[Exclusive Interview] Ivorian ‘Black Panther’ actor leading fight for undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

Ismail Akwei January 26, 2018
Ivorian actor Bambadjan Bamba with his wife and baby -- Photo: Define American

Many Africans in the United States are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea after plans by President Donald Trump to repeal the 2012 Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme.

DACA allowed nearly 700,000 individuals, who entered the country as minors and stayed illegally, to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and to be eligible for a work permit.

Trump rescinded the programme in September 2017 and in March 2018, the six-month grace period will be up and the fate of the thousands of African migrants covered by the programme will be grim.

One of the many affected Dreamers (as they are called) is Ivorian-born Hollywood actor and filmmaker Bambadjan Bamba who came out last year as an undocumented migrant in the United States.

Bamba, who is featured in the much-talked-about Marvel film Black Panther, called on Hollywood to raise its voice against the abrogation of the DACA programme which has seen thousands of young people contribute immensely to the U.S. like himself.

He started the campaign #StandWithBamba and is working with Define American to get significant support to reverse Trump’s unpopular decision on DACA. Over 2000 people in Hollywood and beyond have signed an online petition in support of immigrants in the industry.

[Exclusive Interview] Ivorian 'Black Panther' actor leading fight for undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

Bambadjan Bamba came to the United States at the age of 10 when Ivory Coast was facing political instability. Upon finding out that he was undocumented as a high school senior, Bambadjan worked his way through drama school without any financial aid. Since then, he’s qualified for DACA and worked his way up in Hollywood.

He has featured in many television series and movies including Grey’s AnatomyNCIS: LAER, HBO’s Wyclef in America and I Think I Love My Wife with Chris Rock among others.

Face2Face Africa caught up with Bambadjan Bamba who expressed his love for Africa, immigration struggle in the United States and projects in and out of his home continent.

Congratulations on your role in Black Panther. What went through your mind when you were cast?

I was super super excited, I was jumping all over the house. The other cast members were surprised because actors were flown to Atlanta to meet the director to have second casting session, third casting sessions, but for me, he just booked me off the tape. So that was exciting. Also, I mean all the actors in Hollywood knew that this movie was coming up and it was going to be the biggest movie of the year. So we were all preparing by faith like me I started taking some Tae-Kwando classes and reading up more on the comic and all of that. So it was definitely gratifying to be a part of the film.

Did you feel the African connection while on set?

Obviously, there was huge African connection on set because all of the African actors not only Lupita Nyongo’o and Danai Gurira, but there was a bunch of people from all around Africa from Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon, Congo, from the Caribbeans, Saint Lucia. I mean there was a huge African presence especially in the scenes that I’m in as the military leader. So there was a huge African presence on set.

Tell us about your journey to America. How and what brought you here?

I came to America when I was a kid when I was 10 years old with my parents from Cote d’Ivoire. We basically came to America seeking political asylum. I guess that’s what brought me here and no one asked me my opinion if I wanted to come. The parents just decided it was the safest thing for us and I found myself in South Bronx and that’s how I got here.

[Exclusive Interview] Ivorian 'Black Panther' actor leading fight for undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

How has life been for you being an African in Hollywood?

It definitely has changed over the years because I’ve been in the industry for about a decade. At the beginning, it didn’t seem like there were enough Africans in the industry. It didn’t seem like there were enough African roles. So, that started changing when people started writing their own stories and producing their own content including myself. These days there is definitely a lot more African characters on TV ever since Obama and you know you have Africans in front of the screens or behind the scenes. Africans have started working together and coming together with associations. I am even on a board of an organisation called the3As.org which is the African Artists Association. We basically help African artists who are in Los Angeles just to find footing in the industry, connect with like-minded individuals and get education/ inspiration from veterans like Ava Duverney.

When was the proudest moment of your career and why?

I have to say to this point, a couple of years ago I wrote and directed a short film called Papa. An African teen adjusting to life in America with a very strict African father. So that was kind of a semi-biographical short film and went around for festivals around the country even in Africa. Picked up a couple of awards and that was probably the most gratifying experience because of how the story affected people personally. People from all walks of life and backgrounds identified emotionally with the story. It was very inspirational and even encouraged me to write a complete screenplay. So Papa has now become a feature screenplay and I’m basically shopping it around and trying to find funding for the movie. I was proud because I stopped relying on Hollywood to find opportunities for me. I became a content creator, a writer, storyteller and a filmmaker. Super-empowering and ever since I have just been producing a different bunch of projects.

[Exclusive Interview] Ivorian 'Black Panther' actor leading fight for undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

When was the last time you went home (Ivory Coast) and what were you doing there?

I have never been back since I was 10 years old and I have been in America for 25 years. It’s been very tough because I had wanted to go back, I definitely miss home but I want to go back on my own terms and I want to go back knowing that I can come back to America and continue my career and continue my life. Yes, so it is very emotional for me to talk about because I know it’s my homeland, I love it and I miss it but I have made a life for myself here and I feel like I have a responsibility to my family here and also in Ivory Coast when let’s say everything gets in order.

Are there any projects launched and upcoming in other African countries as well?

As of right now, I’m definitely getting a lot of scripts from African filmmakers for me to be a part of it. Everything is kind of on hold until I guess I figure out my paperwork situation in America so that I know I can travel and come back. But I am definitely working on projects, shooting here with African actors in African stories, kind of bridging the gap between Africans and African Americans. So there is one called Con$equences, it’s a web series and you can actually stream it on Youtube right now. So Con$equencies web series, you can find us on Instagram, on Youtube, on Facebook. It’s about reformed internet scammers who get a team together to reinvent their old business, this time only targeting immoral people. It’s a con genre movie kind of like Ocean 11. It’s fun, did it with some friends, we produced it together and acted in it with some very talented folks. So check that out.

You boldly campaigned against Trump’s decision on DACA, which will affect you. What was the driving force for you to speak up when you could have found another way out?

That’s the thing. There wasn’t really another way out. I tried everything. Now that the cancellation of DACA is upon us and on March 5th DACA gets cancelled. I decided to use my voice because I felt like God brought me in Hollywood and gave me this platform for a purpose which is greater than myself. My mission in life is to be a voice, to be a light to lead others to positivity. To lead people to the light and to righteousness. I feel like it’s been a calling because for a long time in my life I’ve been dealing with this immigration status and its been really frustrating.  I felt like it was a burden or a scar that I tried to hide for a large part of my life or forget about, now that I have decided to come out with the help of DefineAmerican.org, God has been using my voice to basically help the voiceless to help people in the shadows who don’t have the platform. I have been on CNN, NPR, MSNBC and a bunch of different media networks and I have become a very important voice for the Dreamers and immigration reform. So it was a tough decision to make but because I have a family, I have a daughter and a career. I decided not to be scared anymore. I decided to fight back. I was also inspired by a bunch of young people who were also undocumented, who were putting themselves on the line getting arrested to get an opportunity to live here without fear with indignity. So that’s the reason I came out. Yeah, I felt it was time, I couldn’t keep pressing the snooze button anymore.

[Exclusive Interview] Ivorian 'Black Panther' actor leading fight for undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

What will you do if Congress goes ahead with the repeal? Are there any backup plans?

If they cancel DACA or they don’t find a solution, I have no other choice but keep fighting. I am here to stay and I am going to keep doing what I am doing. keep using my voice to find a solution. We may just have to find different ways of finding more partners, different strategies to enrol the American people, enrol Hollywood into standing up for immigrants, for undocumented folks. Are there any backup plans? The only backup plan we have is to fix the broken outdated immigration system to help many like me who fall between the cracks, this is why we are fighting. So not only that we get DACA but also get immigration reform that will be updated to the world that we are living in right now. And another thing that I want to say is that immigration is an African issue and I know a lot of Africans who are dealing with the same problem that I am dealing with but everyone is scared to talk about it or, I don’t know, ashamed. So I am using my voice and hopefully it can encourage others to do same because we are a part of this fight and we have to be at the table when decisions are being made about immigrants or else issues that are important to us will get left out of any reform. Like tips, the diversity lottery and refugee/ asylum programmes. The fact that I have benefitted so much from DACA and it has allowed me to continue working in Hollywood and continue working in my career and to sit back and just watch in fear will be disingenuous of me. So I decided to speak up and make a difference.

What effect can the DACA repeal have on Africa as a whole? Don’t you think there will be a reverse of brain-drain with professionals going back home to make Africa great again?

I don’t think it will reverse the brain drain but what it will do is it will allow people to go back home to Africa on their own terms. Like I said earlier I am not against going back to Africa, to Ivory Coast to help out. I believe it’s a part of my mission and my purpose because I have been able to learn a lot here and I am sure I want to go back and help build a film industry in Abidjan; I am not sure you have heard of Babiwood but it’s coming up. there is definitely a lot of interest, a lot of enthusiasm, and actors are popping up every day and producers from Ivory Coast. So it’s exciting, I want to go help, I want to be a part of the revolution because I know it can help financially. I know it can help economically. We’ve seen what Nollywood has been able to do to the economy in Nigeria.

Yes, absolutely I don’t think DACA will affect the brain-drain. People want to go home, people want to go visit their families but they don’t want to be kicked out, don’t want to be deported, they don’t want to be forced out. They want to be able to come back and continue the careers they started here. I think that’s the main thing.

You are a symbol of pan-Africanism, especially with your cross-cultural background. Is there any possibility of you returning home (Africa) for good to help develop its film industry?

Yes, I think I kind of answered that question already. Absolutely, I want to go back home. I have a vision of a film school, I have a vision of film projects. I even have scripts already written that I want to shoot on the continent. There is a lot that the West can learn from us, from our stories. It seems like they run out of stories in the West. With Black Panther, we get a chance to show what our stories can do and how cross-cultural they can be and how bankable they can be and how black superheroes can make history at the box office. So I am excited about that and I am excited about Africa and the prospect of this movie.

This movie like I said on CNN allows us to dream and see and believe and hope in the potential that Africa really has. The royalty, the innovation, the wealth and all the good things. I am really excited of what possibility this movie has for the African film industry, global film industry as far as black actors, black filmmakers, black heroes are concerned. So hopefully, it will encourage Hollywood to invest more in black films and African films.

What kind of world do you wish to see?

That’s a tough question but I will like to see a world where people are not forced to migrate to different places just to survive. The world is a big task, I want to see Africa strong economically, I want to see Africa take control of its own resources, I want to see African children smile, I want every African child to have enough to eat, I want the youth in Africa to stand up and take their country and take responsibility for their country, I want a fair global trading system. I want a lot for Africa but I dream of an Africa that is self-sufficient, self-reliant and first world continent. A United States of Africa, economically especially.

This interview has been edited.

Last Edited by:Ismail Akwei Updated: June 19, 2018


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