Earlier this past Spring, March 7, 2017 to be specific, big time actor, Samuel L. Jackson made some obvious observations about a lot of British actors are taking on the roles of American characters lately. Not just that black British actors are in a lot of American movies but more specifically that they are being cast in roles that are specifically written as American characters. On Hot 97, a New York radio station, is where he gave the interview back on March 7th.
The interview and the video of it was included and written in The Guardian and on Page Six, the very next day and then on Patheos, Stacey Dash’s website where I first learned of it on the day after the next day, March 9th (I know – I am 3 months behind in writing this blog post!) and to be more specific Jackson is talking about roles that are about American race relations and how the black British actors would not know what the race relations are like and have been like in America.
Jackson was first talking about the movie, “Get Out” which had just been released in theatres on February 24, 2017 and by the time of the interview, March 7th, it had already grossed over $80 million in box office receipts.
It is actor Jordan Peele’s feature film directorial debut and is a satirical horror movie about an African-American man who goes with his white girlfriend to meet her family. Peele is a bi-racial man that most identifies as an African-American, as he said on the AMC television show “Talking with Hardwick”, and is best known for the hit comedy, “Key & Peele” on Comedy Central. In the movie, “Get Out”, which Peele also wrote, is from his perspective about the current American relations between blacks and whites and he hired British actor, Daniel Kaluuya in the role of the black boyfriend.
Samuel L. Jackson remarked that:
“There are a lot of black British actors in these movies. I tend to wonder what that movie [Get Out] would have been with an American brother who really feels that.
“Daniel grew up in a country where they’ve been interracial dating for a hundred years. What would a brother from America have made of that role? And I’m sure the director would help. Some things are universal, but not everything is.”
That makes sense. I cannot say for sure because I am a white American, but let me explain how I can relate to what Jackson is expressing. I have made the comparison between racial minority portrayals and representation to disAbled minority portrayals and representation in movies and television – specifically when it comes to those that are specifically written as disAbled characters. When I read an article or hear an interview from a black or African-American talking about not enough roles, or directors, or executives representing them in the movie studios or network television stations and the movies and programs the produce, I can easily insert “those with a disAbility” in everywhere they mention “black or African-American” in their statements and it make complete sense.
Jackson’s statements in this interview is a wonderful example of what I mean and if you switch the phrase “black British actors” with “able bodied actors” and “that movie [Get Out]” with any movie that features a disAbled character, and finally “American brother (obviously referring to black American actors)” with “disAbled actor(s)” you would understand how I can relate to Jackson as a black American actor upset with black British actors taking roles that are specifically American. And I being a disAbled American being upset when able bodied actors are being cast specifically in disAbled roles. I am not an actor. I am a writer and director who is disAbled. And have felt the same way when an able bodied writer or director is hired in a project that features a person with a disAbility. I also know my fair share of actors with a disAbility and what it is like when they find out that an able bodied actor is hired to portray the role of a disAbled character.
Let us go back to the first statement by Jackson:
“There are a lot of black British actors in these movies. I tend to wonder what that movie [Get Out] would have been with an American brother who really feels that.”
And what I have been saying:
“There are a lot of able bodied actors in these movies (featuring a person with a disAbility). I tend to wonder what that movie (for example the most recent movie, 2016’s [“Me Before You”]) would have been with an actor with a disAbility who really feels that.”
I have already said these words many times! Not verbatim but very close. I not only chose to speak out about the able bodied actor who portrayed the paraplegic character in “Me Before You”, but also the author of the book, that the movie is adapted from, as not being a person with a disAbility and cannot know what that “really feels” like. Let alone know what that is like – like a performer with a disAbility and a writer with a disAbility – and if you also add the trifecta of a director with a disAbility then you will know what it “really feels” like.
The next statement by Jackson:
What I have been saying:
“Sam Claflin (the able bodied actor who was cast as the paraplegic character in “Me Before You”) grew up in an entertainment industry where they’ve been excluding paraplegics from being cast in movies and television for a hundred years. What would a paraplegic actor have made of that role? And I’m sure the director would help (if he or she had direct relations with a paraplegic). Some things are universal, but not everything is.”
“Some things are universal, but not everything is.” How true that is and especially in the entertainment industry where authenticity that Jackson and I are talking about seems to mean nothing on their scale of importance.
Mr. Jackson also responded to the black British actor David Oyelowo’s portrayal of American civil rights hero and leader, Martin Luther King, Jr. who was hired for the film role in the historical drama, “Selma.” He said:
“There are some brothers in America who could have been in that movie who would have had a different idea about how King thinks.”
So Jackson points to the American character, this time based on a real person, in which an American actor would better be able to authentically portray and represent this particular character because they would have a better insight, background and context to the character. I have been in African-American homes and nearly everyone had a picture of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the wall. I am not sure if that can be said for black Brits? And Jackson’s point is that the portrayal would probably been deeper and one that would have resonated with audiences because they do have the background of living it. Feeling it. I propose that able bodied actors cannot feel it because they have not lived it to really portray a character with a disAbility. In fact, whatever Jackson feels about the Brits pales in comparison to how I feel, and I know many of those with a disAbility trying to work in Hollywood feels, when an able bodied actor is cast in the role of a character with a disAbility. Living with a disAbility, such as paraplegia every moment of day and night it far deeper than the American race relationships or portraying an American hero by a black British actor. Nevertheless, he is making a point or points about something he knows about. And that is something I can relate to.
Jackson continues in the interview and mentions why he thinks the entertainment industry hires these British actors and does this to his American brothers:
“They’re cheaper than us, for one thing. They don’t cost as much. And they [casting agents and directors] think they’re better trained, because they’re classically trained.”
The industry is show business – a for profit business. And I will defer to Jackson’s statement on the amount the industry pays for American versus British actors because he would know better than I and I agree that getting a comparable skilled actor for less money is business – not personal. But what about authenticity? Again it is show business and it does not work like a typical business. Big money and big risk are at stake for a theatrical run movie. Its success with audiences can hinge on the smallest details. The feel that it is real – even though it is “make believe” industry – it is what audiences want and can tell when they are being cheated. So authenticity does mean something. There are some directors in some film projects that insist on it when it comes to some aspect of a movie such as a regional storytelling. As for example, Ben Affleck was specific to hire local Boston actors, and members of the local population, in all the extras in his directorial debut film, “Gone Baby Gone.” He insisted that they did not hire professional extras in order to keep it as authentic as possible. Whether it is locations, people, featured actors, or stunt work performed by the featured actors, such a Tom Cruise in most of the action scenes of his movie. Many strive for the most authentic film that they can make. They know that audiences can tell and feel authenticity. Therefore, does Samuel L. Jackson have a valid point here in the black British actors being hired for specific black American roles? Ones that relates directly to American race relations and not to universal subjects or themes as Jackson opines?
What about my advocacy for the authenticity of disabled creatives in the roles of writers, directors and certainly actors when it comes to disAbled characters?
It was not hard for me to immediately find the comparison that Samuel L. Jackson was making when it comes to the authentic portrayal and representation of specific American race relations and those roles being cast with those who do not have the same race relations from where they live. They have little to no background or context to the character and/or story. Compare that to using paraplegics and others with a disAbility for roles that are too often cast with able bodied actors who also have no background or context to the character and/or story that features a paraplegic or others with a disAbility.
Therefore, I thank Mr. Jackson for his bold yet obvious statements regarding the hiring of those creatives in the roles that are specific and should insist on authenticity for a film or television program. While his is about racial and regional authenticity and mine is about disAbility minority authenticity, we both have valid points. I will add that the exclusion of authentic disAbility creatives in movies and television are exponentially worse in the entertainment industry than the hiring of black Brits for authentic American roles.
After some push back in social media from some black British actors, Mr. Jackson replied during an interview at the premier of his latest film “Kong: Skull Island” by saying:
“It was not a slam against [British actors], but it was just a comment about how Hollywood works in an interesting sort of way sometimes,”
“We’re not afforded that same luxury, but that’s fine, we have plenty of opportunities to work.”
I can testify from 20+ years of working or trying to work in the entertainment industry “Hollywood works in an interesting sort of way” as in the examples Mr. Jackson sites and I will again add that it is very true when it comes to those with a disAbility in Hollywood. And he is also correct that he and other black American actors “have plenty of opportunities to work.”
Those of us in the disAbility minority have very little work opportunities – especially in the creative roles, that either rarely include or more often exclude a character with a disAbility in the entertainment industry. And we certainly deserve to be included as we make up 20% of the American population. How can you exclude 20% of the American population in movies and television? According to the U.S. Census, blacks, African-Americans make up 13% of American population. Can you imagine what would happen if they or any other minority were excluded as much as those 20% with a disAbility are today? And what happens here in American is often followed by the international entertainment industries. Hollywood should lead in the inclusion of people with a disAbility as creatives – writers, directors and actors.
While I have often advocated for those with a disAbility, especially paraplegics to be portrayed and represented by those with the same or similar disAbility as the characters in movies and television because they know what it “really feels” like. They know it – they live it. How can anyone else truly portray that experience? Like Samuel L. Jackson is saying about the specific American race relationships being portrayed and represented by those who know it – that live it.
While there is some progress with the network television program “Speechless”, we are far from where we should be in the 21st Century and in an industry that promotes itself and prides itself as being the most inclusive industry in the world. So Hollywood, can we be included so you can continue boasting of being the most open and giving voice to all, especially those who are marginalized? Because we are more accepted in society than you are showing in movies and television, and more that you are accepting us within your society of creative members. It is way past time for Hollywood to get out of the Dark Ages of excluding the people and stories of those with a disAbility. And the best way is to hire those with a disAbility as writers and directors to be the voice and vision, and actors to be the authentic portrayals – all to be the authentic representation of the 20% of the American population you have ignored for far too long. Let’s work together to represent the honestly inclusive industry that gives voice to all in movies and television entertainment!