In this undeniably big year for Black talent in Hollywood, many of the names coming up on nominations lists and red carpets come with foreign passports. Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong'o and Chiwetel Ejiofor are just some of the rising stars with roots in other countries.
The infusion of Black actors with A-list potential from across the pond — and down the Sahara — begs the question: are other countries doing a better job of fostering Black talent than Hollywood?
While Hollywood has been searching for two decades for the "next Will Smith," Britian seems to be turning out leading men in spades. Elba's name remains on the short list of actors to become the next James Bond, while Ejiofor, with his growing collection of golden statues, is regarded as the second coming of Sidney Poitier. Both actors have shone on both the big screen, in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and 12 Years a Slave, respectively, and the small screen (Elba in Luther, Ejiofor in Dancing in the Dark). Naomie Harris, David Oyelowo, David Harewood, Freema Agyeman...the list of foriegn imports goes on.
Hop a continent to Africa and Nollywood, the phenomenon that is the Nigerian film industry, has surpassed Hollywood in the number of films produced per year (it comes second only to Bollywood). That's over 100 films per year made by and starring Black talent. While not many Nollywood actors have "broken through" to Hollywood as of yet, what's the rush? The home-grown industry generates $3.5 billion per year on its own.
So, if Britain is the beacon of on-screen racial diversity and Nollywood is the land of plenty, why is the first thing on most foreign actor's to-do list is to perfect an American accent?
The truth is, while still a deeply flawed system, Hollywood is still the cultural trend-setter for the rest of the world and also one of the only places that gives the Black experience its own platform in cinema. From Black rom-coms to Spike Lee to Shonda Rhimes, Black talent has both become part of the mainstream and also carved out its own incredibly profitable niche.
"I loved living in the UK, and it's still my home. But it became clear I wasn't going to be able to tell the stories I wanted to tell," says David Oyelowo, who most recently played a Black Panther in Lee Daniels' The Butler. "When I went to British film investors with stories of the Black experience in a historical context, I was told verbatim: 'We're looking for Dickens or Austen. Your story is a hard sell.' Britain is not inclusive of how I look or who I am, so I looked to America."
No one will argue that Hollywood is perfect — or even good enough — at diversifying who and what we see on television. It took over 40 years to get a Black woman into the lead of a network show (from Diahann Carroll in 1968's Julia to Kerry Washington in Scandal), but now that show is among the fastest-growing on television. Saturday Night Live certainly seems to default to white men when casting season comes around, but a vocal protest didn't fall on deaf ears, and in under four months the long-running series added comedienne Sasheer Zamata and two Black female staff writers to the mix.
It may be a naive thought, but the past couple of years have proven that the tide is turning, however slowly, toward increased diversity and inclusion. The box office numbers and awards season nominations support this fact. There's a reason why talent from far and wide still regard America as the place where glass ceilings can be broken and dreams come true. We have a long road ahead of us, sure, but we've come a long way, baby.
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(Photos from left: Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images, John Sciulli/Getty Images for W Magazine)
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