By Claudia Mulholland
With the buzz of Oscars season seeming like a distant memory, Hollywood has come back down to earth with a bump as questions resurface over the representation of minority groups in the film industry. Silver screen veteran Samuel L Jackson has made public his contempt for the casting of Daniel Kaluuya in Hollywood’s latest comedy horror blockbuster Get Out, criticising the director’s choice of a British actor to a portray the African-American protagonist. Kaluuya, who shot to fame for his role in the 2015 film Sicario, has responded to Jackson’s remarks, defending his casting in the film and calling for unity within the community of black actors.
And it is with Daniel Kaluuya that my sympathies lie. Following the undeniably troubling misrepresentation of minority groups on screen in 2016, thus far 2017 has been a stellar year for black actors. The Hollywood support for the African-American community has been somewhat unprecedented: the Oscar for Best Picture was awarded to the film Moonlight and Viola Davis was decorated for her performance in Denzel Washington’s adaptation for the screen of the play Fences. This year’s upsurge, although delayed, should not be reduced and muddied by petty dramas and farcical one-upmanship.
Chiwetel Ejiofor’s casting as Solomon Northup in Steve McQueen’s 2012 film 12 Years a Slave did not generate criticism at the time of the film’s release in spite of him being a British man portraying the plight of an African American. Commentators who tacitly defend Jackson’s criticisms suggest a tenuously credible explanation for this, stating that in a film like that of McQueen’s, the emotional distance from the issues at hand afforded to a British actor allows for the creation of stronger screen material. Whilst I’m troubled by the implicit suggestion that the film industry seeks a form of emotional sterility when it comes to such emotive and politically sensitive subjects, perhaps it is the case that for an African-American actor, having an ancestry so in parallel with the words and directions of a script, to play an enslaved man, to be brutally beaten, to be shackled on screen, is to retrocede the great civil rights advancements of twentieth-century America.
Yet Jordan Peele’s Get Out is explicitly different to the harrowing and unapologetically stark masterpiece by McQueen, which, in spite of its cinematic brilliance, provoked some moviegoers to boycott cinemas in a humble show of respect and sorrowful regret. Get Out is ultimately a comic thriller. While it tackles the issue of interracial dating and marriage, and should certainly be praised for its political consciousness, Peele’s directorial style is thrillingly light-hearted. I resent the notion that this is a uniquely American tale that should be told by an African-American actor. Interracial relationships were seen as threats to the ‘natural’ order internationally as the 2016 film A United Kingdom highlighted (albeit in a stereotypically Hollywood manner). I strongly oppose the idea that black British actors be resigned to the industry bench, substituted on only to tackle roles deemed too sensitive for an African-American cast.
Should it not be the case that casting is based on dramatic ability and merit? All too often we see stars poorly cast in big money roles, a producer’s desire for record box office sales casting a shadow over the quality of acting. Get Out initially received a 100% positive rating on the review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes despite lacking a huge star in the title role, testament surely to the directing of Jordan Peele and the portrayal of the protagonist Chris Washington by British-born Daniel Kaluuya. Perhaps Samuel L Jackson, once a civil rights activist who attended the funeral of Martin Luther King, has had his view clouded by his Hollywood success and no longer believes in the advancement young actors regardless of their nationality or the colour of their skin. Whether or not the remarks made by Mr Jackson were flippant or symbolic of some deeper Anglo-American divide within the film community, in a year of such racial advancement in the industry, it saddens me that such contentions continue to persist.
Photograph: Pinguino K