Idris Elba, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sophie Okonedo are just a few of the many Black British actors who have relocated from the UK to the US and have gained notable roles and success stateside. In a recent interview, Okonedo stated that “I have to go across the Atlantic to get work“. This shows the lack of credit in her own home country, for the actress who was praised by President Barack Obama for her performance in the Lorraine Hansberry play A Raisin In the Sun and has starred in award winning film Hotel Rwanda as well as many others.
This leaves many wondering why the talent is not being nurtured in the UK. This also leaves the UK film industry at a disadvantage, as actors and actresses of British origin are raking in record number sales in films elsewhere. A few of the recent box office hits starring Black British stars have been 12 Years a Slave, Mandela, and Belle which have all received critical acclaim. Although it can be argued that we are in a time where there is more black talent on our screens than ever before, there is still a lack of representation for ethnic minorities. Statistics show there is only 8.3% of black and Asian representation in major UK drama which is an underwhelming figure.
Lenny Henry accurately describes this trend of Brits going abroad; the actor and comedian stated that “Britain has been hemorrhaging ethnic minority talent to the US”. He also does not believe that the diversity plans they have at the BBC are going to create any long lasting change for ethnic minority representation. The £2.1 million ‘Diversity Creative Talent Fund’ has been set up to develop and fast-track shows by ethnic minority talent on the screen. Henry does not agree with the plans as he says “increased development funds do not deliver change… but jobs do“.
Even though the US provides more roles for black actors, ex-Hollyoaks star Ricky Whittle has stated that he feels typecast in roles when auditioning in the US. Stating “I’d say the UK definitely has more diversity“. He alleges that he was told by a head of a studio that due to the fact that he is black and has a British accent, this would confuse Middle America. This is due to the traditional stereotypes given to black and British people. Black people are viewed as athletes, rappers, and criminals, while British people are seen as holding a high status with roles like a doctor or lawyer. He adds that “you kind of have to fall into a typecast. Idris Elba had to do it when he was here“. Whittle has had some fortune in the US and has been able to gain a role in the new post-apocalyptic drama The 100 which features an ethnically-diverse cast as well as strong female leads.
This statement made by the head of a studio to Whittle shows that the US still has a long way to go in terms of how black people are portrayed on the screens. In light of the history of the treatment of black people in the US, they still have a lot of room for improvement but they seem to be heading in the right direction. Recent hit shows such as Orange Is The New Black is an all-female lead with many black actresses as leading characters. Though the UK had the plot first with the show Bad Girls (1999-2006), there was definitely a lack of diversity in that British TV series.
In regards to Whittle’s comments, I believe there is definitely truth in his statements of the UK having more diversity for black actors. However, the UK is still not doing enough and the numbers are evidence of this. There needs to be an appreciation of Britain’s black acting talent as well as opportunities for their career to flourish in the land they were born and raised in. If the diverse roles can grow in number, this is turn creates greater representation for black and ethnic minorities on the screen, which would lessen the trend of going abroad.