LONDON – 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 ghettoizing the presentation of ethnic minority groups within the U.K.,” said Femi Oguns, head of the London-based Identity Drama School & Agency Group, which promotes young black talent.
He said the civil rights movement in the United States has allowed black Americans to “force change,” but that in Britain, “We have adopted a more passive approach.”
Oguns added that in British acting schools there are quotas, but they lead to only around two ethnic minority actors in a group of 30.
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 center in “Homeland” with as authentically an American accent as his white British co-star, Damien Lewis — said the problem is 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.
Another argument put forward by the British comedian and writer Natalie Haynes is that the long-format U.S. television series give more opportunities than the often historically based British dramas such as “Downton Abbey.”
According to a study by the Creative Skillset organization, 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 meeting on the subject with professionals at the end of January.
“It seems we are quite behind the U.S. 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 U.S. 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. “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 ongoing process, but we are making progress,” the BBC said in a statement.
Vaizey proposed “blind casting,” or casting in which the color 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 are likely in six months.
But things are already starting to change a little.
The BAFTA awards last month honored three black artists: director Steve McQueen took best film for “12 Years a Slave,” Ejiofor won best actor in the same film, and Somali-American Barkhad Abdi took best supporting actor for his portrayal of a Somali pirate in “Captain Phillips.”
The Times newspaper said: “The BAFTAs changed color this year … a transformation that has been a long time coming.”