Burning illusions: the long road to black British film stardom

Black actors have been a presence in British films since the early years of cinema, but a depressing lack of opportunities has forced the vast majority to rely on the small screen to help ends meet or to cross the Atlantic in search of real fame and creative fulfilment.

Ashley Clark
Updated:

Originally published as Burning Illusions: Black British Film Stardom in Black Star: A BFI Compendium

John Boyega in Attack the Block (2011): could he become Britain’s first black Hollywood superstar?

John Boyega in Attack the Block (2011): could he become Britain’s first black Hollywood superstar?

“I felt pushed out of the UK because of the glass ceiling I could feel my head bobbing against. I could see that actors, my peers, those who had a similar trajectory to me, were going on to do movies, to play leads. I started to feel I was going to go round in circles. Nice TV, back to the theatre, nice TV… but I wasn’t going to be James McAvoy, I wasn’t going to be Benedict Cumberbatch.”

David Oyelowo, 2015

If I had to pick one moment that encapsulates for me the haphazard nature of black British film stardom – a jigsaw narrative that lacks any clear arc and is characterised by frustration, inconsistency and occasional flashes of hope – it would be a scene from the first act of Neil Jordan’s British-Irish thriller The Crying Game (1992), a picture I love dearly. The African-American actor Forest Whitaker, playing Jody, a British soldier of Antiguan descent from North London, is strapped to a chair, with a cloth sack over his head. Jody’s relationship with his IRA captor Fergus (Stephen Rea) has advanced to the point where there is a tentative bond between them, so he launches into the fable of the scorpion and the frog, an allegorical riff on the inevitability of human nature in which a wary frog agrees to ferry a scorpion over a river, only for the scorpion, obeying its natural instincts, to sting the frog halfway across, thereby dooming them both. But what is his accent all about?

“Woy d’ya steeng me Meesta Scorpeeyun?” Whitaker over-enunciates from behind his hood. “For naah we bofe willl draan.”

Now, it’s not that Whitaker gives a bad performance – on the contrary, his portrayal of a hulking, tender squaddie brought low by circumstance is deeply touching – or that actors aren’t supposed to play characters from different countries. One could argue Whitaker’s casting befits a film with such a daringly fluid approach to issues of nationality, gender, race and sexuality. It’s not even that his accent is that unspeakably awful. Rather, it’s that by 1992, one would have thought that the production team might have been able to scare up an actual black Brit to take on this small but pivotal role, instead of relying on an import to deliver the goods.

After all, as Stephen Bourne reports in his essential 2001 book Black in the British Frame, black Britons had been a presence in British cinema since the 1910s, 20s and 30s, when they appeared as extras and bit players – albeit often as docile, ill-defined Africans in films that glorified the Empire. Yet, decades on, no black British actor was considered suitable to authentically represent his country in a film that went on to win an Oscar. Woy d’ya steeng me?, indeed.

Whitaker wasn’t unique. Four years before The Crying Game, a pre-megastardom Denzel Washington was flown in from America to play the lead – another soldier, a British Falklands veteran confronting poverty and racism after leaving the army – in Martin Stellman’s patchy thriller For Queen and Country (1988). “I wanted to use a black English actor to portray what is ostensibly a black English story and struggle,” said Trix Worrell, the film’s writer (and future creator of hit Channel 4 sitcom Desmond’s). But money, or the promise of money at least, spoke loudest: Worrell’s pleas fell on deaf ears, and the producers went over his head, selecting an actor they felt would propel more bums toward seats. Despite this, For Queen and Country ultimately failed to secure a wide national release, and is now regarded, at best, as a cult curio of special interest to fans of dodgy London accents.

Denzel Washington in For Queen and Country (1988)

Denzel Washington in For Queen and Country (1988)

The casting of Washington and Whitaker in these roles hints at the historical trickiness of navigating home terrain for black British actors, who have had to contend with a depressing lack of opportunities; an erratic national film industry in thrall to Hollywood; stereotyped, repetitive roles (criminals, coppers, servants, etc); a pronounced lack of authorial diversity; and the enduring lure-cum-safety net of the small screen: fine for domestic recognition, but hardly a shortcut to global adulation, meaty roles and big-time salaries – ie, the hallmarks of a real movie star. I’ll address these issues in due course, but it seems sensible to first acknowledge that both The Crying Game and For Queen and Country exist on a long continuum that has seen black actors crossing the Atlantic in both directions.

Home and away

While the Bermuda-born Ernest Trimingham may have been the most recognisable silent-era black screen presence in Britain, taking key roles in western Jack, Sam and Pete (1919) and children’s fantasy Where the Rainbow Ends (1921), the nation’s first genuine black film star was another foreigner – New Jersey native Paul Robeson. Treated as an outcast in Jim Crow-era America, where roles for black actors were generally limited to coons, buffoons and quadroons, Robeson moved to Britain in the late 1920s, and remained there until the outbreak of World War II. This 6ft 3in wellspring of charisma was equally powerful as a screen and stage actor, a bass baritone singer and a political firebrand who strove tirelessly for dignity and complexity in representation.

Paul Robeson in Song of Freedom (1936)

Paul Robeson in Song of Freedom (1936)

Captivating audiences with his noble persona, Robeson became a major box-office draw in earthy British dramas. He played dock workers in both Song of Freedom (1936) and Big Fella (1937) – in the former, Robeson was given final-cut approval, an unprecedented option at the time for an actor of any race. He was a war hero in Jericho (aka Dark Sands, 1937), and played the wonderfully named sailor David Goliath in the stirring Rhonda-set The Proud Valley (1940), which reflected Robeson’s real-life public support for striking Welsh miners.

But it wasn’t all plain sailing for Robeson in Britain. Much to his dismay, his character in Zoltan Korda’s adventure film Sanders of the River (1935), Bosambo, was transformed in the editing process from a dignified Nigerian leader to a servile lickspittle to British colonial rule. “It is the only film of mine that can be shown in Italy or Germany,” Robeson complained in 1938, “for it shows the Negro as fascist states desire him: savage and childish.”

Following Robeson’s example, other American performers of the period also left home for the promise of a brighter future in Britain – and many found notable roles alongside Robeson. South Carolina’s Nina Mae McKinney, who starred in America’s first all-black-cast sound film Hallelujah! (1929), appeared in Sanders of the River. Manhattan-born singer-actress Elisabeth Welch appeared with Robeson in Song of Freedom and Big Fella, and also guest-starred in several British films, including Death at Broadcasting House (1934), Alibi (1942) and Dead of Night (1945). Welch was a familiar face on British television for many decades. Her last film role – a jaw-dropper – came as a gold-clad goddess in Derek Jarman’s art-punk Shakespeare riff The Tempest (1979). Her performance of Stormy Weather in Jarman’s film, delivered against a backdrop of statuesque, muscular sailors, is a clear highlight.

It wasn’t until the 1950s – the decade in which my own paternal grandparents arrived in London from Jamaica as part of the Windrush generation – that black actors, settlers from the Caribbean and Africa, would make their presence felt more consistently in a spate of liberal-minded film dramas grounded in the social anxieties of a changing Britain. The Bermuda-born actor Earl Cameron made his feature debut in Basil Dearden’s 1951 thriller Pool of London, playing merchant seaman Johnny, a misunderstood tearaway who falls for a white girl (Susan Shaw) – the film is widely regarded as being one of the first to deal with interracial romance.

The handsome, ever-composed Cameron was the closest Britain had to an authentic black film idol in the period, despite not being marketed as such. He would go on to appear in Simba (1955), as a fiercely ethical medical doctor; The Heart Within (1957), as a West Indian dock worker suspected of murder; and two films made in the aftermath of the 1958 Notting Hill race riots: Dearden’s tense, harsh thriller Sapphire (1959) and Roy Ward Baker’s kitchen sink drama Flame in the Streets (1961). Cameron is one of the most assured, impactful performers in the latter film, playing under-pressure West Indian factory worker Gabriel Gomez, but tellingly his name was nowhere to be seen on the film’s theatrical posters.

Earl Cameron in Pool of London (1951)

Earl Cameron in Pool of London (1951)

Cameron’s Flame in the Streets co-star, the Senegal-born Johnny Sekka, summarised the plight of black actors in Britain in a 1969 interview with the Times: “Sean Connery, Terry Stamp, Michael Caine, Tom Courtenay, John Hurt. I started out with these people. Today they are stars. I’m not jealous. But why the hell not me? I have the same talent and ability.” His rhetorical thrust was clear; whether through studied ignorance or systemic racism, black actors weren’t getting a proper look-in.

Sekka, like Cameron, found little major work without a studio contract, joining the likes of black Londoner Paul Danquah (A Taste of Honey, 1961) and British Guiana-born Cy Grant (Safari, 1956; Calypso, 1958) in doing solid if intermittent work on television, interspersed with even rarer film roles, which were almost always race-specific. (It should be noted here that if the situation for black male film actors in Britain was bad at the time, it was downright dreadful for black women.)

Just a few years later, the arrival in England of the glamorous Sidney Poitier further illustrated the shortfall in genuine stardom for home-based talent. In 1967, the same year as his two US box-office smash hits Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night, Poitier starred as a schoolteacher doing his best with a class of East London scamps in James Clavell’s drama To Sir, with Love.

Sidney Poitier in To Sir, with Love (1967)

Sidney Poitier in To Sir, with Love (1967)

In the 1970s – generally considered a parlous decade for the British film industry – Poitier continued to expand his global brand, opting to set his second directorial effort, the unusual romantic drama A Warm December (1973), in London. The film sees Earl Cameron, ten years Poitier’s senior, play a now familiar supporting role as the ambassador of a fictional African republic. (In 2016, Poitier was awarded a Bafta fellowship – the organisation’s highest honour. Meanwhile Cameron, aged 99 at the time of writing, was last seen playing Elderly Bald Man in Christopher Nolan’s 2010 blockbuster Inception – a remarkable testament to his staying power.)

Some UK-based actors, including Johnny Sekka, tried to make it in America and achieved limited success. Yet it wasn’t until the end of the 1980s that a black British actor would come close to pulling off a reverse-Robeson/Poitier manoeuvre, and making a big impact on US soil. In 1989, Dudley’s own Lenny Henry – comfortably the biggest black comedy star on UK television, despite drawing criticism in some quarters for perpetuating racial stereotypes – appeared in his first American film, the obscure erotic thriller The Suicide Club, as a love interest to Mariel Hemingway (“Not the truly terrible film you might expect,” reassured the New York Times).

That same year Henry also starred as an enigmatic department store employee in the Oscar-winning short Work Experience, and in his own standup comedy movie Lenny Live and Unleashed, inspired by the concert films of Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy. Shortly thereafter, Henry was headhunted by Disney honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg to play the lead in Charles Lane’s New York-set True Identity (1991), which saw Henry play Miles Pope, a struggling American actor who, following a series of odd plot convolutions, disguises himself as a white man via elaborate prosthetics in order to hide from the Mafia.

Lenny Henry in True Identity (1991)

Lenny Henry in True Identity (1991)

True Identity had some slyly ironic things to say about race and representation, and Henry gave an enthusiastic, likeable performance – a cuddlier Eddie Murphy, if you will – but it tanked at the box office, and displeased critics. Henry had signed a lucrative three-year contract with Walt Disney, but such was the magnitude of the film’s failure, both sides quietly agreed to forget about it. Henry later relayed his unhappy experience: “When I was out there I felt like this tiny little link in the chain… I really didn’t like not having any say.”

Henry returned home, set up his own production company, Crucial Productions, and focused on building his name in TV sitcoms. His next feature film gig was voicing Dre Head, a dreadlocked Jamaican shrunken head in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004). Knighted in 2015, Henry remains a much-loved figure in England, but genuine megawatt film stardom has, for now, eluded him.

Listen to Britain

Actors can only take the roles available to them, and one key reason for the historical paucity of home-grown black film stars on UK soil must lie in the shortfall in authorial diversity in British cinema, and the resultant dearth of films told from a black perspective. In the years since 1975, when Trinidad-born Horace Ové co-wrote and directed West London neorealist drama Pressure, widely regarded as the first ‘black’ feature film to be made in Britain (black director, writers, cast and milieu; theatrically screened), no black British director has completed more than four theatrically released feature films.

Cassie McFarlane in Burning an Illusion (1981)

Cassie McFarlane in Burning an Illusion (1981)

It’s hardly surprising then that so few of the black actors in those rare, exotic happenings – a British film made by a black director – have parlayed their talents into high-profile careers at home. Herbert Norville gave a wonderfully engaging performance as Pressure’s rumpled youth Tony, but ultimately wound up on the TV bit-part circuit. Cassie McFarlane’s luminous turn as a young Londoner experiencing a political awakening in Menelik Shabazz’s Burning an Illusion (1981) netted her an Evening Standard Award for Most Promising New Actress, but after a smattering of TV gigs, she was last seen in a small role in a 2006 episode of BBC drama Silent Witness. Ové’s cricket-and-culture clash comedy Playing Away (1986), one of the first films fully funded by Channel 4, then in its influential infancy, handed a preciously rare lead role to Guyanese-British TV stalwart Norman Beaton, who would soon become a household name in Desmond’s. Mo Sesay and Valentine Nonyela, the charismatic co-leads of Isaac Julien’s colourful 70s-set thriller Young Soul Rebels (1991), racked up eight separate minor characters between them in long-running ITV police drama The Bill.

Cathy Tyson and Bob Hoskins in Mona Lisa (1986)

Cathy Tyson and Bob Hoskins in Mona Lisa (1986)

British cinema of the 80s and 90s in general offered scant room for black performers. Cathy Tyson brought soul and wit to a remote role as the “tall, thin, black tart” in Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa (1986). The title of Karen Alexander’s perceptive 2000 essay, Black British Cinema in the 1990s: Going Going Gone, succinctly summed up the situation in that decade. Mainstream British cinema typically squeezed out the reality of black British life, or rendered it with tiresome clichés. ‘Horse’ (Paul Barber), the sole black character in The Full Monty (1997), was nicknamed after the purportedly huge size of his penis. In Notting Hill (1999), Richard Curtis and Roger Michell contrived to sell the world a bastardised version of the West London district, betraying the earthy earlier work of actors like Earl Cameron by transforming an area defined by diversity, the history of the British Black Power movement, the Mangrove restaurant, Claudia Jones and social struggle, into a starchy metropolis “wholly populated with mindless, twittering, wittering, lily-white rich”, as writer China Miéville so memorably put it.

Marianne Jean-Baptiste in Secrets and Lies (1996)

Marianne Jean-Baptiste in Secrets and Lies (1996)

The most notable black British film performance of the 1990s was given by the RADA-trained Marianne Jean-Baptiste in Mike Leigh’s Palme d’Or-winning Secrets & Lies (1996). With great warmth and hypnotic stillness she played the long-lost mixed-race daughter of a white mother (Brenda Blethyn). At just shy of 30, Jean-Baptiste became the first black British woman to be nominated for an Oscar. This should have been the springboard for a graduation to bigger roles. Instead, a year later on British Screen’s 50th anniversary, the funding body invited 50 of the UK’s top actors to the Cannes festival, but Jean-Baptiste was not among them.

Incensed and heartbroken, she told the Guardian in 1997 that she hadn’t been offered any roles in a year, adding, “The old men running the industry just have not got a clue. They’ve got to come to terms with the fact that Britain is no longer a totally white place where people ride horses, wear long frocks and drink tea… It is a shame on Britain. I see myself as British and I want to be celebrated by Britain.” Today Jean-Baptiste lives in Los Angeles, and works most regularly on US cable television.

Sophie Okonedo in Hotel Rwanda (2004)

Sophie Okonedo in Hotel Rwanda (2004)

One of the more successful British actresses of recent times is Sophie Okonedo, a Tony Award-winner and Oscar nominee (for 2004’s Hotel Rwanda). In a 2014 interview, she expressed her frustration with British cinema’s heritage fetish, an obsession with limiting consequences for black talent. “Costume and period drama [must be] at least 40 per cent of what we do here. Which means that 40 per cent of opportunities are closed to me already.”

Some filmmakers have challenged the genre’s inherent whiteness, leading to interesting roles for black and mixed-race actors: in Andrea Arnold’s mud-caked adaptation of Wuthering Heights (2011), James Howson became the first actor of colour to play Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff on screen, while Amma Asante’s Belle (2013), about an 18th-century mixed-race aristocrat (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw), was quietly radical in its investigation of racial complexity, despite its glossy exterior.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Belle (2013)

Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Belle (2013)

Mbatha-Raw’s career, like Okonedo’s, reflects the dominant contemporary narrative around black British stardom: occasional strong UK roles followed by exodus to America, where the balance of race-specific roles and colour-blind casting is more mixed. Post-Belle, Mbatha-Raw’s CV comprises a long list of US credits (Jupiter Ascending, 2015; Concussion, 2015; Free State of Jones, 2016). Peckham-born Nigerian Brit John Boyega, a product of the influential Identity Agency for actors of colour (founded by Femi Oguns), looks likely to follow a similar path. Boyega burst on to the scene as a 19-year-old in London-set sci-fi Attack the Block (2011), then – stunningly – he was cast in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), and now looks set, just maybe, to become Britain’s first genuine black Hollywood superstar.

Noel Clarke in Adulthood (2008)

Noel Clarke in Adulthood (2008)

Twenty years Boyega’s senior, Idris Elba took a longer route to prominence. Having cut a swathe as charismatic criminal Russell ‘Stringer’ Bell on HBO’s The Wire (2002-08) and become an authoritative UK TV presence on BBC’s Luther (2010-15), Elba is now a blockbuster franchise regular in films such as Star Trek Beyond (2016) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), if not quite an above-the-line Hollywood star – though if the Bond producers can get over the idea of a black man playing an entirely fictional character, he may one day be 007.

Speaking of Bond, Naomie Harris made history by becoming the first black Moneypenny in Skyfall (2012), but is also finding more regular work in high-profile US film appearances (Southpaw, 2015; Moonlight, 2016; Collateral Beauty, 2016). Both Noel Clarke (with Star Trek into Darkness) and Ashley Walters (Get Rich or Die Tryin’, 2005) made brief sojourns into big-budget American cinema, but are best known in UK film terms for their appearances in dramas focused on urban alienation and crime. Walters shone in 2004’s powerful Bullet Boy, while Clarke has done good business at the UK box office with his influential Kidulthood trilogy (2008-16), the second and third instalments of which he also directed.

Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave (2013)

Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave (2013)

Two classically trained British actors of Nigerian descent have found remarkable success playing historical American characters. Chiwetel Ejiofor in fact began his film career in Hollywood, starring, at 19, as interpreter Ensign Covey in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997). He has since built an impressive US-heavy CV, with occasional returns to the UK in films that display his range: a tightly wound Nigerian immigrant in Dirty Pretty Things (2002); a flamboyant drag queen in Kinky Boots (2005). Ejiofor’s career high-point to date came with his Oscar-nominated role as enslaved free black man Solomon Northup in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013).

Meanwhile, David Oyelowo has amassed an extraordinary set of credits portraying black American heroes: a preacher in civil rights-era drama The Help (2011), a fighter pilot in WWII drama Red Tails (2012), a Civil War cavalryman in Lincoln (2012), a Black Panther-turned-state senator in The Butler (2013) and Martin Luther King Jr in Selma (2014).

David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King in Selma (2014)

David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King in Selma (2014)

It may be that Oyelowo’s record alarms American audiences in the same way that I reacted to Forest Whitaker in The Crying Game. So be it – American audiences have had Samuel L. Jackson, Will Smith, Kerry Washington, Danny Glover, Angela Bassett, Eddie Murphy, Whoopi Goldberg and Morgan Freeman – to name just a few – to cushion the blow. While Oyelowo’s success abroad is certainly something to cheer, I can’t help but feel a little rueful that American history is brought to life by British talent, while at the same time so many black British historical stories remain untold on the big screen. Perhaps the recent semi-groundswell of black British authorial talent (such as Asante, McQueen, Clarke, Debbie Tucker Green, Destiny Ekaragha, Femi Oyeniran, Mo Ali, Cecile Emeke) can make it happen.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see cinema portray pioneering black British figures? Chiwetel Ejiofor is Olaudah Equiano in The Abolition Diaries! Naomie Harris is Mary Seacole in British Hotel! Adrian Lester is Trevor McDonald in The News At Ten! David Harewood is Daley Thompson in The Decathlete! But I’m getting carried away. For now, I’ll restrict myself to a more modest hope: that if a part opens up in a major UK film for a black British soldier undergoing a spiritual crisis, it is filled by a black British actor. I don’t think I could take being stung once more by ‘Meesta Scorpeeyun’.

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