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article imageHollywood 'exile' for black actors worries British government

By Beatrice Debut (AFP)     Feb 24, 2014 in World

Black British actors have been taking Hollywood by storm, with Chiwetel Ejiofor's Oscar nomination for "12 Years a Slave" just the latest example, but at home they still face a lack of roles that has driven some from the country.

The British government is now making efforts to change a situation that has seen the loss of major talents such as David Harewood, famed for his role in the CIA drama "Homeland", David Oyelowo, who starred in the film "The Butler", and Idris Elba, who shot to fame in the cop series "The Wire".

"The media are still interested in ghettoising the presentation of ethnic minority groups within the UK", Femi Oguns, head of the London-based Identity Drama School & Agency Group, which promotes young black talent, told AFP.

He said the civil rights movement in the United States had allowed Black Americans to "force change" but that in Britain "we have adopted a more passive approach".

Oguns added that in British acting school there were quotas but that they led to only around two ethnic minority actors in a group of 30.

Idris Elba attends the Weinstein Company's 2014 Golden Globe Awards after party on January 12  ...
Idris Elba attends the Weinstein Company's 2014 Golden Globe Awards after party on January 12, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California
Tommaso Boddi, Getty/AFP/File

The artistic exile that many black British actors now find themselves forced into is a setback for the cause of equal rights, actors say.

"It's hilarious really: we still cannot get through glass ceilings to save our lives back at home. But here we are natural Oscar contenders," said Kwame Kwei-Armah, a British actor and playwright who is based in the United States.

"Nearly everyone you can think of moved away. Of course the same thing happens with white artists but I would argue, not to the same extent", he told Britain's Observer newspaper in a recent interview.

Harewood -- who played the head of the CIA's counterterrorism centre in "Homeland" with as authentically an American accent as his white British co-star Damien Lewis -- said the problem was a lack of parts.

"Unfortunately, there really are not that many roles for authoritative, strong, black characters in this country" said Harewood, who was born in the central English city of Birmingham.

- Blind casting -

Another argument put forward by the British comedian and writer Natalie Haynes is that the long-format US television series give more opportunities than the often historically based British dramas such as Downton Abbey.

(L to R) Morgan Saylor  David Harewood and Jackson Pace arrive at the 65th Annual Primetime Emmy Awa...
(L to R) Morgan Saylor, David Harewood and Jackson Pace arrive at the 65th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards held at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on September 22, 2013 in Los Angeles, California
Kevork Djansezian, Getty/AFP/File

According to a study by the Creative Skillset organisation, which deals with the British media industry, nearly 2,000 people of black and Asian origin left the fields of cinema and television between 2009 and 2012, following a rise between 2004 and 2006.

The situation worried British junior culture minister Ed Vaizey so much that he called a round-table on the subject with professionals at the end of January.

"It seems we are quite behind the US on this and we need to ensure that... Britain is reflected as a country of different people," he was quoted as saying in the Sunday Times newspaper.

"Some of our actors, like Idris Elba and David Harewood had to go to the US to get better careers for themselves".

Publicly-funded broadcaster the BBC, which took part in the round-table, agreed that steps had to be taken.

Oprah Winfrey (L) and David Oyelowo attend the 20th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at The Shrine ...
Oprah Winfrey (L) and David Oyelowo attend the 20th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at The Shrine Auditorium on January 18, 2014 in Los Angeles, California
Ethan Miller, Getty/AFP/File

"We know more needs to be done to ensure more people from ethnic minorities are better represented both on and off screen throughout the broadcast industry (...). This is an on-going process but we are making progress", the BBC said in a statement to AFP.

Vaizey meanwhile proposed "blind casting", or castings in which the colour of the actor being sought is not set out. A recent example of this was the casting of the British actress Adelayo Adedayo in the BBC series "Some Girls".

The minister said further meetings on the subject were likely in six months.

But things are already starting to change a little.

The Bafta awards earlier this month honoured three black artists: director Steve McQueen took best film for "12 Years a Slave", Ejiofor won best actor in the same film, while Somali-American Barkhad Abdi took best supporting actor for his portrayal of a Somali pirate in "Captain Phillips".

The Times newspaper said it all: "The Baftas changed colour this year… a transformation that has been a long time coming".

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