‘Get Out’s’ Kaluuya responds to Samuel L. Jackson’s comments about black British actors
Is American protectionism really the answer? Or does it just create more division?
Who gets to play American black people on-screen? And who should?
They don’t necessarily have to be American, if you ask Daniel Kaluuya, the London-born son of Ugandan parents who emigrated to England. You probably know Kaluuya as the star of Get Out, director Jordan Peele’s excellent horror-thriller. Peele’s wildly successful film is now the first debut from a black director to cross the $100 million mark in earnings. But a question, first introduced by Samuel L. Jackson in a recent interview with New York’s Hot 97 radio station, now lingers over the film, and Kaluuya’s part in it.
“There are a lot of black British actors in these movies,” Jackson said, also stating that people have been dating interracially in Britain “for 100 years.” “I tend to wonder what Get Out would have been with an American brother who really feels that.”
Kaluuya answered with a lengthy response in an interview with GQ.
“If you live in the Western world, it’s not hard,” Kaluuya said of encountering racism. “I go into a f—ing shop and I’m followed by a security guard. Since I was 12. I don’t have to look for it. It finds me. Even all of these interviews I’m doing! A bunch of people going, ‘What’s it like for a black actor?’ That’s some racist s—! And a really weird f—ing question. But because that’s common, people are desensitized to it. Sometimes I hear at an audition that they’re trying to go ‘ethnic.’ You’re getting singled out for the color of your skin, but not the content of your spirit, and that’s everywhere. That’s my whole life, being seen as ‘other.’ Not fitting in, in Uganda, not Britain, not America. They just highlight whatever feature they want.”
John Boyega, the star of the new Star Wars films, and a native of the London neighborhood of Peckham, took issue with Jackson’s words as well, tweeting, “Black brits vs African American. A stupid a– conflict we don’t have time for.” The actor also retweeted another message directed at Jackson. “Mr @SamuelLJackson emancipate yourself from mental slavery my brother,” the user said.
Jackson has since walked his comments back in an interview with the Associated Press at the premiere of his new film, Kong: Skull Island.
“It was not a slam against them, but it was just a comment about how Hollywood works in an interesting sort of way sometimes,” Jackson said.
“Big up Samuel L. Jackson, because here’s a guy who has broken down doors,” Kaluuya said, also in GQ. “He has done a lot so that we can do what we can do. Here’s the thing about that critique, though. I’m dark-skinned, bro. When I’m around black people I’m made to feel ‘other’ because I’m dark-skinned. I’ve had to wrestle with that, with people going, ‘You’re too black.’ Then I come to America and they say, ‘You’re not black enough.’ I go to Uganda, I can’t speak the language. In India, I’m black. In the black community, I’m dark-skinned. In America, I’m British. Bro!”
My colleague Kelley L. Carter wrote a comprehensive article outlining the issues facing black actors, both American and foreign, a couple of years ago. But Jackson’s comments have brought the issue to the fore once again. Not much has changed, really. Black British actors are still seeking jobs in the U.S. because work for them is limited in the U.K., and black actors in the U.S. still face a stiffer climb up the Hollywood success ladder than their white counterparts, particularly when it comes to lead roles. Everyone is squeezed.
If we’re being generous, we can assume that Jackson meant that white power brokers in Hollywood choose black actors such as Chiwetel Ejiofor, Naomie Harris, Idris Elba, Thandie Newton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, or Boyega because they lack the racial “baggage” American-born actors possess when it comes to race, or because British actors enjoy an assumption that they’re better trained than their American counterparts.
But while Kaluuya may not have the specific experience of being the descendant of enslaved Africans brought to America, the vestiges of British imperialism lurk all over the world. He’s clearly has experiences with racism, and in talking to GQ, expressed his frustration that still doesn’t seem to be enough to clear a rather arbitrary bar. And at the end of the day, Peele is black and biracial, and he chose Kaluuya. Of the many reviews and think pieces Get Out has rightly inspired, I’ve yet to see anyone say Kaluuya’s performance struck them as disingenuous or somehow un-American.
If there’s anyone who might be deserving of such a critique, you could lob it at Alfred Enoch for his performance in the first season of How To Get Away With Murder. While his accent was passable, he still possessed some of the same mannerisms and affectations that made him indistinguishable from a slightly more mature Dean Thomas from the Harry Potter movies.
But do we really want to say that’s enough to preclude him from playing American characters at all? At its essence, this is an argument over immigrants “stealing” American jobs and making work scarce for those who happen to be blessed with American citizenship. Just as that argument falls apart when it comes to tomato-picking, I don’t think it holds up well in this scenario, either. In both cases, well, at least until Jackson clarified his words a bit, the ire seems more directed at labor (in this case, British actors, many of whom hold membership in the Screen Actors Guild) than at those farther up the decision-making ladder who control hiring decisions.
It’s encouraging to see black British directors such as Just a Couple’s Sebastian Thiel finding opportunities to break in with the BBC. Just a Couple is Thiel’s web series about a young black couple in London starring Frieda Thiel and Michael Salami. Sebastian Thiel first developed the series himself through his Upshot Entertainment production company. New episodes are now airing weekly on BBC3’s YouTube channel.
But it’s going to take a lot more Sebastian Thiels and Michaela Coel, afforded opportunities to tell more stories about black people in Britain, both on film and in television, to alleviate the problem of underrepresentation in Britain.
Is American protectionism really the answer to that problem? Or does it just create more division?