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Can't Knock The Hustle? Or Is He Hustling Backwards? (Revisiting U.K. Star Adrian Lester's Casting Choices In Short Film Directorial Debut "Of Mary")

by Emmanuel Akitobi
February 23, 2012 7:49 PM
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British actor Adrian Lester has been very vocal in recent months about the lack of professional opportunities afforded to black thespians in the U.K.  Here at S&A, we've followed the story and have repeatedly reported on the sentiment expressed by Lester and several other actors from that region of the world.  However . . .

 . . . something is amiss with Lester's latest project.  And in the bustle of everyday life-- doing this and, and reading that; watching this, and posting that-- I managed to miss it, even though it was staring me right in the face.

Despite Lester's complaints about the entertainment industry, he's managed to do well for himself, compared to others who have been at it as long as he has and longer.  He's only recently wrapped up a very successful run as lead character Mickey Stone on the hugely popular BBC series Hustle, which ran for an impressive 8 seasons.

However, Lester made very clear his intentions to take his talents to America once Hustle was over, because, as he put it in a 2011 interview with Radio Times:

“As an actor you’re constantly trying to guess how valuable you are to the industry. If you’re a woman you’ll put certain negative things against that, be it age or weight.

“As a black actor you do the same – you’ll only see yourself travelling as far as people like you have travelled. And if no-one like you is doing what you’re doing it’s very hard for you to see yourself going further, and you get frustrated.”

I was extremely delighted, a few months ago, when I learned that Lester had co-written and directed a short film titled Of Mary, and even profiled it here on S&A before its screening at the 2012 London Short Film Festival.  It seemed like, with this project, Lester was taking control of his own destiny, creating his own projects; which, in turn, would lead to him being able to solve that problem of black actors in the U.K. not being considered for the prime roles they so coveted.

Of Mary tells the story of "Jason Lawrence, as he returns home to his estranged wife and son, and how bitter resentment means there is more distance between them than he thought."  Any black actor would surely appreciate the chance to work with someone as accomplished as Lester, bringing the lead role of Jason Lawrence to life on screen.  This was it, right?  Turning tides; shifts in power!

But, alas, it was not to be.

Nigel Ramdial (L-R): Fadipe, Brooke

The lead role in the short film directed and co-written by a black man who said he was coming to America, because he couldn't find work in his home country, would go to an actor named Tom Brooke, who is not a black actor.  To be fair, Brooke was cast opposite the lovely Kehinde Fadipe, a black actress.  But that elusive lead actor role-- which, seemingly, could have prevented at least one black actor from having to cross the Atlantic ocean to fend off starvation-- remained out of reach, on this project at least.

When I first told readers about Of Mary, I, admittedly, failed to make the connection.  But now that I have, I have to ask you, the S&A faithful, "what part of the game is this?"  Doing your own thing, and creating your own film projects, is a hell of a hustle-move for a black actor who desires more prominent and regular acting opportunities.  But aren't you hustling backwards when you do create the prominent roles you covet, yet continue in the same practices of the industry you've accused of holding you back?

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  • JMAC | February 24, 2012 6:44 PMReply

    Put me in the he's hustling backwards camp. If he's trying to appease everybody he's not gonna make much impact here anyway. Got more than enough of those types.

  • Nadine | February 24, 2012 7:07 AMReply

    There is NO WAY McQueen could have cast a Black man in that role which exemplifies not only his awareness of race, but how his understanding transcends the complaints of some Blacks in the U.S. who think it is better that one Black male actor get a job (no matter the role). Why on earth would McQueen not understand that it would be a DISASTER to cast a Black man in that role? The same can said for Lester. The main character left his family estranged. Why cast a Black man? Can't you see what they're dong?

  • anon | February 29, 2012 11:10 AM

    at first i thought why not a black man until i thought about it and it would be more controversial than the help precious and pariah put togther imagine a black male sex ADDICT WOW it would have been boycotted for sure! Mqueen is smart he started off doing white films to get his name out there now he is the position to do black films like fela kuti black americans on the other had try it the other way but it doesnt work coz you get typecast as being a "black film "director i.e spike lee.

  • Nadine | February 24, 2012 8:59 AM

    You do the math and see what happens with the different combos - who would be the audience and what would the likelihood of success or festival recognition be? There are deeper analyses but I'm like Pavlov's dog here... trained to be write a less than substantive comment lest it be blocked at submission. Wish I could be clearer.

  • Nadine | February 24, 2012 8:58 AM

    btw is there a dearth of positive images for Black men in the American media? Little House on the Prairie methinks is where you're going. There would typically have to be an antagonist and making the black actress negative would be problematic to his, likely, better understanding of race and media and making the non-Black likely white actress negative would be an impossibility in terms of success.

  • Nadine | February 24, 2012 8:51 AM

    ...because these dudes know how to play the game. Do you think his work will end here? Do you think that he will not find a way to include Black men the way they NEED to be included in future projects? Shonda Rhimes knew how to do it, unfortunately she felt she needed to add the mammy character and then humanize her for the White audience, but she played the game and won.

  • Reason | February 24, 2012 7:44 AM

    Then why not write role for a black actor that would not be seen as negative? You have the power to create and shape the role, so do it. Don't create a negative role, and then say, "Oh, I don't want a black character portrayed negatively, so let me give it to someone else."

  • Cherish | February 23, 2012 11:00 PMReply

    Answer to your question - yes. But I wonder if there is something more insidious taking place.a I bet if he had cast a Black male actor, the co female lead would have been non-Black. When you look at this as well as McQueens movie SHAME with a white male, I wonder if these Black filmmakers can't see black people outside the stereotypes White society has limited us to that they now cast us within those boundaries and can't see ourselves outside of them.

  • Nadine | March 19, 2012 6:26 PM

    @BONDGIRL - Never saw your reply... probably a little too late now. Hope you enjoyed "12 Years"...

  • BONDGIRL | February 24, 2012 6:42 PM

    @Nadine: How do you make the BM the sex addict and not be racial with it? Hmm, good question...I know what NOT to do, you cannot leave the audience to decide why he's an addict. He would probably have to copulate with Marianne to "soften" his character. McQueen would have to paint the picture clearly as to why his behavior is this way, in the way Spike did with Jungle Fever & Mo Betta Blues. Make the audience sympathetic to those reasons; maybe he was abused (in flashbacks like Antoine Fisher), maybe he's a foster kid who lived in the system, whatever. The important thing is that the acting reflect inner angst, and not be boastful about it. Re: The Johnson's film- it had so many taboos for folks to deal with: rape, incest, and homosexuality. The word "demonic" was peppered throughout the Johnson's thread, which I don't feel would be applied to the subject of sex addiction. I'm finishing the last few chapters of 12 Years a Slave, so I may not respond as quickly this evening.

  • Nadine | February 24, 2012 4:31 PM

    I'm shocked that I just posted so many lines...

  • Nadine | February 24, 2012 4:31 PM

    BG - Do you really believe that Black Americans wouldn't give it a less hysterical, but as hysterical nonetheless, reaction as that nonsense movie about the son raping his father, given the content, no matter how well written. Red Tails could have been Chaucer, but some BW, rightfully, would've still been like, "Black women didn't exist?" I can tell you, THIS Black chick over here would've been concerned because HOW do you make a black man the sex addict and NOT make the movie "racial" unless they kept the Marianne character Black even then there would've have complaints. There are too many layers, TOO MANY, to explore and exploit when "race" enters the equation as the harbinger of the films pathology.

  • Nadine | February 24, 2012 4:19 PM

    @Bondgirl - You and CareyCarey have SHAME radar! Daggone it! Like the bat signal goes up. BGirl, I have yet to find the magical formula to reply the way I would like, and have typically, which is a little frustrating because I'm not able to make my point thorough. I now have to leave holes in my arguments, which sucks.

  • BONDGIRL | February 24, 2012 1:46 PM

    Nadine, no one would care if Shame's lead was black only if the writing and acting were superb...similar to the pass Idris gets in Luther. As Jug has repeatedly pointed out, black people pick and choose which tropes they find offensive based on their like and dislike for the project as a WHOLE. I highly doubt that Idris in Shame would've raised eyebrows anymore than Spike Lee did for his directing Jungle Fever...when the writing is superb, and the casting is equally yoked, subject matter is often overlooked.

  • Nadine | February 24, 2012 7:08 AM

    Rota is absolutely right. It would have been chaos ... and Oscar nominated.

  • Rota | February 24, 2012 4:44 AM

    But I bet if McQueen had put a black as the lead there would have been criticism of why a sexually dysfunctional character had to be black.

  • Laura | February 23, 2012 10:58 PMReply

    Usually I am not the type to believe Black filmmakers should only do "Black" stories. But if his main argument is that Blacks in the UK don't enough roles isn't he somewhat perpetuating the very thing his is complaining about. However it was nice to give a sister a role.

  • anon | February 29, 2012 4:08 PM

    alot of british black actors complain but you have to remember you have to be in a POSITION to complain you dont hear black actresses complain becuase they so scarely get roles that they dont even get interviewed to get the CHANCE TO COMPLAIN lol! however, lester et al are not complaining about the lack of black roles OVERALL but the fact they cant get the roles they WANT there is a difference also they are NOT complaining about the lack of black tv shows and films but individual roles FOR THEMSELVES. It's very selfish because they have NO intrest in the black film industry AT all hardly surprising as most are married to non black women.

  • moreno | February 23, 2012 9:34 PMReply

    for sure!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • lil nut | February 23, 2012 9:12 PMReply


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