When a legend speaks, you’re supposed to listen.
Samuel L Jackson is a Hollywood icon who created long lasting memories on the big screen through films such as Pulp Fiction, King Kong, Star Wars and Snakes On A Plane – there are too many classics to list. I still have memories watching Snakes On A Plane (at a much younger age than I should have) and being captivated by his acting skills or watching Django Unchained and being physically filled with rage by the coonery of his character; memes may come to mind when the word ‘Massa’ is mentioned but he was long cemented in popular culture before the Django role. Interestingly, some Twitter users have argued this week that the role may have gotten to his head a little bit too much after his latest statements criticising black british actors for taking roles in films from African American actors.
Hollywood has long had a diversity problem and despite the status quo being challenged after the infamous #OscarSoWhite campaign last year, there still needs to be more work done to ensure there is representation; race should never be a barrier to talent. Some iconic moments came last week when Moonlight won the Oscar for the Best Picture and Viola Davis won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in ‘Fences’. Witnessing the stories of these black actors and appreciating their humble backgrounds is totally inspiring especially at a time when it seems like diversity may not be on the agenda in the sphere of Politics considering recent election results. Well, at least it still can be in the arts. Viola Davis spoke in her interview with People Magazine about how: ‘I was the kind of poor where I knew right away I had less than everyone around me.’ Hearing the boundaries that many black actors had to break before being able to even compete on the same level as many of their white counterparts, who may have been of more privileged backgrounds, highlights why it is so important that many black actors are finally getting the recognition they deserve.
Why now Uncle Sam?
This is why the timing of Samuel L Jackson’s comments seemed so strange; a time when we are fighting a crucial battle for equality and many higher ups are more than ready to continue dismissing the problem of diversity. An outspoken man, it was odd for him to talk about the black British issue when we are pushing for diversity as a whole in Hollywood – the in house fighting serves as such a distraction. What was particularly incendiary were his comments about African American actors feeling racism in a different way to black British actors. For example, he highlighted how different it would have been if an African American actor portrayed Selma instead of British Actor David Oyelowo in the film Selma. There is a deep irony here. The whole point of being a good actor is the ability to portray roles that are different to who you are off screen so powerfully that people can believe that people can’t distinguish between the real you and your character. Some actors go to extreme lengths to do this and in the case of Heath Ledger who portrayed the joker in The Dark Knight, became deadly.
Samuel L Jackson also alluded to how it is cheaper to hire black British actors rather than American ones. Samuel L Jackson’s comments weren’t necessarily wrong and coming from an experienced Hollywood actor, he is in a very good position to make these observation; however, they do come across as quite ignorant and take away from the merit of British actors who seek opportunities in the US because of the lack of representation in the UK. Let’s be honest, Black British actors are very talented, US audiences are often surprised when they find out that one of their favourite actors is British having nailed their role as an African American e.g. Idris Elba in ‘American Gangsta.’
'Star Wars' To Star Wars
In response to the interview, a much younger British Star Wars actor John Boyega responded by tweeting: ‘Black Brits vs African American. A stupid ass conflict we don’t have time for.’ The length of the tweet perhaps didn’t convey the wider point that there are much bigger things that we need to be worrying about. One interesting comparison made was that this debate between US vs British black actors is like domestic workers complaining about immigrants driving wage rates down without pinning any responsibility on companies for paying workers less – you’re letting the people with the real power off the hook. It’s a good point. Casting directors need to be blamed for not offering enough roles to black actors to the point that African American actors need to be paranoid about the influx of British talent. Ultimately the fight for diversity continues but change; it’s coming.
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