Leading men Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) and Elba (Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom) have each been nominated for two awards; best actor in the coveted motion picture category and best actor for small-screen roles.
Hollywood newcomer Nyong’o got a best supporting actress nod for her poignant portrayal of Patsey in 12 Years a Slave. Abdi, an unknown first-time actor, received a nomination for best supporting actor for his character in Captain Phillips.
“It’s wonderful when any actor of color is cast in significant roles,” said Vince Paul, owner and founder of Talent Link, one of the biggest acting agencies in the Southeast representing African-American talent. “This success proves that we’re able to portray more than pimps, drug dealers and whores.”
Veteran stage and screen actress Sheryl Lee Ralph agrees. “It’s absolutely great. I welcome anyone of African descent to be working on the big screen,” she told theGrio.
In fact, these nominations seem to be further evidence a growing trend of overseas talent scoring some of Hollywood’s most coveted roles.
British actress Naomie Harris is a prime example. She co-starred in the James Bond blockbuster Skyfall, playing Moneypenny, and this year she portrayed Winnie Mandela in the biopic Mandela, opposite Elba.
Other noteworthy examples include David Oyelowo, Thandie Newton, Adrian Lester, Colin Salmon and Eamonn Walker — who have all starred in box office hits recently. Others, such as Marsha Thomason and Marianne Jean-Baptiste, have achieved considerable success on the small screen.
Despite the obvious fact that these roles could have gone to homegrown talent, most in the industry seem to welcome talent from across the pond or people of African descent.
“They are outstanding actors who have been embraced by audiences without regard to their place of birth,” said Deidre McDonald, artistic director of the BronzeLens Film Festival. “Hopefully all films with people of color will receive better distribution worldwide so that great stories and great acting will be accessible and appreciated.”
Trea Davenport, a celebrity publicist and author, believes the casting of black British actors adds to the “film’s international appeal” and “with talent of African descent, there is more diversity and intrigue, especially when the roles are not typical.”
Indeed, the movies these actors have been nominated for are atypical, sweeping historical dramas, with an international flair that may have encouraged casting directors to widen their net.
Mandela is set against the backdrop of the South African landscape. Captain Phillips takes place off the coast of Somalia. Though 12 Years a Slave (which has picked up seven Globe nominations) is set in the deep South, it is directed by black British visual-artist-turned-film-director Steve McQueen.
Ralph said another explanation for the popularity of black British actors is their craft. The U.K. has a strong theater culture, often used as a rigorous training ground for young actors to hone their skills. Elba, Ejiofor and Harris all have track records onstage.
Ralph adds that even to this day she still regrets not getting a chance to attend RADA, the internationally recognized London-based drama school. She believes many young actors this side of the pond shy away from the rigorous demands of stage, especially embracing the dramatic works of William Shakespeare.
What they fail to recognize is this demonstrates a “commitment to their craft and intensity of their work,” she adds.
“For me I see British and African actors as more disciplined than African-American actors in the fact that they transform into character with more of their full being,” said up-and-coming actress Vivia Armstrong. “Often they have to overcome their accent to sound just like African-American person.”
Another trend is for black British actors to quit the U.K. and reinvigorate their careers stateside.
One reason is that the U.K. is a smaller market, which in itself means its film and TV industry can’t compete with the Hollywood machine. Not only do U.S. movies have higher production budgets than their British counterparts, they have significantly more leverage to spend on marketing and distribution.
Still, those in the industry say the issue is not solely about economics but race. Black British actor David Harewood has spoken publicly about the lack of weighty roles and opportunities for actors in the U.K. “Unfortunately, there really aren’t that many roles for authoritative, strong, black characters in this country,” he said at the London screening of his hit show Homeland.
“In my opinion, even though we are not quite where we could be in the integration of black actors into prime-time, mainstream, racially neutral roles that allow black actors to really impact the majority of movie watchers, we are much further along than other places like Britain,” said Tammy McGarity, a model, actress, photographer and founder of Girl in the Glass.
“The recognition happening now shows the world that there are not only talented people of color in the USA that are not being used and recognized, but talented people of color all over the world that have yet to be seen in the industry,” said Armstrong.
Follow Kunbi Tinuoye on Twitter at @Kunbiti