The Rise Of The Black British Actor In America

cdn.indiewireDue to a lack of opportunity in their home countries, black British actors are finding success — and meatier roles — telling Black American stories, sometimes even iconic ones. For David Oyelowo, who plays Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, this is one of those transformative moments.

by Kelly Carter | BuzzFeed News Reporter (reprinted from January 5th)

In Britain, David Oyelowo was feeling limited.

A brilliant actor who can melt inside of a role and turn in a performance worthy of high praise from his contemporaries, Oyelowo — who first came of notice as doomed spy Danny Hunter on BBC’s Spooks (called MI-5 in the U.S.) — wasn’t finding much material that allowed him to push himself to the next level. He’d had minor success doing prestigious work with the Royal Shakespeare Company, but breaking into TV and films proved to be challenging. And he envisioned more for himself when he fancied a performance art career.

So seven years ago, he and his wife Jessica made the decision to head to Los Angeles, with the hope being that he’d find the type of work fitting for his training at the esteemed London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. He arrived in May of that year and by July — a mere two months after moving in the place where he’d hoped he would find the role of his dreams — the script for a film named Selma was dropped into his lap.

It took another seven years, five directors, and a rewrite before the film would hit the big screen, but now Oyelowo is impressing critics with his arresting portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, the humanitarian who would help to change the lives of millions of Americans before being slain in 1968.

Oyelowo’s story isn’t so uncommon. It’s familiar to that of many black British actors, and in some ways, his role — and his story — is part of a larger trend playing out in Hollywood right now. There’s a black British Actor Renaissance of sorts occurring, largely because black Brits aren’t finding the type of work in the United Kingdom that allows them to explore the depth they’re seeking from their roles. But stateside, these British expatriates are giving life to classic American stories, many gritty and all of them deeply layered and complex.

Part of that may be luck or timing or opportunity. But it’s the odyssey of Oyelowo — who as King is playing one of the most recognizable and iconic Americans of all time — that feels as if it were being orchestrated from on high.

“I played a soldier confronting President Lincoln in the film Lincoln, and I say to him, in the winter of 1865, ‘When are we going to get the vote?’ and then there I am, 100 years later, depicting Dr. King, alongside the very same actor, Colman Domingo — we confronted President Lincoln together — we are now in a jail cell, asking for the vote again, in 1965,” Oyelowo said in an interview with BuzzFeed News. “I’ve played a preacher in The Help, I played a fighter pilot in Red Tails, I played someone who was in a sit in, was a Freedom Rider, was a Black Panther, then goes on to be a senator in The Butler. They’re all characters that took me on this journey through what it has been to be a black person for the last 150 years.”

Oyelowo stopped, paused, and corrected himself slightly here. In nearly every role he’s taken on since he arrived in the United States, he’s portrayed the sojourn for what it’s like to be a black American for the last 150 years. It’s an important distinction that’s not taken lightly by the 38-year-old actor.

“I know more about American history than I do either Nigerian or British history at this point,” he said, before adding a quick chuckle.

In Selma, we find two of the most well-known and high-profile black Americans of all time getting the big screen treatment. Together, Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott-King became the poster couple for the civil rights movement, which promoted nonviolent protests in order to get inalienable rights for all Americans. In the film version, directed by Ava DuVernay, both roles are portrayed by black British actors; Carmen Ejogo, who has portrayed Scott-King once before (in an HBO film, Boycott), also is British.

“I’m sorry — they were just really good!” DuVernay mock-wailed in defense of her casting British actors during a recent interview with BuzzFeed News. “David is just an extraordinary artist. He is unlike anything I’ve come across in terms of his depth of his preparation, the openness of his heart with this part — totally sinking in and a desire to disappear into this, to give his whole self over to it. That level of commitment is the kind of thing you hear when you read Premiere magazine articles about Daniel Day-Lewis preparing. I would see it happen. And know how important it was to him. And to be a partner with him in this performance was just an honor, and at that point, you could be any nationality.”

image by Alice Mongkongllite for BuzzFeed
image by Alice Mongkongllite for BuzzFeed

Still, there is something to be said for the technical training that many actors receive in England. Day-Lewis, who won an Academy Award for portraying President Abraham Lincoln in 2012’s Lincoln, also is British. And in Selma, DuVernay cast Tim Roth, another Brit, to portray former Alabama Gov. George Wallace.

Although white, Roth said it’s easy to see the struggles that black British actors have.
“They’re not getting the roles at home,” Roth said in an interview with BuzzFeed News. “There’s some good stuff being made, but … there’s much more of a black component that’s happening in your cable world here.”

But it’s more than just the actors navigating across the Atlantic to find great work. They’re winning these roles because many of them are able to utilize their U.K. theater backgrounds and translate them to major Hollywood productions, something that works quite well with the deeply constructed roles many are landing.

“I think there’s something about the stage, because they have that stage preparation,” DuVernay said. “Their work is really steeped in theater. Our system of creating actors is a lot more commercial. … there’s a depth in the character building that’s really wonderful.”

There also is a cultural disconnect that allows actors like Oyelowo and Ejogo to strip down iconic figures like the Kings and play them with vulnerability and without falling into, say, the fear (and in some cases, the burden) that American actors steeped in historical traditions may have.

“They had a distance, yes,” DuVernay added. “It’s that whole idea of the reverence — if you don’t have the reverence and you’re not putting them up on a pedestal, then you’re more apt to get to the truth and the heart of it to explore. You’re not wrestling with the fact that his picture was on Grandmama’s wall. Because it wasn’t. Because you ain’t from here. You didn’t have to do “I Have a Dream” speeches in school. You don’t have all that residue to deal with.”

To read the rest of Kelly Carter’s piece, click HERE.