So Samuel L. Jackson is not happy about black Brits being cast for African American roles in American movies. He was interviewed on a radio show a few days ago and his comments about giving the role to a Black Briton playing Martin Luther King in the film Selma, he said: I tend to wonder what that movie would have been with an American brother who really feels that.
I think he was a bit provocative, making surreptitious remarks about how ‘interracial dating’ had been happening in the UK for ‘hundreds of years’ which I believe is another way of saying — the Black British community have sold out by marrying out! I could be wrong, but putting that aside, does he have a point? I believe he does. I know I shouldn’t agree with him as I am a Black Brit and would feel pleased that my own brothers and sisters are out there, making it in La La Land. We know Hollywood has a lot more to offer than perhaps what you’d find in the UK film industry, hence the reason why Black Brits are in Hollywood but we should use the opportunity to address the industry’s failure in creating parts or roles for Black actors.
But I also understand there are lots of African American actors who are finding it difficult to get a break. When this story was released, in the comments section of an article I was reading, a poster said they felt they believed the reason for hiring Black Brits was more than capability and experience, it was about the fascination some viewers had for the delivery of the English language and how it assuaged those who want to see something of themselves, even if it’s delivered from someone of a different colour or race. But is this a good reason to be hiring from abroad?
I’ve experienced something similar to this but it wasn’t acting, it was TV presenting.
The year was 1995 and my family had emigrated the previous year to live in Jo’burg, South Africa. We just had our first Christmas and I had just given birth to a baby girl. One day I was shopping at our local mall and I was with my six year old son who annoyingly was running up and down the aisles looking for sweets to put into the shopping basket. I called out to him, telling him to stop when suddenly, a man stood in front of me. He was slightly bald and had a round chubby face which was edged with a thick beard.
‘That’s a London accent…’ he said with an English accent and an impish smile. I stepped back and glared. ‘Are you from London?’ he continued.
‘Yes! I am.’ I confirmed. I was about to walk around him when he began to tell me that he was a TV director, currently working on a popular show on a TV station. He went straight to the point and asked if I’d done any TV work. I said no, wondering where all this was going. He quickly introduced himself as James and told me briefly, about the programme.
‘Have you seen it?’ he asked. No I said, I hadn’t. He continued telling me that he liked my diction and that I had a good accent and if I would consider presenting this show as for months they have been looking for new and suitable presenter.
Are you for real, are you joking? I wondered, considering I had not said much. He seemed to know what I was thinking as he removed a piece of paper from his pocket, apologising at the same time for not having a business card and wrote down his number. He said I should call him soon, then left. I stood in the middle of the shopping area, staring at the paper in my hand with people walking pass on either side of me. My son had managed to put all the sweets he wanted into the shopping basket. I went to the supermarket to buy some food items then went home.
I asked my domestic lady, Queen, if she had heard of this show and she shook her head. I waited patiently for my husband to come home and when he did, he said I should go for it, call the number and say that I’m interested. Internet had just come out, and we were waiting for our modem to be installed and although we had a telephone, we did not have any directories so I could not locate the studio.
The following day I called the number. James told me to write down the address and we agreed to meet in two days’ time as he wanted to discuss the programme plus introduce me to his crew.
The TV station was located in a quiet suburb and not difficult to find. James met me in the lobby area and took me to a room where I met his crew — the camera man, producer, assistant, researcher. We sat in a semi-circle and discussed over tea and coffee. They explained to me about the programme, its format, the episodes and locations. When the meeting had finished and I agreed to host this programme despite the fact I had not done anything like this and I was intrigued by the fact they had faith in me. They seemed impressed with my speaking voice and strangely made me feel as though I was some sort of phenomenon, as though they didn’t think it possible to speak the Queens English — that is, if you were black. But hey! I wasn’t complaining. After all, I was going to be on television!
I participated in about five episodes until it was time for my family to leave. My husband was offered a job in another country and the decision to move was sudden and we argued about it, as obviously I wanted to stay! But he was worried about the increasing crime; a week earlier, he had been mugged and earlier still, Queen had caught someone lurking in the garden during the night, so he was concerned. Of course, the intruder in the garden got to me so I eventually agreed that we should leave.
I found presenting nerve racking as well as interesting. It enabled me to see more of Johannesburg and to engage with all sorts of people. There wasn’t an auto-cue to follow, just a speech prepared for me which I had to rehearse; I practiced pronouncing African names of areas and asked Queen to help me with pronunciation. The response from viewers were positive, to the point that producers/directors from other programmes and advertisements approached me. I realised it was possible for me do voice-over work, something I would have not considered if I’d still been in the UK. Around about this time my mother joined us from London to see her new grandchild. She was amazed as well as proud that her daughter’s presence and voice on this TV show could be heard across the land. She would be on the phone to my father daily just going on about her granddaughter and her daughter.
Some months later after we had emigrated, my husband had to return to Joburg to attend a conference. He told me whilst being there, there was a demonstration by Black South Africans, as a programme on the same TV station had hired a black presenter from the UK. She was well-spoken and experienced but the local people wanted her removed. Their argument was that white South Africans should make do with black talent and not hand the jobs to black foreigners just because they ‘speak better’.
At the time, when I heard this I thought it was unfair and felt bad for the presenter, as she was promptly taken off air. But when I returned to Jo’burg some years later, there were a number of South African born black presenters on a variety of TV stations. They were good; they were able to switch with ease from English to the indigenous languages; their English was accented but it made sense that they should speak and sound like the environment there were in. It does not make sense to speak in a voice that is too dissimilar to the majority of the population. If they want presenters to be more polished, then education and training should be provided. The viewers or audience should be made to accommodate and accept.
I could understand why James did what he did and why he wanted me. Hiring me was his way of holding on to his ‘standards’ as explained previously but at the same time when attending the station’s board meetings, he had to meet the criteria of having ‘black’ people on his programme to justify it be shown on TV.
The Black Brits that S L Jackson refers to are good actors, and were ‘good’ well before they began doing American movies. This should not be dismissed and we should be confident and proud that if they are called to play a part, we know they will do it justice. However, home grown talent should likewise be exploited and never overlooked. African Americans have truly had it tough and it would be crazy if they are not considered because directors prefer an actor purely because they are from abroad and speak a certain way.