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Hollywood & The Ministry Of "Silly Accents"

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by Tambay A. Obenson
April 11, 2012 12:50 PM
14 Comments
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Invictus

So... maybe we should all just agree that, just as an article I read on the Guardian UK's site said: "unless one casts Indians to play Indians (unlike Alec Guinness in A Passage to India, 1984), Danes to play Danes (instead of accent-prone Meryl Streep's Karen Blixen in Out of Africa, 1985), Irishmen to play Irishmen (to avoid the many begorrah horrors) etc, most accents [in movies] border on caricature," and thus we should just accept that fact, instead of griping every time an actor's/actress's attempt at an unfamiliar accent fails?!

That's as much of a question as it is a statement, by the way.

We've had convos on this blog about the accents of American actors taking on non-American roles (and vice-versa) - for example, Sanaa Lathan in Wonderful World, and Morgan Freeman in Invictus.

Frankly, for most audiences who don't have an ear attuned to the nuances of Senegalese and South African accents (which themselves also vary within those countries) in these 2 cases, Lathan and Freeman (and Matt Damon) will sound authentic enough.

But is "authentic enough" enough? Is the audience being deprived of a proper "education," or are our expectations too high, in expecting perfection of speech from these actors, especially when many of us here likely wouldn't even be able to recognize what's authentic and what's not, in any given situation?

The writer of the article makes a comparison between "blacking-up" and actors in roles that require that they speak in an unfamiliar accent - essentially suggesting that just as black people are now "allowed" to play themselves on screen, instead of white people in black face, "accents should be left to native speakers."

In this industry, it comes down to this: Are there recognizable/bankable English-speaking Xhosa actors, and English-speaking Afrikaner actors to play Mandela and François Pienaar respectively, in Invictus?

I agree that an overall appreciation of a film can indeed be undermined by suspect accents; and what all this calls into discussion is the casting of "natives" in roles like the above I mentioned, instead of American Hollywood stars, if ensuring authenticity is crucial. But then that challenges one significant industry belief: that recognizable names and faces are needed in order to sell a picture - an idea with a lot of support that likely won't falter any time soon.

So, in short, expect more "suspect" accents, especially in Hollywood studio movies centered on stories about non-Americans.

On the reverse, while there have most certainly been exceptions, given how ubiquitous American/Hollywood films are all over the world, as well as music, I'd say that most non-American actors do a pretty good job mimicking North American accents.

Thoughts?

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14 Comments

  • anon | April 17, 2012 1:36 PMReply

    british and in particular austrialians are so good at american accents they are putting american actors out of business!

  • Carl | April 17, 2012 1:46 PM

    That's right. ALL American actors are going out of business like a corner drugstore. Anon=dumbass.

  • jmac | April 12, 2012 1:26 PMReply

    Non american actors (particularly British) can't produce an authentic Southern accent [taking into account Charles' post] to save their lives. Also agree that Jamaican is one of the most mutilated accents.

  • Adam | April 12, 2012 11:32 AMReply

    Well lets be fair it all comes down to talent. When you look at a film like say Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula, 2 performances stand out above the rest, Gary Oldman and Keanu Reeves, but for opposite reasons. Gary Oldman put his heart and soul into the character and did all he could to produce an accent suitable for the role. While Keanu Reeves, seemed completely lost trying to produce a passable English accent. As mentioned before Actors like Sean Connery can use his distinctive Scottish accent even for a Russian Captain with very little bad publicity. A bad accent can make the difference between a laughable performance and memorable one. If the actor is good enough the accent shouldn't affect the overall performance. When an actor is used, for "Box Office success" then maybe the accent should be dropped if it is not convincing enough. Id be more than happy to watch a film with a good actor giving an excellent performance with no effort put into a true accent, instead of a laughable attempt at a true accent (that i might not have even noticed was accurate) with little effort left for the actual performance.

  • Charles Judson | April 12, 2012 10:37 AMReply

    What is a good accent? That I think isn't as easy to lockdown as it is for bad accents. Even in what we define as "bad" accents don't often account for the fact that there are variations within variations. There is no such thing as a Southern accent. Within Atlanta alone there's a Decatur accents, a Southwest Atlanta, a Buckhead accents, etc. I think what's more troubling aren't bad accents, but bad accents that are coded with stereotypes. Such as the actor trying to sound like an L.A. Gangbanger or the "happy" Jamaican. Reminds me of the scene in FAME when the Doris character portrayed an old person as shaking and feeble minded and the teacher had to admonish her for relying on cliches instead of actually trying to create a full blooded character.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | April 11, 2012 7:20 PMReply

    Non-American actors can drop their accents better than an American actor can pick one up.

  • future.diplomat | April 12, 2012 8:11 AM

    I do not agree.

  • Geneva Girl | April 11, 2012 6:27 PMReply

    I think that the most egregiously offended accent is Jamaican. My Jamaican husband and friends still go on about how bad all of the accents in Cool Runnings was. I not only blame the directors for not insisting that the actors use a dialect coach, but also the actors for being lazy. A pan-Caribbean accent just isn't good enough.

  • Gigi Young | April 11, 2012 2:49 PMReply

    Proper accents never mattered during the golden age of Hollywood (I've seen countless films supposedly set in England where American actors like Robert Montgomery or Gary Cooper never tried adopting the proper accent), so why the clamor for "realism" today? I only cringe when the actor actually tries and fails spectacularly at using a different accent.

  • James | April 11, 2012 1:58 PMReply

    Or you could be like Sean Connery and always sound like you are from Scotland, no matter what his origin is supposed to be. Question: Isn't Sir Kingsly 1/2 Indian? I read where one of his parents was from India, so I might give him a pass if that is the case.

  • Boomslang | April 11, 2012 6:09 PM

    Kingsley's dad is Gurajati indian and himself not fully Indian I heard.

    Anywho when it comes to african accents on films. Its fiesta . Forest whitaker is the only actor who could come close to the source material . The rest are not only lousy untalented actors but their african accents are straight up an insult.

    Jill scott , Anika noni , colin salmon , derek luke , sanaa lathan, Don Cheattel, etc.. they sound god awful . I put all of them on mute .

    On another note not a single african american actor can rock a british accent. But the reverse is the norm.

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  • Zeus | April 11, 2012 1:29 PMReply

    I must say that one of the most convincing non-British actors providing a British accent was Forest Whitaker in "The Crying Game". Also my favorite performance of his.

  • Nemesis | April 11, 2012 1:13 PMReply

    Speech/dialogue is part of acting - it's also an integral part of a character's makeup. How a character, real of fictitious, speaks has a lot to do with how they're perceived/received by others, what is expected of them, and even how the character wishes to be identified. If producers, directors and actors didn't think so, then there wouldn't even be an effort to try and sound "native."

    Budget permitting, good money is often spent on speech/accent training, so an inability to convince anyone with even a vague familiarity with said accent signifies a big fail and a waste of budget dollar$, and any criticism in this area should be acknowledged as such by all concerned (producer, director, actor, speech/dialogue coach); and relying on the ignorance of your audience is no excuse - not to mention how insulting it is to native speakers of the language/accent, who most will likely also make up part of the films audience. Great acting should never stoop to caricature unless that's the intent.

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