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Are Black Actors In The U.K. (And Elsewhere) Magically Hiding Themselves In Plain Sight?

by Emmanuel Akitobi
October 13, 2011 1:01 AM
11 Comments
  • |

"The casting in Fresh Meat is ­brilliant. Where has Zawe Ashton who plays Vod been hiding all these years?"

This is the opening line of a post on Channel 4's new university-set comedy Fresh Meat that I came across yesterday in the TV section at www.mirror.co.uk.

"Where has she been hiding?!!" I believe the correct question should be, "Where have they been looking?" Because just here at Shadow and Act, Zawe Ashton's work has been recognized on several different occasions this year alone (HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE).

I can't help but wonder if black actors are somehow becoming selectively invisible in the eyes of those who are paid to watch them perform. I mean, I know we're a naturally talented people; but are we supernaturally talented enough to hide ourselves in plain sight?!! And from only certain viewers?!!

Or are black actors in the U.K. (and across the globe, for that matter) being ignored? That's likely the case, seeing how many of these actors enjoy eating food and having shelter. And that whole invisibility thing would just defeat the purpose, I think.

But if these actors are, indeed, turning themselves invisible for some reason, they haven't always had this Misfit-esque ability.

In June of this year, Ashton told The Daily Mail that "she stood out at school for two main reasons. One was because she had been acting since the age of six and her peers were seeing her on TV throughout her education – everything from Jackanory through to The Demon Headmaster."

"That was hard," Ashton recalled. "People think you reckon you’re something special. I will never forget walking across this deserted playground – I’d been on television the previous day – and this girl shouted, “Some people just can’t f***ing act.” When you’re 13 at a new school that’s like a dagger. I had people wanting to beat me up at the back gates."

Ashton's schoolmates obviously noticed her. I wonder why she didn't just hide from them the same way she's been hiding from U.K. television critics?

But, seriously though, I know that the whole "where has Zawe Ashton been hiding" statement was only a figure of speech. And I also know that my criticism of that sentiment doesn't apply to the U.K. media as a whole, because Zawe Ashton has obviously received some press coverage in her home country. But, for me, it really puts the "U.K.-black actor-exodus" phenomenon in a brighter and clearer perspective. True, this particular example represents the feelings of one writer. But a simple IMDb search would have informed that writer that Zawe Ashton didn't just drop out of the sky. She hasn't suddenly chosen to magically reveal herself. And, no, she hasn't been hiding. She's been right there; grinding it out with other black actors, likely battling for the same roles. I guess the writer didn't feel that Ashton was worth the effort of a little background research. I wonder how many others, who are in positions to recognize talent and alter careers, just don't make the effort?

Obviously, the situation here in the U.S. is not that much different than the U.K.'s. And I know the issue has been discussed and argued about ad nauseum in American media. But I can definitely understand the level of frustration that would lead an actor to pack up his/her entire life and try their luck elsewhere.

So far, Zawe Ashton hasn't had to resort to such drastic measures. And let's hope that, with the early success of her new show, those who didn't, finally do see her, so she never has to.

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11 Comments

  • danielle | October 15, 2011 3:06 AMReply

    I do have to disagree about Angel Coulby... Gwen is not a major character. The show is called Merlin, and I hate to admit... she is the girlfriend. Morgana was a sideline player until she went bad. She shines in every scence. she has been wonderful about everything. She has constant interviews and promotions. Julian Murphy, Anthony Stewart Head, and Julian Jones ALWAYS rave about her.

  • VoR | October 13, 2011 8:49 AMReply

    No matter how much some commenters want to see it as a case of racism and other horrible things it simply isn't true that Bend it like Beckham made Keira Knightley a big star while Parminder Nagra was ignored.
    On the contrary, it got Parminder a part in 129 episodes of one of the most successful TV drama series ever.

    Knightley's breakthrough came with the completely unexpected success of a movie based on a Disney theme park ride in which she played the damsel in distress. That's what made her more famous - it had nothing to do with Bend it like Beckham.

  • Betty Chambers | October 13, 2011 8:10 AMReply

    They seem to follow the same color bias trend here with half-white bi-racial women as black, and extremely dark skinned men as black. I never see the opposite. With black actors, I rarely see dark chocolate women and half-white bi-racial men; or cast as a couple either.

    Oh well.

  • Zawe | October 13, 2011 7:40 AMReply

    Emmanuel. It's Zawe Ashton here. I am beyond moved by this piece. PLEASE email me as soon as you can. Thank you for articulating something I have felt but never had the words to express. You have done this intelligently and without bias or blame. You raise the questions in the hope they will be answered or at least shine some light on why an answer doesn't already exist. X

  • Natalie | October 13, 2011 7:04 AMReply

    @Afrostyling, completely understand the dynamics behind the promotional activity in regards to Coulby, it doesn't surprise me that it's a result of the reaction of certain fans in relation to her portrayal of Gwen.

    It kind of reminds me of the furore in Supernatural of the young black actress who played the former girlfriend of Dean, the one who was possibly the 'one', we never heard any reference to the character again, despite the fact that episode implied she meant quite a bit to Dean, the fan reaction to that relationship was less than savoury as far as I remember too.

    Keira Knightley's continued employment continues to perplex me but there you go.

  • Afrostyling | October 13, 2011 5:33 AMReply

    @ Natalie
    Yes! I never understood why Knightly went on to be such a star while Parminder was relegated to ER. I love Merlin, even though i have to wait till after it airs in the UK to watch it online but Gwen's character has suddenly become one-dimensional. I hope they do better by her this season.

    Angel Coulby as Gwen is very tricky. All the young white men on that show are in love with her, making sacrifices to make her happy and that is not something you see all the time in the media. Merlin fandom are not especially fans of that. Just go on tumblr and read all the comments made about her. They hate the idea so much, some of them even "ship" Arthur with his half sister Morgana or with Merlin himself.

    We all know how the legend ends. Gwen will become Queen of Camelot. But making her center stage in the promotion of the show can hurt their ratings.

  • Natalie | October 13, 2011 5:06 AMReply

    Forget to add that Zawe Ashton, along with the Scottish actor who plays the older grad student are the best things on Fresh Meat

  • Natalie | October 13, 2011 5:03 AMReply

    In the film Bend it Like Beckham Parminder Nagra acted the screen off Keira Knightley and yet it was Knightley who went on to become the global movie star.

    There is a family show on the air at the moment 'Merlin' based on the Arthurian legends where Guinevere is played by a black actress Angel Coulby, and yet not only is her character poorly developed she is completely sidelined in promotions for teh show, compared to the other main female protagonist on the show Coulby has more talent in her pinky then Katie McGrath can ever hope to have in two lifetimes, yet she has more projects checking on IMDB.

    In the UK there is superiority complex that people have in regards to race relations especially when we like compare ourselves to the US we like to give are selves a pat on the back, the simple truth is the right things are said, and ummed and ahhed but there is a long way to go to even the playing field for black actors (anyone remember the Midsomer Murders debacle?).

  • afrostyling | October 13, 2011 4:14 AMReply

    Because the default is White. Got a new role to cast? You go for a WHITE actor first. Unless you are Halle Berry, Denzel, or Will Smith, you almost basically dont exist.
    This can be applied to Taraji's situation too. She was nominated for an academy award but was put on the sidelines in the promotion process and it became about 2 White guys. Before The Help, there was no way in hell Viola Davis would have landed the cover of any mainstream magazine but because she was part of the main cast, which included Emma Stone, she got on the cover of EW.

    Hollywood doesn't care to know about Black actors. That's why they recycle the same ones over and over again instead of giving opportunities. Hell, i know some white folks who have NO IDEA who Gabrielle Union is.

  • J Emerson McGowan | October 13, 2011 4:06 AMReply

    HERE, HERE!! As a black male senior actor I have noted the feeling/sentiment all too well. And unfortunately have seen it within my own ethnic groups. Hiding in plain sight ... amazing!

  • ForeignBlackChick | October 13, 2011 3:56 AMReply

    Emmanuel, thank you for expounding my thoughts on what white critics say sometimes 'where has he/she been all this time' with regards to black actors and actresses.

    I remember recently reading reviews of The Best Man(1999) which you can still find, and the critics were saying, "It seems Hollywood's bowl of beautiful black actors and actresses is endless" seriously?! 'it seems?'

    And as for 'For Colored Girls' while most critics panned it, they said things like, "It's a pity there are so many amazing unknown black actresses" referring to Kerry Washington, Anika Noni Rose, Thandie Newton etc...

    I don't know how many times I rolled my eyes because those sentences smack of selective research. these are movie critics for chrissakes! :)

    Why would there not be black actors or actresses? And even if so, why act surprised? I emphasise the word 'act', as if these actors hide themselves?
    It's as if they are trying o excuse the very obvious racism in British TV and Hollywood.

    I totally get you Emmanuel. Thanks.

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