Early Christmas presents have arrived for some of our favourite Black Brit Pack Thespians. A few days ago it was announced that actors Chiwetel Ejiofor and Idris Elba lead the nominations for the 2014 Golden Globe Awards for their powerful performances in 12 Years a Slave and Mandela: A Long Walk To Freedom respectively. The two will also battle it out for the Lead Actor gong for their starring roles in TV dramas Luther and Dancing on The Edge. Not to be outdone, 12 Years A Slave director Steve McQueen looks set to sweep up at the Golden Globes, leading the nominations list for his harrowing slave narrative, 12 Years. Meanwhile Idris and Naomie Harris are gearing up for the release of the aforementioned Nelson Mandela biopic which has obviously gained a lot of momentum following the passing of our beloved political freedom fighter last week. To say that it’s been an incredible year for Black British acting talent somewhat seems to undersell what exciting inroads these trailblazers are making.
Let’s be clear: the UK has no shortage of Black acting talent, they’ve always been present since the days of Windrush, and even before. Whether it’s the late Norman Beaton and Joseph Marcell depicting the challenges faced by Caribbean and Asian immigrants in ’70s Britain in Empire Road. Or the likes of Victor Romeo Evans, Brinsley Forde and Angela Wynter giving voice to the hopes, dreams and frustrations of the second generation of Black Brits in films like Babylon and Burning an Illusion. Or even the acting prowess of Cathy Tyson and Marianne Jean-Baptiste, who accomplished the rare feat of landing starring roles in British films – there has always been an abundance of talent desperate for decent roles. However, unfortunately the traditional career trajectory for most UK based black actors is often limited to bit parts in Eastenders and the odd occasional theatre role.
It’s a no brainer then that one would choose to up sticks and leave this country to attempt to break a US market that seems more receptive to melanin-rich British actors. It’s worked for Marianne Jean-Baptiste, David Harewood, Adrian Lester, David Oyelowo, Lennie James, not to mention Idris, Ejiofor, and Naomie (who travels back and forth across the pond for her roles). Even mainstream newspapers have noticed this Black British talent drain, penning copious articles to try and highlight the frustrating situation. In a feature published in the Guardian, actor David Oyelowo explained the reason why he relocated to the US to journalist Tom Seymour. “I loved living in the UK, and it’s still my home. But it became clear I wasn’t going to be able to tell the stories I wanted to tell. When I went to British film investors with stories of the black experience in a historical context, I was told verbatim: ‘We’re looking for Dickens or Austen. Your story is a hard sell.’ Britain is not inclusive of how I look or who I am, so I looked to America.” He continued, “I think it would be a cataclysmic failure for black film if 2013 was remembered as the year of the black Oscar. If this year is remembered, it should be as an indictment of the past. Up until now, the British film industry has said: ‘There isn’t an audience for black films. We don’t have the actors. Black doesn’t travel.’ I hope 2013 acts as a defiance for those false pretences.”
So if McQueen, Elba and Ejiofor sweep up at the awards it will be interesting to see what their victories will lead to. Will the British film world try to take credit for their successes? Will they become more embracing of black actors, writers, directors and producers? Or in these post-racial times we supposedly inhabit, will their race even be mentioned in the inevitable post-awards celebratory coverage? We shall certainly see. But for now let’s raise a glass and clink. It has certainly been a long time coming.