What black Americans can learn from black immigrants as the casting for 'Harriet' sparks debate about opportunity
Are black British actors black enough to play black Americans?
That prickly question has buzzed through black conversations and Twitter feeds since at least the casting of David Oyelowo -- the British son of Nigerian immigrants -- to play the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Ava DuVernay's 2014 "Selma."
Now it's back with the casting of black, British and Tony Award-winning actor Cynthia Erivo to play Harriet Tubman in "Harriet," Hollywood's recently released movie about the abolitionist hero, under such protest hashtags as #NotMyHarriet. A Change.Org petition gathered more than a thousand signatures last year, demanding that the role go to an American actor, but the movie held a successful opening anyway.
How sad is this? I appreciate some other criticisms of the movie, such as the Hollywood style reediting of some history. But it is sad to see backlash against Erivo's or Oyelowo's nationalities when we should be able to let performances stand on their own merit, regardless of the nationality of the actor.
Of course, I, too, join the multitudes who mocked Cameron Crowe's decision to cast Emma Stone as "Allison Ng." Stone is very talented, but not enough to pull off credibly playing a one-quarter Hawaiian and one-quarter Chinese woman in Crowe's "Aloha." It might have been a contender if Hollywood gave an Academy Award for ethno-racial whitewashing.
But usually, who cares? When Sidney Poitier, a native of the Bahamas although born prematurely in a Miami hospital, became the first black actor to win the Oscar for best actor, for the 1963 film "Lilies of the Field," I don't recall that anyone cared about his accent. In that historic year of civil rights advances, Poitier's honors became an important symbol of Dr. King's dream coming true.
Times have changed. More recently, social networks and gossip columns have boiled with critiques like Samuel L. Jackson's poke at "Get Out," Jordan Peele's satirical horror film about racism in liberal suburbs. It might have been better with "an American brother" instead of British actor Daniel Kaluuya in the starring role, said Jackson. He voiced similar sentiments about Oyelowo's casting as King by award-winning black American director DuVernay.
But, with all due respect to Jackson, I tend to agree with John Boyega, the black British actor of "Star Wars" fame, who called Jackson's comment a "stupid ass conflict we don't have time for." Right on.
But the current chatter is inspired by more than theatrics. The debate over who's black enough to be African American reopens a lot of old wounds, including ethnic rivalries and prejudices that long have divided many of us African Americans from others of African ancestry.
There's even a new Twitter-fueled movement calling itself ADOS, for American Descendants of Slavery, which held a national conference in Louisville, Kentucky, in October.