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Tarantino Says He Didn't Cast Idris Elba In 'Django' Because He's British... And It's An American Story

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act January 4, 2013 at 7:11PM

I know, we said no more Django Unchained posts, BUT, this isn't so much a Django Unchained item (no critique nor praise of the film here), as much as it is a nod to several conversations/debates that you folks have had in various comment sections of this blog, relating to the casting of black British actors in roles as African Americans (and vice-versa, or as Africans) whether on TV or film, as well as the, shall we say, "accent problem." 
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Idris Elba

I know, we said no more Django Unchained posts, BUT, this isn't so much a Django Unchained item (no critique nor praise of the film here), as much as it is a nod to several conversations/debates that you folks have had in various comment sections of this blog, relating to the casting of black British actors in roles as African Americans (and vice-versa, or as Africans) whether on TV or film, as well as the, shall we say, "accent problem." 

So I thought it was worth sharing, and elaborating on, as well as connecting it to previous conversations, regardless of where you stand on the matter.

In an interview with the UK's Sun, while plugging the film across the pond, where it opens on the 18th of this month, Quentin Tarantino stated, while, as we already know, Idris Elba was one of the actors he looked at for the lead role eventually played by Jamie Foxx, "he never stood a chance of getting the part," because "he’s British," Tarantino said.

“Yeah, Idris is British and this is an American story. I think a problem with a lot of movies that deal with this issue is they cast British actors to play the Southerners and it goes a long way to distancing the movie. They put on their gargoyle masks and they do their phoney accents and you are not telling an American story any more. They are just making hay of it, whether it be James Mason in Mandingo or Michael Caine in Hurry Sundown, they get British actors to do this."

The first thing that I thought was, if he never really stood a chance of getting the part, why even look at him for the part in the first place...?

Although, I'll say that while Idris did an excellent job portraying Stringer Bell in HBO's The Wire, pulling off the accent rather well - so much that most audiences, and even many of his fellow Brits didn't even know he was British - you might recall he did have some *difficulty* with his southern accent in Ridley Scott's Prometheus last summer.

And maybe Tarantino auditioned him and caught on to that, which killed his chances - hence the comment about "phoney accents." Because, apparently, speaking in a southern accent was crucial for the key characters in Django Unchained.

As Tarantino notes in the Sun interview:

“Leo is not from the South, but pretty much every other white actor in the movie is from the South. And most of the black actors are from the South. And I’m from the South.”

The other actors Tarantino looked at for the part were Chris Tucker, Terrence Howard, Michael K. Williams, and Tyrese.

I'm guessing Tarantino's words may not go over well with some - specifically, his motivations for not casting a Brit (in a nutshell, this is a quintessential American story, so I'm going to cast American actors in American roles); although I'll also guess that others will applaud them.

But this seemingly nationalistic casting conundrum, we could call it, is a conversation that extends beyond just the USA and the UK. You'll recall local blowback over the casting of Jennifer Hudson and Terrence Howard as Winnie Mandela and Nelson Mandela - a quintessential South African story we could argue; and also Sanaa Lathan as a Senegalese woman in Wonderful World, and Morgan Freeman also as Mandela in Invictus - in recent examples. 

I recall this quote from another UK newspaper, The Guardian a couple of years ago or so, in relation to Freeman as Mandela and Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar, which stated:

"... 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..."

The suggestion from the writer there being that we should just accept that fact, instead of griping every time an actor's/actress' attempt at an unfamiliar accent fails.

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 the above 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 that same 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."

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 those above I mentioned, 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; but just not when it's a Tarantino flick though apparently - especially when he's telling a quintessential American story. 

Although Steven Spielberg clearly doesn't see it the same way, because he cast Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, in what could also be described as a quintessential American story. 

However, 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 USA accents - which are also varied depending on location. Some are better at it than others. 

But the matter of casting actors native to a specific region in films that tell stories that are "native" to that specific region (as Tarantino said of and did with Django), is a longer conversation...

Feel free to chime in with your thoughts on all this...

This article is related to: Django Unchained, Idris Elba


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