I walk into the room with my nerves kicking in as I go over lines in my head one last time. I offer a quick hello, then attempt to start getting into character. They hand me a prop: a spliff that they want hanging out of my mouth as I perform my dialogue with the casting agent.
I perform the character, another one of the typical “gang roles” that seem to be the only option for someone who looks like I do, but feelings of unease overwhelm me. I feel uncomfortable — “disgusted” is probably a better word — as I stare back at white faces who attempt to get me to play a stereotype again and again. It feels like the obvious legacy of minstrel shows.
“Can you make that a little more authentic?” they ask. By “authentic” they always mean “Blacker”.
It’s not the first time this has happened, and it won’t be the last. But it is the final nail in the coffin: I’ve decided that to further my career in acting, I’m going to have to move from Britain to the United States in pursuit of more diverse, nuanced roles. Doing so might seem drastic to the casual reader — America certainly has its own demons when it comes to race and class, after all. However, when it comes to genuine representation and opportunity for Black actors, they seem to have made greater strides. Could the UK ever produce a film like Get Out, starring the Oscar-winning British black actor Daniel Kaluuya? Sadly, I don’t think so.
I was saddened when I began to realise that acting roles for people like me in the UK are few, tokenistic and superficial. Many executives and leaders who are in charge of making the decisions are white, but that’s not even the main issue. Actors of colour, and more specifically Black actors, are nowadays simply seen as quick ways to check off a diversity box. Rather than seeking to bolster unrecognised Black talent or tell Black stories appropriately, a lot of directors and producers seem to want to include Black actors because diversity and representation is “on trend”. “Diversity is the new thing now,” as one agent told me when I was looking for representation a couple of years ago. In many ways, that attitude is more toxic than one which overlooks Black people entirely.
“The British industry hasn’t always embraced us, and I think so many Black and mixed people like myself have come out to America because the opportunities just weren’t here for us,” Nathalie Emmanuel said in an interview to Entertainment Weekly recently. When I read that interview, I felt like I was having a revelation.
As a child, I remember dressing up as a police officer or Michael Jackson — fighting crime by day and moonwalking by night. The possibilities were endless and there was no box that kept me constrained to a particular identity. As I have grown older and gotten further into acting — even as I have had the opportunity to work with the likes of Oscar-winning actor Mark Rylance and others of his ilk — I have had to conform to someone else’s view of who I am. My identity has been dictated by others and forged into a sickening stereotype.
Emmanuel’s words, hot on the heels of another “gang member” audition, pushed me to make a move. I looked for and found an American agent, and started planning my move out to California. As a young, Black actor in Britain, I am nothing more than a drug fiend or a gangbanger; in the US, I hope and expect to be seen as something more.