One explanation is that the UK is a smaller market, which in itself means its film and television industry can’t compete with the Hollywood machine. So although Britain has a strong theater culture [often used a training ground for young actors to hone their skills] as well as several long-running television shows, its film industry is lagging behind Hollywood productions.
“Hollywood around the globe is seen as the central honeypot for those looking to gain global recognition for their art,” says Femi Oguns, founder and CEO of Identity Drama School, Europe’s first ever black drama school, and acting agency, Identity Agency Group. “For that very reason it attracts actors from all walks of life, British black actors included.”
Money is also a factor. Not only do Hollywood movies have higher production budgets than British films, they have significantly more leverage to spend on marketing and distribution.
Though, others say the problem isn’t solely about economics but race. Acclaimed black British actor David Harewood, 47, who stars in the hit U.S. drama Homeland, has spoken publicly about the lack of meaty on-screen roles and opportunities for black actors in the UK.
In January, Harewood said he was forced to go to America to win a starring role. “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.
Oguns agrees that the UK industry has more work to do. “The opportunities in the UK for black actors are few, steadily improving, but limited,” he says. “To some degree at times it feels as though we are still stuck in the dark ages, where the color is seen before the ability.”
However, up-and-coming black British actor Lanre Malaolu, 22, says there are still viable options in theater and UK television. “I believe there is work here, you just have to fight against a lot of people to get it.”
Malaolu, who has recently completed a stint at the world-renowned Royal Shakespeare Company, says he may consider pursuing openings stateside at some point in his career but, “I feel like my work here is far from done.”
And of course Hollywood is as susceptible to racial prejudice as everywhere else.
Speaking at the Sundance film festival in January, Spike Lee said he made his latest flick, Red Hook Summer, on a low budget partly to avoid Hollywood. “They know nothing about black people.”
So it may just be that Hollywood has a way to go but the British TV and film industry is still catching up.
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