Wednesday, February 22, 2006

African Diaspora in Hollywood + New Orleans Libraries Need Books

Perhaps another blogger has already covered this topic, but since it's Black History Month and when I was watching the Lars von Trier film Manderlay, it struck me that recent studies on the shifting ethnic and national origin cast of Black America (as Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture's Black Migrations site and similar studies on this topic have made clear) are being reflected in some of the brown faces on screen in Hollywood these days. Each of the following actors was born in another country, or grew up there, and several have at some point played not only played foreign roles (as Africans, as Black characters of indeterminate national origin, etc.), but African-American ones. In fact, I remember that some fans of the excellent HBO series "The Wire" were very surprised to learn that the gorgeous Idris Elba was British and had a pronounced accent (when not in his role as "Stringer Bell"). Marianne Jean-Baptiste, who first came to wider US notice through her superb performance in the British film Secrets and Lies, now plays Vivian Johnson on the US TV show Without a Trace (which I believe also stars Australian Anthony LaPaglia as an American).

Idris Elba

Marianne Jean-Baptiste

Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje

Maurice Dean Wint

Clockwise, from left: Idris Elba [UK], Marianne Jean-Baptiste [UK], Maurice Dean Wint [UK/Canada], Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje [UK]

Thandie Newton

Djimon Hounsou

Richard Chevolleau

Sophie Okonedo

Clockwise, from left: Thandie Newton [Zambia], Djimon Hounsou [Benin], Sophie Okonedo [UK], Richard Chevolleau [Jamaica/Canada]

Boris Kodjoe

Zoe Saldaña

Razzaq Adoti

Adrian Lester

Clockwise, from left: Boris Kodjoe [Austria], Zoe Saldaña [US/PR/Dominican Republic], Adrian Lester [UK], Razaaq Adoti [UK]

Isaach de Bankolé

Garcelle Beauvais

Rae-Dawn Chong

Chiwetel Ejiofor

Isaach de Bankolé [Côte d'Ivoire], Garcelle Beauvais [Haiti], Chiwetel Ejiofor [Nigeria/UK], Rae-Dawn Chong [Canada]

I was trying to think of others who might fit this category; any suggestions?

Roles for Black actors from any background in Hollywood still far too often fall into stereotypes and are nowhere near as numerous as for White actors, but over the last 30 years, things have improved, in terms of there being more films directed (and produced) by Black people, more TV roles, especially on cable, and more race-blind casting opportunities, which benefits not only African Americans and other Blacks living in the US, but other non-American Black actors, especially from Britain and Canada (Rae-Dawn Chong's father Tommy Chong is Canadian, but several of her siblings, like hottie brother Marcus Chong, were born in the US.)

I wonder if there have been any discussions among American-born Black actors about the presence of foreign-born Black actors in Hollywood, and what sorts of conversations have occurred between and among the two groups. Is their presence even on the radar screen? (I know some Black writers and directors have written non-US roles into their work, and for many years African-American actors have played non-US Black characters.) I also wonder if the majority of African-Americans, especially outside the Eastern seaboard and larger cities, realize how great the immigration of Blacks from Africa, Latin America and Europe has been over the last 10-15, and if folks are even aware that these actors are not US-born, though I'd argue that at some level, people may be aware, since there are foreign-born Blacks (and not only just people from the Anglophone Caribbean) living in predominantly Black and non-Black communities across the US. Whether the presence and representation in film and televisual media of non-US born Black actors may be reshaping perceptions is another question, though it's one I think that could and should be posed.


From an email I received from the wonderful Carolyn Micklem of Cave Canem:

Seeking Book Donations
The New Orleans Public Library
(New Orleans LA)

The New Orleans Public Library is asking for any and all hardcover and paperback books for people of all ages in an effort to restock the shelves after Katrina. The staff will assess which titles will be designated for its collections. The rest will be distributed to destitute families or sold for library fundraising. Please send your books to:

Rica A. Trigs, Public Relations
New Orleans Public Library
219 Loyola Avenue
New Orleans, LA 70112

If you tell the post office that they are for the library in New Orleans, they will give you the library rate which is slightly less than the book rate.


  1. Djimon Hounsou *swoon*

    Thanks for the shout out!

  2. While I certainly don't/can't speak for all African American actors, I think most are not bothered by the presence of foreign-born Black actors. We are bothered far more by the paucity of good roles and the fact that too many parts are going to non-acting rappers, athletes and other untalented celebrities.

    I know there are efforts to build bridges between Black actors, writers, and directors in this country and those in Great Britain and Africa. Folks like Danny Glover have been instrumental in helping to finance pictures over there and get those films exposure in this country.

  3. You know, I also wonder what possibilities exist for Black American actors (of all origins) with the rise of Nollywood. There a film boom in Nigeria right now and there was recently a Nollywood conference in Hollywood. I think things are about to get shaken up quite a bit.

  4. P.S. Re: New Orleans' library needs.

    If you have any contacts or influence with them, tell them to create an Amazon wishlist. A great many libary systems have, you know. A few years ago, one enterprising blogger got the brilliant idea to start a campaign where folks picked libraries either at random or dear to their hearts and encouraged their readers and friends to purchase the books off those lists to have donated to those libaries. A number of libraries in small communities were absolutely delighted.

  5. Library: Ellis Marsallis III lives here in Baltimore (he's published a book of poetry and photographs under the pen name tpLuce titled Da Bloc), and is organizing a book drive -- literally. He's renting a truck, packing up donations, and driving them back down to New Orleans.

    Actors: You're right about "Without a Trace" the Australian LaPaglia does play American on the show. Its great to see him and Jean-Baptiste doing scenes together. Theres a sense of 'old pros' enjoying each others company about them.
    It was very odd to see Chiwetel Ejiofor playing a Chicago 'gansta' in "Four Brothers." I thought he did well, but at the same time as Bernie says, one also wishes to see him in better roles. For example, Adrian Lester (who played a very morose Orpheus in a BBC two-part version of "Jason and the Argonauts") is now the central character/star in another BBC production, "Hustle" seen in the US on the American Movie Classics cable channel. Somewhat of a weekly, British version of 'The Sting', the show is about high level con men and women cheating greedy people, he gets to be suave, sophisticated, and in charge throughout the show. Very pleasing to see him and him in that role.
    Finally, I want to second Keguro: Djimon Hounsou *swoon*

  6. Keguro, I'm sorry the props took so long! Also, Djimon Hounsou is *double swoon*!

    Bernie, I hear you on the lack of good roles. The fact that non-US born Black actors are in Hollywood in such small numbers and that they often have training and really *are* actors probably also assures little conflict. I've heard about Glover's multi-pronged diasporic efforts, which I think are great and badly needed. I don't know the library person listed, but I'll forward your note on to Carolyn.

    Mendi, I hadn't thought of Nollywood, but that's a very good question. What is the source of the funding there? Is it feasible for Black American actors to head there and participate in film projects? I also wonder about people with Nollywood training heading to Hollywood. Interestingly enough, I read today that Will Smith, of all people, is in...Bollywood this week, being fêted!

    Reggie, I don't think you'd mentioned Marsalis's effort, but that sounds excellent. I purposely mentioned the persistence of stereotypical roles, which dogs not only these actors (remember Akinnuoye-Agbaje played a gangster in 50 Cent's movie, and de Bankolé is a slave in Manderlay...) but African-Americans too. But things have begun to open up and will only continue to do so, especially as Black film people create new opportunities. I don't know if you saw im on Girlfriends, but Lester had a recurring role several years ago as Traci Ross's boyfriend Ellis. His accent sometimes would get a bit slippery, but it was fun to see him in that role and think about his exceptional stage performance (which was also captured on TV) as Hamlet. Akinnuoye-Agbaje went from being the most outrageous prisoner in Oz, Adebisi, to now plaing a recurring role on Lost as Misterecko/Mr. Ecko, a gangster masquerading as a priest (but you know he still has a sinister edge). I started watching the show once he came on it. One of my faves...along with Hounsou, Elba and de Bankolé...

  7. Thanks for dropping in, Humanity Critic.