Why Do We Keep Casting Black British Actors to Portray Prominent African Americans?

Last year, it was announced that Tony award-winning actress Cynthia Erivo would play abolitionist Harriet Tubman in the upcoming movie about the icon.

Feelings on the casting decision were initially mixed. While some were excited that there was finally going to be a movie about Tubman and the Underground Railroad, others expressed disappointment that a black British actor born to Nigerian parents was chosen to portray an African-American legend.

Black British actors portraying American historical figures is nothing new. In 2013, actors David Oyelowo and Chiwetel Ejiofor each played prominent figures in African-American history — Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr. in Ava DuVernay‘s Selma and Ejiofor as abolitionist Solomon Northup, a free man sold into slavery in 12 Years a Slave.

The topic of black British actors playing African-American roles has actually been a conversation for a while now. In 2017, Samuel L. Jackson criticized the casting of black British actors in American roles, particularly those dealing with race relations. On New York’s radio station Hot 97, he said,

“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 [Kaluuya] grew up in a country where they’ve been interracial dating for a hundred years. What would a brother from America made from that role? Some things are universal, but not everything.”

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Cynthia Erivo and Janelle Monáe in Harriet

Jackson also brought up Oyelowo’s portrayal of Dr. King.

“There are some brothers in America who could have been in that movie who would have had a different idea about how King thinks.”

Of course, Jackson received some flack for his comments. Star Wars star John Boyega tweeted in response,

“Black brits vs African American. A stupid ass conflict we don’t have time for.”

But it’s not just the fact that Erivo is British that has people riled up. Old tweets have resurfaced of her mocking black American culture, specifically African American vernacular (AAVE).

In a tweet from 2013, she said,

“(Ghetto American accent) baby u know i gatchu imma sing it to you but I still gatta do wadigattado, you feel me #scene.”

Ugh, seriously?

These recent findings beg the question: Is someone who seems to look down on black Americans fit to play someone who’s crucial to African-American history?

Erivo’s comments certainly prove Jackson’s point. The effects of white supremacy are universal but the black American experience is a unique one.

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Cynthia Erivo in Harriet

Erivo isn’t ignorant to the push back she’s received for playing Harriet. In an Instagram post from September, she wrote,

“Even though there is so much celebration and encouragement coming through, there’s also anger and offense spurred on by my being from the UK…..I guess there is a bigger conversation to be had about heritage and experience, also about who Harriet really was. That can not be had in an Instagram post, what I will say is that my journey to this woman has been long and detailed and one I have not taken lightly.”

The fact of the matter is, the movie has already been made and there is nothing that can be done about that. I don’t condone the stereotyping that she did but that was years ago. And while she hasn’t made a comment on her old tweets, I’m hoping that she’s at least learned from people’s concerns instead of dismissing them.

Regardless of whether Cynthia Erivo was the right choice, Harriet is going to give people the opportunity to learn the untold story about Tubman, not just the textbook version. And that’s all I could ask for.

Harriet comes out November 1, 2019.


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Alysia Stevenson
Alysia Stevenson is a twenty-seven New York City transplant currently living in Florida with her boyfriend and three furbabies. When she's not writing, you can find her watching beauty tutorials on Youtube or Parks and Rec for the millionth time.