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"Remember Us?" Leading Ladies Of Color In British Cinema History

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by Emmanuel Akitobi
June 5, 2012 9:50 PM
23 Comments
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There's been a lot of recent Internet chatter about the upcoming sports drama Fast Girls, and how it features the first lead performance by a black actress in a British film.  Not to take anything away from actress Lenora Crichlow, but that just isn't so.

In an interview last month with the London Evening Standard, Crichlow dropped this little nugget:

But perhaps we should concentrate on a more remarkable fact. I'd been told that the Londoner sitting in front of me is the first black female actor to lead a British film. "This is according to Damian [Jones], the producer, and he knows his stuff," she says when I mention it, as if she can barely believe it herself.

"It's a double-edged sword, though. All my favourite actresses are women of colour, and it saddens me that they're not household names. But what a positive place to start from. The majority of our lead characters are black females, representing their country, in strong, positive roles. It is something we should see more of."

It's a positive sentiment but, thankfully, it isn't completely accurate.  Several actresses before Crichlow have had opportunities to shine in front of the camera, their performances immortalized on film.

Just last year we saw Zawe Ashton star in the docu/drama Dreams Of A Life, and even got a chance to speak to her about her lead role.

Having already appeared in several memorable supporting film roles, Sophie Okonedo took the lead in the 2008 Anthony Fabian-directed drama Skin.

Danny Boyle's 2002 thriller 28 Days Later featured a star-turning performance from a then-relatively-unknown Naomie Harris*However, after watching the film's trailer, one would never know it.*

SPOILER ALERT:  (Don't watch the below clip if you haven't yet seen the film.)

Marianne Jean-Baptiste received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her performance in the 1996 drama Secrets & Lies.  But anyone who saw it knows that she and Brenda Blethyn (who was nominated for Best Actress) both carried that film.

Following her 1986 feature film debut opposite Bob Hoskins in director Neil Jordan's Mona Lisa, actress Cathy Tyson was on track to make a name for herself in Hollywood.

In 1981, director Menelik Shabazz's Burning An Illusion featured a lead performance from Cassie McFarlane that still puts butts in seats at film festivals worldwide.

And these are only the films I could remember.  If anyone can name others, please feel free to share.

I wish Crichlow and the rest of the Fast Girls cast much success with their film this summer. Let's just keep in mind that there are British actresses out there whose performances should not be forgotten, and whose best work we likely have yet to see.

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23 Comments

  • KAZ | June 8, 2012 4:27 AMReply

    Saw the film at last nights premiere, all the actresses were brilliant. It was refreshing to so many,beautiful black girls toegether on film, and yes there were stereotypes, but almost every film has those, they create talking points on the way home. Lashana was amazing, a new talent to watch.We must give kudos to the actresses who have gone before , but please support our up and coming young artistes. Go and see the film,it's a feel good movie, no guns, no crime,no killings. And the soundtrack is amazing, again supporting british made 'urban' music.

  • etomi | June 7, 2012 9:41 PMReply

    Don't forget Carmen Ejogo...the lovely Black Brit actress who is married to our national treasure -- Jeffrey Wright!

  • paula | June 8, 2012 7:24 AM

    Was Carmen ever a lead in a British film?

  • Orville | June 7, 2012 3:47 PMReply

    I think right now the MOST successful black British actress is without a doubt Naomie Harris! Harris is currently filming the new James Bond film Skyfall. According to Naomie she was surprised at the amount of screen time she gets! She gets to use guns, had to train and do a lot of running. Naomie was also in Pirates of the Caribbean, and in 28 Days Later. And Naomie is ONLY thirty five she's done incredibly well even better then the black American actresses. Naomie has taken on diverse film roles from indie dramas to big budget movies. I am keeping an eye on Naomie Harris.

  • DON CLOVIS | June 7, 2012 9:45 AMReply

    anyway, for me Black USA / UK, African films are the best...

    see for example fm UK/Kenia, trailer of "PEARLS OF AFRICA"

    DON CLOVIS

  • DL | June 6, 2012 5:28 PMReply

    The british "bring it on" imho. Full of stereotypes why did the white girl have to come from money and mixed girl from poverty and the blk girls are typical hood one dimetional characters i will definately pass on this but sadluy in the past this kind of movei would have a black lead but with the likes of Jessica Ennis being the golden girl of athletics and Christine Ohuruogu roundly ignored its not surpriseing they chose a more "marketable" lead.

  • anon | June 6, 2012 5:19 PMReply

    leonora is mixed race im SICK of people using these people to represent bw they're NOT BLACK and the casting agents know this they know they can get away with putting a girl like this up there but they cant do that with the men everyone seems to know the diference between idris elba/samual l jackson and terrence howard/boris kudjo but not thandie newton and kerry washington wtf?!

  • renee | June 7, 2012 8:35 AM

    r u nuts.. you've got to be

  • Yemaya | June 7, 2012 6:26 AM

    Anon, I think that brings us into a new discussion entirely, the definition of black. I dont think being mixed race should disqualify Leonora at all, I think we need to stop dividing ourselves in order to name the Other. Mixed race individuals have suffered the same predicament as so-called black people and it is something to be celebrated that someone of colour, esp a woman of colour, regardless of the percentage of black in their blood, is taking centre stage. But i do agree with you that mainstream cinema does tend to avoid the darker black woman opting for the more 'palatable' - as they understand it - rosario dawsonish lighter version. It is still the same house n**ger, field slave syndrome. Mindsets need to change. But at the end of the day we are all fighting the same struggle and we need to celebrate our communal victories.

  • Screen Nation | June 6, 2012 2:06 PMReply

    Glad this posting has been made as we corrected the statement made by Lenora as soon s we heard it as we knew it was wrong. I would have thought she or her people would have at least been aware of a small ambitious British athletics movie called The Girl with Brains in her Feet, which had a little known actress Joanna Ward in the lead as 'the girl'. Its just a shame that many of these super talented women who have been leads in British films before the lovely Leonora have unfortunately been thrown by the wayside by the UK movie industry. Good post as there are other hidden gems when it comes to this question.

  • Apryl | May 7, 2014 9:23 AM

    I absolutely love Girl With Brains in Her Feet. It is available On Demand here in NY, U.S.A. and I watch it almost religiously. Joanna Ward was a bit of an idol for me when I was 13 & now at 22 I wonder what she's up to. I Googled her for other roles she may have appeared in since I am not most familiar with UK film and it seems she never existed =\

    At the same time, I feel the UK is more generous (so it seems) with hiring black or black-enough actresses as compared to the US. Maybe it's just an impression so the secret won't be outed that affirmative action is all a facade, but I constantly see at least a mixed race girl on a UK teleseries or some supported urban drama, but it's not like that here. Here, black women only do well with reality TV that is totally classless. Are there any urban UK films you can introduce me to? I've only seen "Adulthood" and "Attack the Block."

  • Emmanuel | June 7, 2012 8:05 AM

    It's a shame that 'The Girl With Brains In Her Feet' is not available on dvd. It sounds interesting.

  • Masha | June 6, 2012 4:22 AMReply

    Nikki Amuka-Bird was featured on season 2 of Luther, and teaches acting at RADA. Here's her imdb http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0025458/. Just adding her to this list! I loved this post btw and mentioned it on my blog at www.theglobalblackwomen.com

    Let's keep this list growing and show these ladies support!

    - Masha Dowell

  • renee | June 7, 2012 8:54 AM

    she a great actress but i couldnt stand her in Luther.....

  • deecreative | June 6, 2012 1:18 AMReply

    I agree with Lea, I'm not familiar with Lenora but from the trailer she is clearly the lead. I'm glad you mentioned Secrets and Lies in the write up. I love that movie! It is a very good movie, I saw it when it came out...it was on pay per view back in the late 90's(yeah remember that lol). I definitely felt Marianne Jean Baptiste was a lead being as though the movie centered around her and the family, they just focused on the white family more in the movie. Sophie Okonedo is a great actress!! Whatever she's in I'll watch it lol. Funny though, I'd like to see more movies that let black british actresses shine, more in the light of Secrets and Lies/Skin. There are a lot of 'I'm from the hood' british movies that have been highlighted lately...although kidulthood/adulthood were good but would like to see a diversity.

  • Ava | June 8, 2012 5:32 PM

    So funny about Marianne Jean Baptiste (whom I came to adore after watching Secrets & Lies) but it was strange to see that she was nominated in the Supporting Category because she definitely gave a commanding lead performance. She and Brenda Blethyn had such a natural chemistry and intensity that you truly believed they were Mother and Daughter, despite the grumbling by some about skin color (yes, it works both ways with some people grumbling about Jean Baptiste being too dark skinned)...I could care less about that, the performance was flawless. I was pretty po-ed that she didn't win that year.

  • etomi | June 5, 2012 10:55 PMReply

    Whatever happened to the fabulous Alphonsia Emmanuel. In "Peter's Friends", she was illuminatingly beautiful and exceptionally talented. And then.....NOTHING! Would you please see if you can find any information about her at all? She's seemed to have simply disappeared off the face of the earth. Thanks much!

  • Statum106 | June 9, 2012 1:00 AM

    I remember Alphonsia also as Michael's on-again-off-again girlfriend in "Desmonds." At least we get to see Marianne in a recurring role as a judge on "Harry's Law."

    I don't think IMDB tells the whole story on many of these actresses and what they're doing. I'm sure many of them are doing theater or are teaching the craft to other budding actors and actresses.

  • etomi | June 7, 2012 9:37 PM

    Thanks so much, Sergio! I really wanted to hear she is enjoying a happy life. It's just a shame that England couldn't see what a gem she was -- beautiful, brilliant and talented. It's hard out there for Black actresses, globally. Such a waste!

  • Sergio | June 6, 2012 12:33 AM

    I know exactly who you're talking about. Incredibly beautiful woman, I first noticed her in that BBC series House of Cards shown here on PBS and she also had a major role in that Liam Neeson murder mystery film Under Suspicion made around the same time. Last I heard she quit acting in the U.K. around ten years ago because of the lack of opportunities. She moved back to the West Indies, where she's from originally, and started a theater company. The last thing I heard is that she got married to some rich guy, raising a family and now divides her time between L.A. and London

  • Lea | June 5, 2012 10:45 PMReply

    To be fair, the bulk of these roles have women of color as a lead, yes, but often as a supporting-player to the lead male (often white). Lenora is the lead actress in her film, first-billed, and the star of the film, which is perhaps what they were getting at. There is a white male and female in Fast Girls, but they are the supporting players to HER, not the other way around.

  • dave | June 5, 2012 11:23 PM

    She has a white male co-lead in this film. And her white female rival shares the spotlight.

  • t-bug | June 5, 2012 11:17 PM

    You think so? Let's see whose career takes off first after this film. Crichlow is the bigger name because of her Tv work; but this clearly a "team" film in every sense.

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