Anytime a movie or project featuring a Black British actor portraying an African-American character is released, the never-ending debate on whether or not that is right – irrespective of the actor’s performance – is almost always awakened.
Those who find no issues with that arrangement base their arguments on the fact that African-American actors play the roles of notable foreign characters without catching any heat. And those who register their displeasure usually cite cultural differences and experiences, claiming African-American talents would better fit into those roles.
Take the highly successful and award-winning Harriet movie for instance. Before and after its release, a section of people raised issues with British actress Cynthia Erivo portraying the iconic African-American abolitionist and underground railroad conductor. Up until recently also, Daniel Kaluuya received backlash for portraying charismatic Black Panther member Fred Hampton in the yet-to-be-released Judas and the Black Messiah movie.
For actress cum director Regina King, she has no issues with whoever portrays a character in a film provided the actor nailed it. The 49-year-old made those comments during a BAFTA Masterclass in London on Tuesday, January 12, according to Deadline.
“If I was moved by a performance, I really don’t care where a person’s from,” she said.
King’s comments were in reference to her upcoming directorial project – One Night in Miami – which features two non-American actors once again playing African-American characters. In the film, British actor Kingsley Ben-Adir plays civil rights activist Malcolm X while Canadian actor Eli Goree plays a youthful Muhammad Ali. On why she chose them, she said:
“As an audience member, to me they truly understood what they were doing, what they were embodying. After Kingsley’s first audition, I wanted to give him some notes. I wanted to just talk to him and get to know him and get to know what his relationship was to Malcolm. He said all the things that I needed to hear him say and I think it’s unfortunate that this is where we are.”
She added: “One of the things that I’ve truly understood or discovered throughout this process of One Night in Miami, is that upon first receiving this and reading it, I thought, ‘Wow, Kemp, this is just a love letter to the black man’s experience in America.’ But then taking that step back and really taking in marginalised people across the world. There are feelings and experiences that black people in the UK, in Brazil feel that are the same as in America. While the history of how a country came to be may be different, the marginalisation of a black man is the same, colorism is the same in all of those places.”
King also further explained why Kingsley and Eli best fit those roles: “Kingsley was the best actor for that role and Eli was the best actor for that role. Sure, neither one of them are American. But can they relate to the experience and the pain felt by a black person for being disregarded just because of the colour of your skin? Absolutely, they can. Can they take it upon themselves to make sure they educate themselves on the ways it’s specific to America in the history of how black Americans had built this country, it was built on the bodies of black Americans? They can definitely educate themselves on that and they did. I wouldn’t change my choices for anyone.”
Hollywood has also chimed in on this topic, notably with veteran actor Samuel L. Jackson questioning why Jordan Peele cast Daniel Kaluuya for his directorial debut and award-winning horror movie Get Out.
“There are a lot of black British actors in these movies,” he said in the 2017 radio interview when asked about the movie, Independent reported. “Daniel grew up in a country where they’ve been interracial dating for a hundred years… What would a brother from America have made of that role? I’m sure the director helped, but some things are universal, but [not everything].”
In an interview with GQ, Kaluuya responded saying: “Here’s the thing about that critique, though. I’m dark-skinned, bro,” adding: “When I’m around black people, I’m made to feel ‘other’ because I’m dark-skinned. I’ve had to wrestle with that, with people going, ‘You’re too black.’ Then I come to America, and they say, ‘You’re not black enough.’ I go to Uganda, I can’t speak the language. In India, I’m black. In the black community, I’m dark-skinned. In America, I’m British. Bro!”
Kaluuya also said because experiences of Black people in Britain are rarely told, people “get an idea of what they might think the experience is…some things are universal, but everything ain’t.”
“You’re getting singled out for the color of your skin, but not the content of your spirit, and that’s everywhere. That’s my whole life, being seen as ‘other.’ Not fitting in in Uganda, not Britain, not America. They just highlight whatever feature they want.”