Sunday, April 18News For London

Where have our British black actors gone?

Awards season is over. Oscars, Baftas and Golden Globes have been dished out, but was this year tainted by a severe lack of nominations for black actors? Black British talent like London educated David Oyelowo who portrayed Martin Luther King Jr so brilliantly in the film Selma may have been overlooked, but from Harrow all the way to Los Angeles, there is a bigger debate to be heard… 

Reporter: Edward Lauder
Sub-editor: Tawanda Mhindurwa

Photo Credit: Edward Lauder
British black actors (left to right) David Oyelowo, Carmel Ejogo and Chiwetel Edjiofor have all left the UK to pursue their career. Photo Credit: Edward Lauder

It’s not just about award nominations. Why should a British actor such as David Oyelowo have to cross the pond in order to get any sort of decent role and gain the recognition they deserve? The same could be said about Idris Elba, Chiwetel Ejiofor, David Harewood, Carmen Ejogo and John Boyega – the list is endless.

Oyelowo told Radio Times: “There’s a string of black British actors passing through where I live now in LA. We don’t have Downton Abbey, or Call the Midwife, or Peaky Blinders, or the 50th iteration of Pride and Prejudice.

“We’re not in those. And it’s frustrating, because it doesn’t have to be that way. I shouldn’t have to feel like I have to move to America to have a notable career.”

Many other black actors in the UK feel the same way. Luke King, a young, black actor from Harrow, who’s about to audition for a role in Cats at the London Palladium said: “It’s hard to be in anything over here that isn’t about gangs or crime.

“I’m about to emigrate to LA. My agent told me it was for the best and that’s where most of the parts are for a black actor like myself. It’s ridiculous to be honest, but it’s the truth.”

Neither Oyelowo or King wanted to leave: the British film industry forced them away. In his interview with Radio Times, Oyelowo continued:

“The difference between myself and Benedict [Cumberbatch] and Eddie [Redmayne] is they can choose to live here and still have a Hollywood career. Because though they can do American movies, their bread and butter in Britain is period films. But had I stayed here, I wouldn’t be in Selma. That’s just a fact.”

Britain’s lack of true British black drama is to be blamed and it something that needs to be changed as soon as possible.

King made some very similar comments: “I really wish I could stay here in the UK. My family’s here, my life is here, my girlfriend… If I was white I probably wouldn’t have this problem, yet it is just the way things are at the moment.”

This is an issue that most actors, black or not, have pointed out in recent times. Benedict Cumberbatch told the PBS talk show Tavis Smiley in the US: “I think as far as coloured actors go, it gets really different in the UK, and a lot of my friends have had more opportunities here than in the UK, and that’s something that needs to change.”

Despite the use of the word ‘coloured’, for which he has issued an official apology, stating: “I make no excuse for my being an idiot and know the damage is done”, Cumberbatch’s point is still valid.

Black actors – actors of all minorities – need to be embraced in the UK. The British film and television industry needs to change the way they do things, before it loses any more of its very best actors to the US.