushers and then flew to Memphis to join an equal rights protest.
In 1969, actor Samuel L Jackson was expelled from historically black Morehouse College for holding board of trustees hostage for two days, demanding that changes be made in the curriculum, stating that they wanted more blacks on the governing board of the institution. Included in this group of people who were held hostage was MLK Jr.’s own father MLK Sr. Morehouse eventually gave in and agreed to change but Jackson was expelled for his actions.
That summer he became connected with people in the Black Power movement. “I was in that radical faction. One day my mom showed up and put me on a plane to L.A. She said, ‘Do not come back to Atlanta.’ The FBI had been to the house and told her that if I didn’t get out of Atlanta, there was a good possibility I’d be dead within a year. She freaked out.’”
Jackson stayed in LA working in social services for two years and then applied to Morehouse and returning in January of 1971 as a drama major. “I decided that theater would now be my politics. It could engage people and affect the way they think. It might even change some minds,” he told Parade.
I say all this to say; Uncle Sam has BEEN in the struggle and working in the trenches since before many of us were born, of course he’d want to play MLK over a Brit, it goes without saying! Though I’m sure his comments didn’t come from a place of malice, he is however wrong.
Britons have not been interracially dating for over 100 years ‘en mass’. Although there is evidence that people of colour have been in the UK since medieval times, this mixed race melting pot he speaks of isn’t true:
“The most recent Census in 2011 highlights that in England and Wales, 80 per cent of the population were white British. South Asian ‘groups’ made up 6.8 per cent of the population; black groups 3.4 per cent; East Asian ‘groups’ 0.7 cent, Arab groups 0.4 per cent and other groups 0.6 per cent”. irr.org.uk
Hardly a mixed majority Sam. In fact my Caribbean father came to England in the 50’s (he’s 72 and still looks not a day over 40). I heard about the things my parent’s went through before I was born in the 80’s. Even as a mixed child, I haven’t been exempt from racism in UK.
Sam’s argument was ‘not everything is universal’. A trope that’s often told to actors in training is that ‘I don’t have to be a drug addict in real life to understand and play addiction, or have had a sibling die to understand and play loss. As an ex (or current) drug addict, I would have a unique advantage, insight and affinity to the role but, would that make me act better? I dunno.
Because American systematic racism is hyper-visible across global media, it’s easy to say that the rest of the world hasn’t suffered like they have. This still doesn’t stop me knowing, understanding and playing suffering.
As many have mentioned on social media Americans have been playing British and other foreign characters for the longest
- Denzel Wshinton – Cry Freedom/For Queen & Country (yikes!)
- Morgan Freeman – Invictus
- Whoopie Goldberg – Sarafina
- Don Cheadle – Hotel Rwanda
- Dennis Haysburt – Goodbye Bafana
- Derick Luke – Catch a Fire
The list goes on and even more so when looking at non-black Actors playing other nationalities. Would African Actors have loved those roles? Sure!
He also said we were cheaper, which really got people’s goat, because cheaper read to them as worthless but guess what? In some cases…we are cheaper.
- Having an unknown British Actor play a lead, rather than a known Black American Actor = Cheaper
- A ton of productions are filmed in Europe or South Africa. Europe = No Visa issues = Cheaper
Then last but not least; he said that the industry gatekeepers in Hollywood think we are better trained. This is true. I’ve been to Hollywood and had this said to me.
The idea of a quintessential, classically, drama school trained Actor is hot over there. Hollywood doesn’t have the same drama school history we have in UK, they have some top class practitioners but, the schools aren’t the same. Our schools have been around for over 100 years churning out stars. The course/class structure here is also very different.
They also admire UK theatre history and rep training (whether we have done any personally or not). Hollywood has virtually no theatre and Broadway is a closed shop. “They’re well-trained. They came through on the stage not on a music video or whatever. So their acting’s impeccable and then they go into films.” Spike Lee
People have rightly pointed out that Uncle Sam should be mad at the system and not us. I think that’s what he was saying, if not somewhat haphazardly. Non-white British Actors ‘can’t get arrested’ for love nor money in our own country’s industry and Hollywood is the film mecca, so it’s only natural that many of us are migrating.
To even get a US Visa we have to prove we possess “Extraordinary Ability” in our field of work and then we have to prove it in the audition and as I’ve told you in What is Pilot Season, the US audition system is much more vigorous than the UK system, so those of us who have been cast in US productions have frikken earned it.
I understand Sam. This representation thing is a struggle and we only want to see our fellow artists do well. I can’t count the amount of times ‘posh’ southerners are cast in ‘working class’ northern productions (as northerners). The way we cuss every time!
That’s not to bash the actor at all, but we always wonder what a northern actor, who’s from that background (and is often overlooked) would have brought to the role. Especially when the reverse casting virtually NEVER happens; northern playing southern. (see Change Your Accent pt 2 & 3).
Uncle Sam you have the work, we are coming – expect the very best of us.
“It was not a slam against them, but it was just a comment about how Hollywood works in an interesting sort of way sometimes.”
He added: “We’re not afforded that same luxury, but that’s fine, we have plenty of opportunities to work.”
He also said of British actors: “I enjoy their work… I enjoy working with them when I have the opportunity to do that.” Samuel L Jackson NME