Diversity in the Arts: The Black Exodus

It is challenging for Black British actors to get the breakout roles in the UK that they seek, so they are moving across the pond to be given a fair chance. Is this a necessary path to take, and if so, why?

New York, NY, USA. 8th Feb, 2017. Cush Jumbo at arrivals for THE GOOD FIGHT Series Premiere on CBS All Access, Jazz at Lincoln Center's Frederick P. Rose Hall, New York, NY. Credit: Jason Smith/Everett Collection/Alamy Live News

Black British actors are doing remarkable work, making waves and making their mark in the industry. It’s curious that we don’t hear about these actors until they go across the pond and achieve success. Britons seem to join the celebration later but are quick to claim them as British and English actors.

It is challenging for Black British actors to get the breakout roles in the UK so they are moving across the pond to be given a fair chance. Actors like Idris Elba, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and so many more, were all trained in Britain but didn’t get their big break until they were in an American produced film or TV show. Of course, there are roles available for these actors in the UK: they could play the token other, and negative stereotypes like slave, maid, thug, mugger and poor hopeless person who is rescued by the white hero.

“Unfortunately there really aren’t that many roles for authoritative, strong, black characters in this country. We just don’t write those characters, that’s a fact,” said British actor, David Harewood. “I don’t want to trash this place, but I do think there is a certain lack of ambition in terms of telling a global story.”

Black British actress Cush Jumbo, who plays Lucca Quinn on US hit TV series ‘The Good Fight’ and ‘The Good Wife’, spoke at an evidence session for the Labour party’s inquiry into diversity in the arts about the failures of broadcasters to recognise the value of black actors.

“This country is literally pulling the plug and we are all just slipping through. If there was work here, I would be working here. I would like nothing more than to be working in film and on television in this country. I didn’t go to America, I didn’t run to America, I didn’t even ask for America, I just took a play there and suddenly everyone was telling me ‘you’re so talented, would you like 52 jobs’.”

With the production of period dramas like ‘The Crown’, ‘Call the Midwife’ and ‘Downton Abbey’ all focusing on British aristocracy and royalty, it makes it difficult for black actors to get a significant role that isn’t just filling the space or ticking a box. British black actors don’t want to always play the stereotypical roles and this is why they feel pushed to go to the States to find meaningful work.

The tired excuse for the lack of black actors is that they won’t sell in the box office or bring in the ratings. The success of films like ‘Black Panther’ with an almost entirely black cast, squashed that justification. It simply boils down to the covert and systemic racism that quietly exists in Britain but that no one will speak of. Most institutions in Britain (including film) are monolithically white, making it challenging for British people of colour to progress.

Thankfully the glass ceiling is being shattered by the likes of British-Nigerian actor John Boyega (Star Wars, Detroit, Pacific Rim: Uprising), and British actress of Ghanaian descent, Michaela Coel, who wrote and starred in her own successful series ‘Chewing Gum’.

So many more up and coming Brits of colour are taking control and creating their own path; and with their films and shows receiving critical acclaim and breaking box office records worldwide, why is the British film industry refusing to make a significant change.

The British film industry doesn’t realise that it is chasing its extremely talented and well trained black actors away.

It’s embarrassing when you fail to realise the talent you have in your own home until someone from the outside recognises this talent, then you decide to jump on the bandwagon.

It’s a little too late, and it needs to stop.  

Black British actors would love nothing more than to be at home in Britain and find regular work, but there is nothing substantial for them, the roles available won’t allow them to be pushed or grow as actors. Actors like David Oyelowo, Cynthia Erivo and Daniel Kaluuya are exceptionally talented actors who have been nominated for Oscars, Tony’s and Golden Globes. Why is it that their talent has been celebrated more in the States than in the UK.

Until the British Film and TV industry makes a change to include everyone and hire all actors on merit and not race, black talented actors will continue to go across the pond to find their much-deserved success.