The Quarles Chronicles #1: Black British Actors in American Roles

Greetings, Chroniclers!

I have decided to have some fun and name this series, so The Quarles Chronicles it is! As a firm believer in the communal spirit of storytelling, I will call you all my fellow Chroniclers as we embark on this journey of shared experience. Let’s go!

This first Chronicle describes the beginning of my journey to uncover experiences and observations as a Los Angeles-based playwright, and I want to jump right in and get to a topic that has been on my mind quite a bit for the past several years:

Why are a lot of recent Black American TV and film roles going to non-American actors? In particular, what is the appeal of the UK actor in Black American performance?

Some examples:

–Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave (2013)

–Cush Jumbo in The Good Wife (2009) and The Good Fight (2017)

Image of Cush Jumbo for The Good Fight  (2017) – courtesy of CBS

Cynthia Erivo in Harriet (2019)

–Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out (2013) and Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

 

Image of Daniel Kaluuya for Get Out (2017) – courtesy of IMDB

–David Oyelowo in Selma (2014)

–Naomie Harris in Moonlight (2016)

I want to begin by establishing that I love and respect each of the performances above and many others that could be added. I feel somewhat conflicted about this casting conundrum myself as a Nigerian-American with family spanning the diaspora and also a playwright who fully believes in the ability of gifted actors to embody various identities and experiences. I am sure that the UK-based folks can share some insight, but I thought I would give my thoughts from a Black American perspective.

Two theories come to mind.

Theory 1: The prestige of British training. There is a certain perception that many Americans have regarding actor training in the UK. In particular, there is a belief that classical–or theatrical–training is more robust in Western Europe than in the States. With Hollywood housed here, there is a perception that American actors are simply groomed for the convenience of screen cuts as opposed to undergoing the virtuosity of live performance. I remember during my graduate school days at the University of Southern California, home to one of the most celebrated acting schools in the States, it was a badge of honor for a student on campus to train abroad at the British American Drama Academy during their studies. For a school with alumni from Oscar-winning Forest Whitaker to teen drama superstar Troian Bellisario, this British training superiority perception speaks volumes.

In Jeff Labrecque’s exploration of this trend for Entertainment Weekly, he expresses how the “academic challenge of portraying characters that aren’t obviously suited to an actor might be an essential building block that pays off down the road.” To elaborate, he notes some insight gained in dialogue with James Lipton of Inside the Actors Studio, that when a non-American plays an American role, it requires a certain amount of investment to fill the cultural gap, and the result is often applaudable acting.

While I do admit–having worked with actors of various contexts and accents–that there is some weight to this claim of the rigor required for transcultural performance, I don’t believe that it should consequently exclude Americans from the category of diligent acting. There are many fine and well-trained American actors worthy of more frequent casting, from Yale grad Sanaa Lathan to NYU alum Sterling K. Brown.

Regarding the expectation of seasoned training for British actors, Labrecque also mentions the American celebration of young talent, which he considers a cultural discouragement of performance education. He reflects on British “actor[s] who spent three years in their early twenties…just learning how to properly speak and move while their American counterparts were auditioning for a Coke commercial and the new fall pilot,” capturing a generally assumed contrast in performance training.

While I do agree that the encouragement of superstardom over education is an American phenomenon that extends even beyond acting, I once again think that such a generalization does harm to the many superbly trained performers in our midst.

Theory 2: The perceived stereotype-breaking of Black British performers. The countless stereotypes globally attributed to Black Americans–the gangster, thug, prostitute, deadbeat, and so forth–are not as frequently aligned with UK-based actors. The result is a pigeonholing of Black American actors and the belief that they can only play these stereotypical roles, but when it comes to a respected historical figure like MLK or a character outside of mere stereotype like a Black man trapped in a modern slave auction, then the assumed complexity of British bodies becomes preferred.

While Labrecque’s analysis is not specific to British actors, it nonetheless raises some concerns that can be applied to such stereotyping. He expresses, regarding the uptick in British casting, that “no one’s entitled to a role because of their accent or where they’re from.” However, what happens when someone’s American accent and passport actually present a barrier in acquiring an American role? This is an important part of the conversation as well, particularly because it suggests a half-hearted attempt at representation, or at least a significant roadblock on its path. Furthermore, such practice stereotypes and shuns the many well-trained and highly skilled Black American actors more than capable of Oscar-worthy performances.

I will conclude with a brief look at the Oscar-nominated performance of Naomie Harris in Moonlight.

Image of Naomie Harris in Moonlight (2017) – courtesy of Vogue

In the film, she plays a drug addict struggling to raise a Black American son conflicted by the conundrum of his sexuality. We want to feel her pain, her frustration, her shame, even if we disagree with her perspective. We want to sense the sting of her disappointment and rejection through her son, but we seem to want recognition that she is acting – not simply playing an authentic self. More deeply, the unspoken expectation is that we want this actress to fall into a certain amount of stereotypical behavior (addict, deadbeat), but we don’t think that she should be connected to such a context in any literal way. There seems to be a possible perception that the British background of Harris–trained at the Bristol Old Vic and raised far removed from the Florida projects where the film is set–allows the embodiment of a broken American mother that actors like Lathan or even Kerry Washington might not carry. This is not a criticism of her superb performance, and it is not something that I necessarily think the incredibly gifted director Barry Jenkins intended. The film and Harris’ performance are fantastic, and it is hands-down one of my favorite cinematic masterpieces of the past decade. I return to a reminder of my own conflict on this issue! What I’m offering is simply an observation of the message that her casting seems to send.

There is a reckoning taking place in contemporary Hollywood, an adamance that Black performance expand its storytelling to aid in the repair of a broken culture. Many link this renewed mission to the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, but of course the need goes back much further than two years ago. I do think that it’s important for the entire diaspora to be involved, and I am not suggesting that the many actors outside of the States who are gaining attention are undeserving. I am a fan! That being said, what does it mean when more complex and varied characters of color are presented in America, but they are not given to American performers? Is the mission of expanded opportunities and development of Black life depiction still achieved, or are we meant to practice more equitability in diaspora casting?

Chroniclers, please chronicle! I hope to hear your thoughts!

See you soon.

Julie