Non-American Black actors playing American roles in films has long been a topic of contention. This highly controversial subject calls to question: what is the “Black experience?” Is there a universal one? And more importantly, who can tell Black stories?
Although in the United States, we’re all lumped into the category of African-American, not all Black people are the same. The Black diaspora is diverse with people from all backgrounds. Some, however, feel as though if an actor is not American, they don’t have the understanding of what it means to be Black in America, and therefore should not portray them in film. But there are layers to this issue that are deeply rooted.
The critically-acclaimed 2019 film “Queen and Slim” stars actors Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya, both Black Brits. The film tells a very American story, exploring the topic of police brutality in the U.S. Although neither Kaluuya nor Turner-Smith are African-American, they were able to embody the essence of important, authentic characters. They were able to comprehend and latch onto the core of the story in “Queen and Slim” because they know what it’s like to be discriminated against, and — through living in the United States — know what it’s like to fear law enforcement in a Black body. Regardless of origin, there’s a certain universality to the Black experience regarding the shared understanding of how the effects of colonization and oppression continue to impact Black lives. The film was well-executed and its protagonists’ non-Americanness was not a deficit to its storytelling.
This discussion is controversial because the issue deals with cultural, ethnic and social backgrounds in addition to race. While there are booming centers of film across the globe, the United States is especially a powerhouse in the film industry. Thus, many cinematic narratives are from an American perspective. There are talented actors from across the globe, and if someone is able to tell a story with honesty and respect, I see no issue. Let’s remember that it is an actor’s job to portray lives that aren’t their own.
There are several examples of this in film, such as Kenyan-Mexican actress Lupita Nyong’o’s role in “12 Years A Slave.” Much of the controversy surrounding non-American blacks playing American roles — especially in films depicting slavery — is the belief that due to their heritage, foreign actors don’t have the same ties to slavery as Black Americans do.
Some say non-American Blacks should not portray Black Americans because their origins mean they can’t fully comprehend the Black American experience. Because of this, they believe they take roles from Black American actors. Others suppose that allowing non-American Blacks to play American Blacks in cinema says that all Black people are the same.
But if this is the case, can’t the same be said for Black American actors and their portrayals of non-American Blacks in film? Aren’t Americans taking roles from them too? Will Smith’s portrayal of Nigerian doctor Bennet Omalu in “Concussion” (completely butchering the accent, God love him).
There’s also the idea that if the actors involved are all Black, they should be able to tell each other’s stories. It’s a more utopian sentiment, that regardless of origin, our race links us in a shared community of blackness, and that Black creatives from all backgrounds can be entrusted with the weighty responsibility and privilege of portraying each other.
A non-American Black actor may not have the same understanding of Black American life, but if someone is best-suited to play a role, regardless of ethnicity, why should they be limited?
As a first-generation Cameroonian-American, I don’t have the same direct relation to slavery that my Black American counterparts do. But as an American, that history is deeply personal to me. As a black person, there’s an innate understanding of the historical oppression and white supremacy that has impacted Black people of all geographic origins. Even as Black immigrants and their children experience discrimination in the present, the historical impact of centuries of racism and oppression on the African-American community should not be overlooked. We should acknowledge the cultural differences in actors and let them guide the process of developing on-screen stories. For instance, having non-American actors immerse themselves in historically Black communities if a role requires such.
Black is Black. The research and cultural sensitivity in the production of a film are essential and the awareness of differences in cultural and ethnic backgrounds across the diaspora regarding casting imperatively informs our place in the world and the sociopolitical knowledge we possess. Oftentimes, it comes down to who was the best person to tell the story, regardless of if they are from the West Indies or England. Above all, it is crucial that Black stories are being told and shared with global audiences. And if these stories are told with authenticity and integrity to the types of people portrayed — sans tokenism and caricatures of Black people — I say bring the movies on.
Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.
A version of this article appears in the Monday, Feb. 10, 2020, print edition. Email Maureen Zeufack at [email protected]