Browsing Tag

representation

tanya-vital-black-british-actor-actress-samual-l-jackson

Uncle Sam – Expect Us

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:

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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.

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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.

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Denzel Washington – For Queen & Country

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!

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No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

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
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Ira Aldridge

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.

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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

 

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“All art is political otherwise it would just be decoration – If artists didn’t have anything to say, they’d make shoes.”

 Imported from old blog at tanyavital.blogspot

I’ve been writing this post over a number of weeks and sat on it for just as long because something in the back of my mind told me I wasn’t ready. I’m glad I did just that because the ideas and opinions I first had when initially starting the piece have evolved dramatically after spending some time with new friends.

I’ve been in my own little pursuit of happiness in the acting world for so long and in the struggle to survive, I sometimes forget why I chose this path and what it was that made me want to put myself through the often soul destroying lifestyle of an Actor. I get so caught up in the day to day that I forget my overall calling. The reason, beyond putting food in my fridge, paying the rent or boosting my ego. That overall driving force.

Unlike some I didn’t want to become an Actor to be famous or well known, I like anonymity. I like to be able to visit the Petrol Station late at night in my pyjamas if need be, or the Supermarket in my scruffs. The thought of everyone knowing who I am petrifies me. When I think about what I actually wanted to achieve as an Actor I always land back on the same thing. It was to tell stories. Stories from my life, from my friends lives, to give a voice to the unheard, to let people know what it was like where I’m from and to create awareness. Awareness of what? Of things I love, things I hate, things I find unjust, things that need changing.

Those of you who know me personally or who follow me on Twitter, know that I’m a political soul. Moaner, big mouth, liberal-conserve, activist, whatever you want to call ‘it’, if ‘it’ needs to be said (& sometimes even if it doesn’t), I’ll probably say it.

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http://voice-online.co.uk/article/uk-shows-support-trayvon-martin

Recently there was a tragedy in America that made it to the mainstream media. A young boy named Trayvon Martin was gunned down in a gated community in Florida America whilst visiting his father.  He was shot by George Zimmerman, who was part of the Neighbourhood Watch scheme within that community. Zimmerman saw Trayvon in the area, didn’t know him or that he was in the area visiting his father and rang the Police to declare that there was a black male in the neighbourhood acting ‘suspiciously’. Against the direction of the Police, Zimmerman pursued Trayvon and shot him.

Why am I telling you this? What has it got to do with art or acting? We shall see. Put aside the legal and political issues that are surrounding this case at present and let’s look at the basics of the issue.

Zimmerman (sane or not) saw Trayvon, a black hooded male and automatically felt fear and suspicion. He didn’t know Trayvon, they had never met so it was not a personal hate crime. Technically Trayvon could have been any black male in a hood and the same outcome would have probably occurred. Zimmerman saw a hooded black male, who to his mind stood out and was not part of his gated community and this caused enough suspicion and fear in Zimmerman to a) call the Police and b) pursue Trayvon and kill him – just in case. In case of what? Well – in case he was in fact dangerous of course.

So let’s look at that again: Zimmerman saw a hooded black male and this caused suspicion and fear.

What is it in the doctrine that makes black males look suspicious/bad/dangerous?

I don’t know George Zimmerman or his personal experiences with black males. I also do not know the political/social constructs of that particular area in Florida America, but we can hazard a guess that being a ‘gated community’, either it is surrounded by areas of high crime and danger – OR the people who live within the gates are just generally cautious/scared/suspicious of others. Either way, George Zimmerman and many others all across the world, was unnerved by this image of a black male within his ‘safe’ environment.

So I ask – what is it about black males/ black people in general that causes fear or suspicion in others when there has been no prior confrontation. What is it in this image that causes people to react (technically) in an un-rational way? Where does this fear come from?

We shall see.

I’m a realist, I’m so black and white (literally and metaphorically) it hurts. I believe that there is always some truth in a stereotype, some fact to a rumour, so I can understand Zimmerman’s fear. I could NEVER understand his actions that lead to Trayvon’s death – but I can logically get my head around where the fear came from in Zimmerman.

Without giving a lecture on sociology we all know crime exists and is higher in poorer areas than those that are more affluent. I understand this.  I only have to read Twitter, any newspaper, watch the news or any other TV programme and listen to the grapevine to hear of some other atrocity that has occurred involving human beings, that is worse today than the stories I heard yesterday. Occasionally if I forget to raise my head out of the virtual world, I begin to think the Sky is falling down. When this happens I usually get a life and go play with my real friends in the real world for a while. It helps.

What relevance does this have?
Apparently quacks (Scientists) have discovered that the brain only reacts or registers bad news http://www.youtube.com. Meaning even though I live in one of the safest countries in the world, the media I digest makes me feel afraid because my brain only reacts to all of the bad things I read or see.
I’ll give an example of a personal experience:

I was on a train in London and a ton of school kids got on. They couldn’t have been any older than 12/13 but there was a large group of them and were obviously travelling home. They were loud, giddy, and boisterous and were talking that hype talk. You know just the crap kids talk about like rival school kids and fights and the rest of that adolescent stuff. Anyway there was me, another lady and two posh, preppy looking males on this one carriage. The energy coming from these kids was so electric that it was translated as aggression by us adults. I can honestly say we (the adults) were all afraid. What were we afraid of? Getting stabbed, mugged, and involved in a rival school fight – the works.

Needless to say the two preppy boys got off at the very next stop – you know that wasn’t their stop, but even I felt to do the same. I had to have a word with myself in my head and say ‘look they’re kids, they’ve just come from school – this is how kids act’. After that I realised I was being an idiot and these kids were not going to harm me – in fact they hardly even knew I was there. I’d gotten myself into a panic because I’d been lead to believe (by my own digestion of media) that all kids are out to kill, rob and rape me.


Using my own personal experience I am trying to show that I can understand why Zimmerman, myself, the two preppy boys and the lady to the left all felt fear, whether it was warranted, rational on not. The fear usually comes from our own digestion of the media and the things we watch and are told, rather than personal experience.

Ava Vidal comedian and organiser of the London march of protest for Trayvon Martin said:

“There is something very wrong in our society, because up until the age of 12 our black boys are seen as cute, and then all of a sudden they get called things like frightening and intimidating. Why is that?”

 

In ‘Top Sket’ I explain that as an Actor I too have bills to pay and I am not at the level where I have the luxury of being able to pick and choose the parts I play. I can only audition and work on the ones that are available to me. So if there are no ‘positive’ representations it is just tough luck, until some come along  I will have to play whatever is left, be it ‘derogatory’ or not.

But that’s my point! It seems that suddenly there are very few positive ethnic shows on right now. When I was growing up we had Fresh Prince of Bel Air, The Real McCoy, Desmond’s, The Kumar’s, Moesha, Sister Sister, Mr Cooper, Cosby Show etc. There seemed to be an abundance, (be it mostly American comedy – which is an issue all of its own) but there was variety. Sadly now it seems that all of the ethnocentric/afro-centric productions involve knife crime, guns and gangs. There is no balance and as a result the black community feels demonised and vilified. This kind of representation with no balance most definitely has an impact on how other communities view both our young people and the black community, which again leads to fear and unfortunately the ‘Zimmerman effect’.

As an artist I cannot be totally naive to the media in which I participate. I have to understand the agenda and my part in it. If a script I work with is meant to convey a message, I must understand that message. I don’t have to agree with it but, as an Actor I must know or try to understand what the Writer is trying to say. AND A GOOD WRITER IS ALWAYS TRYING TO SAY SOMETHING! 

In ‘Coming to terms with a HELL of a script’ I told you that there have been times when I have had to say to my Agent ‘look this script is offensive for these reasons and I’m not happy with it’. Then at that stage it is my choice whether my rent is more important than my integrity or not. I am only human but, on the whole, I pride myself on being as good a human being as possible. Yet the bottom line remains – I cannot pretend that my involvement in an offensive or suggestive script is secondary or unimportant. I can’t say to myself ‘Oh it’s a comedy, that terrible joke about disabled people has nothing to do with me’. It has! ALL ART IS POLITICAL and our failure to speak up at necessary times about how we feel speaks VOLUMES.

This isn’t an attack on any of the TV channels or Production companies in this country, rather a general observation. This general stereotyping is not coming from any one particular corner of the media, I’d say it’s pretty much a general evolution of them all and there certainly isn’t any one particular corner leading the way in terms of balanced representation right now either.

I have met very few Writers who write just for the sake of it. This being said we cannot pretend to ourselves that our involvement is not influencing anyone or anything because it is and there are times when silence has the loudest voice and does the most damage.

I know some artists are scared to voice their opinion or concern in case they offend someone and never work in the industry again, but this isn’t about offending anyone, it’s about speaking up when we should, using our privileged position and making it right. How can we, as artists, convey a message from our hearts if we are scared to say what’s right?

This in particular is an opinion I’ve dwelt on over the past few weeks. The idea of ‘selling out’ if you will. I often see/hear comment when a Black British programme comes on and it’s about gang violence – again. One side hates that we are depicted as animals all the time, the other hates that the moaners don’t understand the industry and aren’t prepared to get involved to make a change, be it via writing, producing, casting – whatever.

A very intelligent friend told me categorically that he had made a conscious decision not to play the stereotypical gangster roles as that wasn’t his reality. Although he is black, funnily enough his friends and family aren’t shooting each other. He was aware that even though he didn’t take those roles there would be 500 guys that would, which is again their choice. He also said that as much as he wants to create change – he is not Nelson Mandela, but he does what he can with his own character. So if he is sent a script that is just eggy in the worst way or jarring, he will offer suggestion to the Director or Production as to ways that may convey the same message better and make the piece less obvious or offensive. He clocks the journey of his character and worries about that rather than trying to change the World. This idea I like! This is not ‘selling out’, this is working with what you’ve got.

As a strong independent woman I have a tendency to be headstrong and go in guns blazing without actually giving myself time to think outside of the box. Thinking outside of the box – Directors love that! Don’t just come with problems have solutions or suggestions to do it another way.

I also learnt to TRUST YOUR DIRECTOR! I have read many scripts and thought I was quite savvy but actually I think I take things on face value more than I realised. Just because a script is again eggy and jarring in places, sometimes – just sometimes there is a wonderful Director who has ideas that you never dreamt of. Ideas of how to go against the obvious on the page and actually turn the whole mood around by thinking outside of the box.

What does this have to do with Art/Drama?

All this considered though again I have to make it clear that although, as my friend said we are not Martin Luther King we have somewhat of a responsible role when working in the media and role model, Saint, Samaritan or not, we have to understand the part we play.

I am far from religious but I believe in a higher power and somebody gave me this which I think I should share:

“Creator God, King of glory. From you come recreation and the talent to create;

You give a great responsibility to those who through drama and music reflect life’s struggles, hopes, tears and laughter.

Through your spirit may they have skill and patience in their work, humility in success, strength in adversity and a welcome among your people.

Enrich the lives of those who receive their ministry, so that all that is done may present truth and reflect your glory.

In and through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen”.

(The Actors Church Union prayer)

Take from that what you will. Peace xx