America Welcomes Black British Talent with Open Arms
It's something in the walk, and perhaps, even a lilt in the voice that gives it away. A few pop culture critics recognized it in Idris Elba as the rough and tumble Stringer Bell on the Wire back in 2002, but couldn't put a finger on it. Others bear witness to it now in actors like Eamonn Walker, Lennie James, Carmen Ejogo, and even singer Emeli Sande – that distinctive not-quite British accent. These performers are among a new breed of British-born blacks, whose training at royal theater companies and cross-cultural heritage – usually Caribbean or African – have produced some of the most powerful performances since the 1960s British music invasion.
Cultural migrations are not uncommon between the U.S. and Europe – the Beatles and Rolling Stones, alone, co-opted the style, names, and songs of African-American blues musicians as a show of reverence and became international superstars as a result. However, in the black experience, cultural migration is documented most often as Americans gaining notoriety in Europe.
Paul Roberson, James Baldwin, Josephine Baker, and Tina Turner, all traveled to London and Paris, turning quickly into Anglophiles and Francophiles. For instance, long after the buzz over singer Tina Turner's glorious 1985 comeback and the biopic of her life in 1993, European fans continued to court her celebrity. After years of living in Europe, Turner said "If I'm in America for work, I find myself hankering to return. I may be an American in a foreign country, but I am very happy, very comfortable and very oriented here. Europe offers me security. It is a place where I have found more success, more appreciation, and that makes me feel comfortable."
The new British invasion showcases the talents of young, highly-sophisticated performances.
"You take Eamonn Walker, who was introduced to American audiences as Kareem Said in HBO's prison drama, Oz – his gaze is piercing, he has a command of the craft that makes viewers take note of him even when he is dead silent," cultural historian Beulah Bell said. "When you see that level of intensity transition from one role to another – it is as powerful in Chicago Fire, Cadillac Records, or the BBC series Moses Jones, as in Oz – it demonstrates a true calling."
Bell said that though many American actors could similarly perform, she attributes the success of the new black British actors to American access to their British roles and a desire among African Americans to see more fully-developed portrayals.
"BBC America, iPlayers, and the Hulu have had an enormous impact on introducing actors like Freema Agyeman, Aml Ameen and Noel Clarke to mainstream American audiences, but ultimately, it is the African American audience that has begun to gravitate towards 3-dimensional and complex characters like Elba's John Luther and Lennie James' DCI Tony Gates. Those types of characters have not always been so commonplace in American television and film. Face it, it's a self-esteem boost when you hear Emeli Sande sing and hit those amazing notes even better live than recorded; it makes you proud to see young, gifted, and conscious black performers – who also speak the Queen's English," Bell said.