Friday, 18 March 2011

On African actors in Hollywood

Djimon Hounsou, from Benin (Photo by fashion photographer Anthony Citrano)
Do a Google search on issues surrounding African actors in Hollywood films, and you'll be met with a flurry of results, almost none of which are focused on actors who are actually from Africa. Unless you were wise enough to make use of quote marks, the issue you will be faced with is the plight of African-American actors. Whilst Hollywood is still not giving enough quality, non-generic roles to African-Americans, very little is being said about the native African actors, who are arguably getting a far poorer deal.

With the exception of Europe and the US itself, Africa is one of the most used landscapes by the movie industry. It's appearing more and more frequently too. Everything from Oscar-bait tales (Blood Diamond, The Constant Gardener) to schlocky blockbusters (Lara Croft: The Cradle of Life, Sahara) are making use of the vast continent. That's not to mention the biographical tales of heroic (Invictus) and villainous (The Last King of Scotland) leaders and the many, many films that have used Africa as an anonymous setting for alien or fantasy worlds (Star Wars included).

So surely that would present plenty of work for African actors? Not necessarily.

Though more and more films are being set in Africa, very few of the really juicy roles are going to actors from the continent. It is much easier for Hollywood studios to hire established African-American actors to put on an accent and top-line their movies. Hence we have Morgan Freeman playing Nelson Mandela and Forest Whitaker playing Idi Amin. Perfectly capable though those performances were, it is highly unlikely that an African actor was ever considered for either role because there simply aren't enough of them established in Hollywood.

One notable exception is Djimon Hounsou. For years now, he has been the most established black African actor in Hollywood since his breakthrough with Steven Spielberg's Amistad. Twice nominated for an Oscar, his ethnicity has left him typecast to some extent but it has not stopped him gaining roles in some major films over the last decade.

Hounsou's success is rare, however. There are black African actors out there but very few who were brought up in the continent. The likes of Idris Elba and Chiwetel Ejiofor were born to African parents but brought up in Britain, for instance.

Then, of course, there is Omar Sharif, the exception that proves the rule. The Egyptian actor is a true Hollywood legend. His ethnicity never hindered him in what has been a long and varied career.

It must be noted that is not necessarily a colour issue - white African actors, from South Africa or Zimbabwe, are fairly rare in Hollywood but the likes of Sharlto Copley and Oscar-winner Charlize Theron fly the flag.

However, with so many African characters emerging it seems strange that more African actors are not making their name. To any Hollywood producer, I would suggest taking a leaf out of Ridley Scott's book.

For 2005's Kingdom of Heaven, Scott cast little known Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud as Saladin, the general of the Muslim army. Syria may be a part of Asia, but a lesson can be learned for films set in Africa. Massoud was a respected actor in his home country, and though the role was a particularly key one, he was cast for his suitability, rather than his fame. As things turned out he gave the best performance in the film, portraying a wise and charismatic leader with ease.

Massoud's example is clear evidence, if any was needed, that there is plenty of untapped talent in African and Arab countries if someone were just willing to take a risk and cast African and Arab actors to play African and Arab characters. Instead, the roles are going to Don Cheadle, Jennifer Hudson and, perversely, Jake Gyllenhaal. It's time to widen your scope, Hollywood.

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1 comment:

  1. you speak as if "hollywood" is God. Actually "hollywood" is the opposite
    wh does any one ,any other country, or actor from a noter country need to be in an americium made movie to feel good about themselves. Movies are made in africa and i love all the african actors-- of which by the way i am american( trained actress) and i feel that african actors are far more talented than american actors.... Plus i respect the fact that Africa(ns) make movies that entertain as well as educate..... People of color are making films right in africa ...!!1 while people of color in america are crying and begging on hand ad knees for "hollywood " to put them in one of their films.!! you do not need hollywood....make your own movies i repeat make your own movies .......if blacks can do it in africa blacks can do it here...???? love yourselves!!!!.......find out who you are and be prod... and then you won't look to "hollywood".............you will look to God!!! remember backs are making thousands of movies in africa without "hollywood" ...hW should not not be a goal or a measuring stick ( to crave hollywoods approval is to give your soul to the devil for free.!

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