Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Black British actors are amongst the best in the world - why isn't this fact being wildly celebrated?

The other evening, in sheer desperation, I found myself watching a 23-year old episode of Inspector Morse. The soporific pace - glacial, even by the standards of the day – now seems vaguely comic. John Thaw’s portrayal of novelist Colin Dexter’s main character – oddly lovable in the books - always struck me as unconvincing: his drawly “educated” accent is all over the place, the angst is severely overdone (if you’re of a melancholic disposition, hanging around in your flat listening to lachrymose operas and drinking Scotch probably isn’t sensible), and the mixture of left-wingery and intellectual snobbishness is always deeply unattractive. The two spin-off series – Lewis and Endeavour – are much better, thanks to Laurence Fox as the laconic, sardonic DS Hathaway in the former and Shaun Evans as the young Morse in the latter. The 1992 episode of Morse I watched on Monday made watching paint dry seem an enticing alternative. But what was truly surprising about it was that the two actors playing the parents of a young black man who commits suicide were dreadful.

The father overacted like billy-oh, while the mother delivered each line as if reading it from the script for the very first time: every inflection was wrong. As for her facial expressions, you could almost hear the thinking process preceding each one – “I am supposed to be surprised here – this is my surprised expression.” It was painful to watch. And it reminded me that monumentally lousy black acting used to be fairly common in British television dramas. Nowadays, of course, it’s all very different: black British actors are amongst the finest exponents of their craft – in fact, they’re so good, they’ve been appearing regularly on American TV and in Hollywood films ever since Thandie Newton began appearing regularly in them, and Idris Elba played Stringer Bell in The Wire, a trend which culminated in Chiwetel Ejiofor winning the best actor Oscar last year. (In some ways, Britain is ahead of the game. American productions tend to cast British blacks in specifically black roles, whereas for several years now, black actors have been cast as the leads in British TV drama series with no reference to their ethnicity – they’ve been hired because of their talent rather than on the basis of their skin colour.)

Naturally, left-liberal grievance-mongers – and, sadly, many of the actors who’ve conquered America – have used their success to lambast the British TV and film industries (and the country in general) for not creating enough roles for black actors. This, of course, is nonsense. Is the very white Jonny Lee Miller starring as a contemporary New-York-based Sherlock Holmes in the entertaining US series Elementary because there aren’t enough white middle-class character roles available in this country? Has the Australian actor Simon Baker been playing the lead role in hit US series The Mentalist for seven years because Australian TV is prejudiced against white Australian actors? The answer – obviously – is no. It’s just that the American film and TV industries are vast, so there’s vastly more work to be had, and producers there appreciate the talent and professionalism and (one suspects) the relative cheapness of Anglophone actors – they couldn’t care less where they come from as long as they look and sound right, and audiences like them, which they evidently do.

As for the availability of roles for black actors in Amercian dramas, that’s simple - African-Americans account for 12.6% of the US population, while in the UK blacks make up just 3.1% of the population. (The next time Lenny Henry bashes BBC Director-General Tony Hall’s ear about the under-representation of blacks at the corporation, I hope Lord Hall points out that fewer than one in 30 Britons is actually, you know, black. It's an easy thing to lose sight of if you live in London)

From what black actors themselves say, it seems that a British theatre background helps in the US. This from Noami Harris (Skyfall, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom) in a recent Buzzfeed article (here):
“I think people recognize with British actors that they do a lot of training, and I think people really respect that a lot of them have gone to places like Rose Bruford [College]. I went to the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and trained for two years. They respect that we generally start off in theater and have a theater background. Film producers really like that.”
Ava DuVernay, the black American director of Selma, agrees:
“I think there’s something about the stage, because they have that stage preparation… Their work is really steeped in theater. Our system of creating actors is a lot more commercial. … there’s a depth in the character building that’s really wonderful.”
So natural talent and the excellent training available to British thespians of all ethnicities accounts for their extraordinary international success, and, with black actors, demographics suggest there are inevitably more roles available to them in the US.

Only in a country in thrall to the values propagated by the BBC, the Guardian, the Labour Party, and the ruling Cameroonian element of the Conservative Party would the success of black British actors in America be used as an excuse for self-criticism. Left-liberals spend a lot of time trying to dream up excuses for relative black failure – having already decided that the conclusion is white racism. Maybe it’s time they started looking at those areas of our national life where blacks are excelling, figure out why, and try to apply the same practices to those fields in which they’re not doing so well. It’s interesting to note that acting is a fiercely competitive, meritocratic, commercially-driven profession where success almost invariably depends on natural talent, training and determination: positive discrimination simply won’t wash, because the audience would smell it a mile off – and yet blacks are consistently belting it out of the ground. Perhaps if their left-liberal plantation bosses would stop “helping” them, they’d be a lot better off generally.

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