Film & Television Opinion, Opinion

Samuel L. Jackson and the Politics of Self-Representation

Recently Samuel L. Jackson made headlines by apparently arguing that black British actors shouldn’t take as many black American roles. This was inspired by Daniel Kaluuya being cast in the political horror-comedy Get Out, which premieres in the UK this week.

Speaking to the US radio station Hot 97, Jackson said that

“I tend to wonder what would that movie have been with an American brother who really understands that in a way. Because Daniel grew up in a country where they’ve been interracial dating for a hundred years. Britain, there’s only about eight real white people left in Britain… So what would a brother from America made of that role?”

A few days after making the comments Jackson walked them back slightly, saying that

“I understand that coming here to the U.S. to work is a wonderful opportunity to advance their careers, and hopefully they can do that—like Idris [Elba] does—and it creates opportunities for other people to work. Unfortunately, black Americans don’t have the opportunity to go to the U.K. and see if they can adapt the British accent and work. They do restrict us in an interesting sort of way. We’re not afforded that luxury.”

Samuel L. Jackson at the San Diego ComicCon 2008 by Pinguino K 2008-07-25
He’s had it with these monkey-fighting Brits on this Monday-to-Friday film.   / Pinguino K, Wikimedia Commons.

Jackson’s question is a complicated one – drawing upon notions of race, nationality and class – as well as opportunity in different environments. The reason why relatively few black Americans take on roles in British dramas seems to be that there isn’t the same opportunities to play characters who are specifically black in British TV and film. Idris Elba’s Luther is a notable exception, but that wasn’t put into production until he became a big name through his work on The Wire. Amazing Grace, a film telling the story of the 200th anniversary of the UK abolishing our role in the slave trade, centred on aristocratic campaigning to abolish the practice, rather than telling the story of the slaves themselves.

There are a handful of black actors who have became mainstream stars in the UK – Adrian Lester through his lead role in con-man drama Hustle, for example. But there’s nothing much in that role that’s specifically black, and the show still stands out as a rare example of a black lead in a major British TV show. Police drama 55 Degrees North and family sitcom The Crouches are the only other recent black-centred British TV shows that come immediately to mind, and they’re both over a decade old. There haven’t been any British equivalents to Roots or The Wire – epic, grandscale stories which enable a large number of black Brits to play a wide variety of roles.

In this context, the reason black British actors are heading to America seems to be because there’s so little work. This can be the same even for established black British actors. David Harewood has said that when he returned to the UK after a major role in Homeland, he found that there were “very few roles” for him in the UK.
John Boyega’s lead role in Attack the Block was a notable exception to this – a young black British actor in a role which engaged with his character’s blackness, and what that means in modern Britain. But his CV between that film in 2011 and his 2015 international breakout in The Force Awakens doesn’t have many highlights.

In the original radio interview Jackson touched on the economic and class angles to the problem, saying that

“They don’t cost as much. Unless you’re an unknown brother that they’re finding somewhere,” he replied. “They think they’re better trained, for some reason, than we are because they’re classically trained.”

There can, of course, be negative cultural consequences of casting people in roles outside of their experiences. Johnny Depp, a white American, was cast as the Indian-American Tonto in The Lone Ranger, and made the idiotic creative decision that his character would wear a bird on his head.
Depp’s decision was inspired by a painting by Kirby Sattler, a painting which has little or no historical basis to support it. Culturally, these kind of representations of a group by outsiders can shape and perpetuate perceptions of that group, so it’s important that if an outsider is going to try and represent a group, they do their best to understand that group before they do so. Unfortunately many creatives instead decide to pander to an audience’s assumptions, as Sattler admits he did, saying that he sought to”satisfy my audience’s sensibilities of the subject without the constraints of having to adhere to historical accuracy.”

This kind of stupidity can be avoided of course, provided that the actor is willing to engage with and learn from people who have lived experiences relevant to the role they are hired to play. Get Out is written and directed by Jordan Peele, half of the mega-successful and often politically race-aware Key and Peele sketch show.
If The Lone Ranger hired anyone with knowledge of Native American history, then it appears that they weren’t listened to very intently. But that doesn’t mean that this will always be the case, and Peele’s writing and direction should be strong enough to overcome any gaps in Kaluuya’s experiences. Reacting to Jackson’s comments, Peele says that Kaluuya was given the role because “he was the best person for the role. He did the audition and it was a slam dunk“.

Most people would agree that the British actors Idris Elba and Dominic West gave excellent portrayals of aspects of Baltimore society in The Wire.  There’s no reason why it’s impossible for actors such as Kaluuya to portray a social group that they weren’t born into – provided they are willing to seek out and learn a topic which their life experiences haven’t presented to them.

Jordan_Peele_Peabody_2014_(cropped) by Peabody Awards
Peele without Key. / Peabody Awards, Wikimedia Commons.

In Black Mirror and Psychoville Kaluuya has played roles in which he reacts to comically grotesque injustice in a wry but understated manner that heightens both the injustice and humour. Though I’ve yet to see Get Out, it’s easy to imagine that he could bring the same skills to this film.
Of course, it’s also important for film and television to seek out and nurture talent and self-representation (as The Wire did, casting many first-time actors from the local area)
but in the short-term, the best actor available for a role will often be a non-local.

Financially motivated casting is often hard to pin down – although producers claim that the infamously controversial casting of Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones wasn’t to give the film an international appeal, there are a few cases of creatives being open about this process, such as Ridley Scott saying that casting Christian Bale as an Egyptian was necessary to get the funding for Exodus.

There will always be studios for whom economics are a major part in casting. There have been allegations that Matt Damon’s role in The Great Wall was created to appeal to American audiences,and there were accusations that Age of Ultron’s inclusion of the underwritten Dr. Cho was an attempt to appeal to Asian audiences without going to the effort of fully creating a fully-developed Asian character. Will Smith argued that the backers of Hitch felt the film would be less profitable if it broke the supposed taboo of having a black man with a white love interest. Did the fact that John Travolta was seen as a has-been and Samuel L. Jackson was still a niche actor make the financial gambles underpinning Pulp Fiction more appealing to the financiers? Probably. Could a Hollywood film overlook the most talented actor available in favour of an alternative willing for an unreasonably low amount? Quite possibly.

Responding to Jackson’s comments, John Boyega tweeted that it was “a stupid ass conflict we don’t have time for”.
I’d disagree – it can be a useful debate, so long as it isn’t reduced to a simplistic us vs them argument which divides the groups who should be working together. Black and working class actors should be demanding more – more leading roles for black American actors, more roles for black British actors on domestic television and film, more opportunities for working class Brits to develop their acting talent. Ultimately, we all benefit from a wide range of people bringing a wide range of experiences to acting roles.

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