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"‘Talent Drain’ Warning As Black [British] Actors Head To The US"

by Tambay A. Obenson
June 16, 2011 9:33 AM
20 Comments
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TV and theatre is suffering from a talent drain of black British actors, with many looking to the US for work because of the lack of opportunities in the UK, leading figures have warned. High-profile performers... have warned that home-grown stars are leaving the country due to its failure to fully embrace multicultural casting. They argue the UK does not offer enough lead roles to black performers or commission programmes reflecting the diversity of life in Britain today. By contrast, the US is considered more inclusive in its casting and as somewhere black actors can better progress their careers.

Nothing terribly new, but still an interesting read from UK magazine, The Stage, posted on their website earlier today. And you thought black actors here in the USA had it rough! I can only laugh to keep from crying when I read lines like the last one above, painting the American studio-dominated, short-sighted, lily-white system as more progressive in terms of its "color casting considerations."

Things must be damn effing bad for black actors across the pond.

Feel free to read the entire piece HERE.

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20 Comments

  • GG | October 28, 2011 2:05 AMReply

    I've only just stumbled onto this article so not sure if it is still live. I felt I needed to clarify a few things from someone who is in the acting industry.
    Firstly, the US studios and casting in general are progressive for the simple reason that in the US, there is a better union for actors. There is also a very strong union for ethnic minorities called the NAACP. What you may not know is that whenever pilot season comes around (where new shows are created), all the studios have to run their scripts by the NAACP who has to give them a greenlight. If a show has a lack of ethnic actors, the NAACP will step in and demand rewrites. Secondly, the US casting system is blind - by this I mean that it is illegal for them to specify race or age when submitting a role, unless it is, of course, race specific such as The Cosby Show, or the majority of Tyler Perry movies.
    To AccidentalVisitor who mentions Luther - did you know that Idris executive produced the show? As such, he would have obviously given himself the lead. Now the real question is, if he hadn't put in his own money, would the BBC have cast him in the lead? I'll leave that for you to mull over but think about the previous BBC series Baby Father which was cancelled because the BBC didn't "understand" the show. I also want to share another anecdote about the BBC. Recently, I went to a BBC reading of a new show based around the communities living in Brixton. It was a diverse cast with the majority reading in a Jamaican or Nigerian accent. This was read in front of the head of the BBC who chose not to commission the show. He then later commented: "what is that funny accent? It's not the accent I hear when I drive past". You make of that what you will.
    As for Shadowline, well it wasn't a BBC Production. It was produced by an outside production company that then went on to sell it to the BBC. If the BBC hadn't bought it, they would have approached other channels.
    What the public in the UK don't seem to understand is that there is much more work to be had over the in the States. The competition might be bigger but there is more work to go around - just look at the number of studios and channels they have and think that each channel needs to have their own shows. What also needs to be remembered is that all the shows don't always come our way. So it might seem like an actor hasn't done much work, but all you have to do is tune into the US websites or even just go to IMDB.com, and you'll be surprised by actually how much work these actors have done. Only the international blockbusters with mega budgets will come this way, but the majority of things don't. Marianne Jean-Baptiste has had a wealth of work in the States before the only thing that travelled internationally was Without A Trace, and this was a few good years AFTER it started in the US. Same with The Wire, same with Jericho (Lennie James).
    To Terryaki, actors do create their own work which obviously by your comment you weren't aware of. Marianne writes music for films, Lennie writes, Idris DJs. As for the other actors that I know living in London trying to break into the industry, they are creating their work but can't put them up because it's expensive. Even the most horrible fringe pub venue will cost you £1000 a week to put up something. And I feel by your comment that you think actors to just be lazy whingers. Let me ask you whether you would be willing to work from 6am to 10pm 6 days a week for 3 months on low pay? I ask because people are always under the impression that we do this for the fame. I've done those hours for a BBC co-production living on Red Bull during the whole time and that was the best time I've ever had because I was doing something I love. A film director friend of mine confessed that he wouldn't have done it.
    Countless actors out there are willingly being exploited because they love acting pure and simple. The majority of productions in London, non West End, are profit-share - which means no pay. We are asked to rehearse for 3 weeks, then perform for 3 weeks - on NO PAY. But we do it because we love acting. Would you give up a month's worth of salary to do something you love to do?
    What probably needs to be clarified is that ethnic actors in the UK are only demanding that they can call themselves working actors, ie get a wage to live and work. I've stopped calling myself an actress a long time ago as the majority of my time is spent behind a desk in a survival job. I'm lucky if I get an audition a month.
    So don't mistake the search for work with the search for fame. Fame is a byproduct of good work. What we are only asking for is to be able to do what we love to do, and that is act.

  • terryaki | July 3, 2011 5:19 AMReply

    dear concerned citizens,
    i have an idea....make you own movies and stage your plays ......do not compare yourselves o the holllywwod machine you can act with it... o you really wnt to act or make money? if you want to make money get a real job!! if you rely want to act take what you get and shut the !@### up....else! MAKE YOUR OWN MOVIES!! AND STAGE YOUR OWN PLAYS ya big babies!!

  • sue campbell | February 11, 2013 5:08 PM

    Terryaki you sound very ignorant. Actually there are MANY blacks that write there OWN movies and stage plays (you think Tyler Perry was the first? He sure won't be the last). As mentioned above producing a show is VERY expensive so most projects NEED a major studio backing to go real big. Major studios cater to white directors, screenwriters, actors, etc. When there is a VERY LARGE NON WHITE population in this nation. So no one is being a baby, they just want the same opportunities to share there gift and do what they love.

  • AccidentalVisitor | June 18, 2011 2:14 AMReply

    This is idiotic. Just look at the photos of the thespians used in this writeup/link. Are any of THOSE actors getting much work in the USA? No. Just because a few black Brits have gotten some run over here doesn't mean the situation in America is better. At least not on TV. Luther and Shadow Line are both original TV dramas starring black leads. We don't get that in America unless someone like Laurence Fishburne "inherits" a successful show like "CSI".

    Oh, wait. I forgot about Hawthorne. Nevermind I guess.

  • Masha Dowell | June 18, 2011 1:57 AMReply

    Its an open field. The best will get to where they are going. Whether its America or anywhere else. Through all of the films that are made day after day, film after film. There's still room for more talent. Whether it be made via commercial mediums, digital mediums, or theatrical mediums.

    We should stop comparing and encourage great storytelling via acting no matter where the person of African decent comes from. Challenge is good. I'm an American black actor, and if a British black beat me out for jobs in my own country... I need to step my acting game up. Learn from them. Now if I beat them out for a job, they need to learn from me.

    I believe this is a good thing for black actors, and it can only allow us all to become better artists.

    This is just my two cents.

  • CareyCarey | June 17, 2011 12:09 PMReply

    Spare the rod and spoil the child... where is my big black belt?

    Here it is. There is a negative stigma attached to black Americans and white Americans as well, much of it rightfully earned. I don’t know which of you have been to foreign countries, but in many parts of the world we are not the most loved individuals. When I say “we” I am first speaking of Americans. Much of that scorn, again, is the product of how we treat others in their own country. We are rude, shake up their economy and abuse their citizens, many times, in very degrading ways. Money is one of the tools in which we use to control and abuse. I’ve seen it first hand on many occasions., and it can be quite embarrassing.

    Now, put “black” in front of the word “American” and then we have another set of problems. It goes without question that many black American have gone out of their way to emulate all the qualities of the founding fathers of America. Yep, that’s true, the trite phrase has landed; the good, the bad, and the horribly ugly. So there we have it; the ugly Black American. I know, tuff titty - huh?! That image is compounded by truth (in many cases) and the fact that white America controls the media. But on another truthful note, the white man knows the monster he has created, because in a very real way, he is his son. Do I have to explain why that’s true? Well, a simple example can be found in our names.

    In short, who hasn’t heard the preaching’s... “do as I say do, not as I do”? But of course, unfortunately humans always learn a wee bit better from examples, not words. So here we are questioning why British actors are being received with open arms. Well, having said all the above, I have to add my personal belief that they are better trained and more skilled at what they do than most black American actors.

    A swaging, loud, bold and proud person, is the image of the usurpers called Americans. Some call them destructive and very manipulative. Now add black in front of “American” and what do you see?

  • Geneva Girl | June 17, 2011 10:03 AMReply

    You can see a lot of black folks on British TV on Cbeebies, the BBC's little kids channel. (Thank goodness my munchkin outgrew that.) I figured that Cbeebies didn't pay very well which is why there are a lot of actors of color starring in shows there. (I swear that there's some subversive stuff going down on the show Story Makers.)

    I have been curious about the phenomenon of black Brits being hired to play Americans. I'm not begrudging talented actors and actresses, but I'm curious if Hollywood directors are more anxious to hire foreigners because they're deemed as easier to work with, have cute accents when not in character or whatever reason a director can think of. With all of the talented actors in the States, they had to hire a black Brit to play a Southern preacher in The Help?

  • Melissa | June 17, 2011 8:00 AMReply

    I see more bw/wm than bm/anything on TV in UK, Europe and States, and I have lived in all three.

    Same with African television when they decide to go there.

  • cruz777 | June 17, 2011 5:47 AMReply

    it's worse for black actors and other actors of colour in Canada, even when they chose to hire Canucks for U.S. shows filmed in Canada

  • Kia | June 17, 2011 4:57 AMReply

    Training and dedication is key. American actors go to William Esper Studio and call it day. I'm sorry, that's not cutting it... theater is the way to go. It's the best training. Live, raw and in your face. Most of the UK talent embodies that well. They're character actors, which is why they can be seen in so many types of films. Now, there are quite an impressive number of actor/actresses on our end that can hold they're own and understand the notion of "flexibility".

  • starfishncoffee | June 17, 2011 4:30 AMReply

    The other thing to take into consideration is that this is part of a larger phenomenon. There are a lot of white British actors on US television and movies as well. A lot more than you'd expect. Australians, Irish, too. Once they get even small successes over there, they come to NYC and LA.

    I think a point that @CareyCarey makes about training is one that has come up in this conversation. Yes, there are many Black actors who deserve a chance, but if you look at the resumes of many of the Black Brit actors getting work in the US they have extensive stage backgrounds some, like Gugu Mbatha-Raw for instance trained at RADA, BTW, I just realized that Gugu is is Tom Hanks' Larry Crowne. I didn't recognize her at first in the previews. This is often the case for white actors as well. When it comes time for a multi-dimensional role, it seems that directors and producers are looking to many of these actors.

    I think the turn towards non-Americans in many of the new Superhero films that have more complicated and multi-layered dark plots is a sign of this.

    I'm not saying there aren't Julliard and other drama school trained US actors, but overall, the skill level of US actors doesn't lead to much in the way of flexibility. I don't think it's really necessarily that directors and producers are swayed by accents. Also, at many acting schools, actors are trained in varied accents, which is why Idris, Thandie, Chiwitel, Gugu, Naomie, etc do so well over here.

    Frankly, although there are some rappers who can act, many of them are limited and if Hollywood keeps thinking they are their only options for Black actors in the US, this is going to continue to be a phenomenon.

    I myself tend to watch a lot of UK scifi and drama, and have noticed the lack of Black women, although I am glad to see Freema Agyeman on Law & Order: UK and she was the first Black companion on Doctor Who (although not treated as she should have been but that's a whole other blog post) the aforementioned Lenora Crichlow on Being Human UK , Angel Coulby on Merlin. The pairing of Black men with non-Black women is something I have noticed although the converse is also true, for example in all of those shows. I think those have all been bolder choices for Black women's casting than I've seen in the US in a very long time, and all of those parts are pivotal to those series. For instance, Crichlow's Annie, is the heart of BH in the UK, while her counterpart in the US version was turned into mere background fodder. I find that interesting and not at all surprising.

    Anyway, I wonder how many different factors are at play here and also if this signals a more international rather than national entertainment scene.

  • etomi | June 17, 2011 4:30 AMReply

    Darkan:
    (Forgive me for diverging from the topic...)
    Many of the sistahs I know have said the same thing. I didn't want to go there, but dangggggg... Another question is: Can't the stylists who dress them find clothing that actually fits the three lead actresses? They look like they were sewn into their outfits. Not that they don't have great figures...their bodies are FIERCE! But clothing that tight is NOT professional. (Aren't these women supposed to be running a high end business?) Dresses that tight aren't even attractive, especially on middle-aged women.* Too much hair, too much make-up, too little common sense, and much too little personal responsibility. (That could well be the definition of the "W" word.)

    And then the story line...You say, "What story line?", and I reply: "That's my point."
    _________________etomi_________________________
    *Stacey Dash, 45 (unbelievable!!!!!)
    *LisaRaye, 45
    Charity Shea, 27 (They could be her mother!!!!!!!)

  • Darkan | June 16, 2011 12:20 PMReply

    @ Etomi, I've officially retitled the show of "Single Ladies" into "Single Whores". Just my opinion.

  • etomi | June 16, 2011 11:39 AMReply

    I dunno but there are a few instances I know of that demonstrate interesting diversity in the UK: Guinevere in the series "Merlin" is a black woman. Yep -- that's right. Other than this, I have seen good old Gwen portrayed only by the palest, most blonde actresses ever. Also, in the series "Being Human", the female lead (the ghost) is, also, a black woman, who is also the host of BBC America's "The Tudors". While these are only two examples (and might be the only), they are, also, striking examples of rather "color blind" casting.

    One thing that may be taken into account in the situation discussed in the article is that we have many more TV stations here than the UK does there, so there is the potential for more opportunities for black actors/actresses here. Note: I said "potential". Potential means nothing if there is no follow through. Yanno?

    Does quantity (employment of Afram actors/actresses) mean that quality must most times suffer? I don't blame the performers; jobs are hard to come by EVERYwhere, and folks got to eat. But damn!!! (This isn't just a statement about the state of black entertainment on TV, so don't get me wrong. TV is a wasteland for ANY kind of creative material. It is for just this reason that the networks are now top and middle heavy with reality TV shows. MOST programming, network and cable, is in the reality genre.)

    A little off the topic, but: does anyone here have an opinion about the new show "Single Ladies"?

  • Darkan | June 16, 2011 11:12 AMReply

    I firmly don't believe that and think it's hogwash. British actors come to the states because studios and agencies welcome them and are "impressed" by how they drop their accents and are so "disciplined" in their craft. They come to the states to up their presence around the globe because being in American films increase their status. If the case is a lack of work then they should take an example from Noel Clarke who has been paving his way in UK and Europe without needing American support or taking jobs from young up and coming black American talent who can do a better job and suffer when beat out by British and European black skinned talent because of their high powered agents and managers. It's Bull!!!

  • Duncan MaNutz | June 16, 2011 11:02 AMReply

    Awesome....

  • JMac | June 16, 2011 10:53 AMReply

    Well this is odd. A few weeks back I clicked on a link from another blog that went to some white Brit's blog where he was lamenting about the multicultural trend in entertainment. Why does it seem obligatory to have a black, indian, asian, etc character in film and tv shows? Why can't there just be all white shows? Major complaints against Harry Potter and Thor. From all the supportive comments on that man's blog you'd think POC actors were "all up in your face" over there. Definitely things that make you go hmmm.

  • Shaun | June 16, 2011 10:22 AMReply

    @eshowoman-the only one I can think of is from the show, Misfits. Alisha was with Curtis, the black guy before she started seeing Simon. Curtis started going out with Nikki after Alisha.

    It is really sad that black actors from the UK is looking for work in the US. Considering the state black US actor not really getting work and if they do get work, it is nothing special.

  • eshowoman, the cranky film critic | June 16, 2011 9:56 AMReply

    To hear Black British praise the sad state of American representation, it must mean it is truly pitiful in the U.K.! Especially if you are a black actress, who are invisible in British film and TV. Black male leads always have white or Asian love interests. The only black couple I can think of lately is the last episode of David Tenant's Doctor Who when the married Micky Tyler & Martha Jones were seen fighting off aliens. If anyone has any other examples? I would love to hear about them?

  • Orville | June 16, 2011 9:49 AMReply

    I can see why black British actors are trying to get work in the USA. A lot of these black British actors are hungry for success and very driven. Naomie Harris and Idris Elba are doing really well in the USA. I watch a lot of UK television shows like Emmerdale, Coronation Street, Hollyoaks and there are hardly any people of colour on those shows. It is strange though, to watch British television and hardly see any people of colour even though the UK is very multicultural.

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