Hollywood Needs to Start Hiring Actual Africans to Play African Characters
In a time when we’re finally getting to celebrate culturally specific content, mainstream film and television continues to fail characters of African descent.
Images via Getty (L) and Netflix (R)
This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
When I first heard about Netflix’s Turn Up Charlie, I was excited about both Idris Elba’s return to television, and the prospect of seeing my Nigerian culture represented in a mainstream TV show. The premise was simple enough: A former bad boy DJ has his work cut out for him when he becomes “manny” (male nanny) to his best friend’s precocious daughter, all while trying to restore himself to his former glory. Elba’s character, Charlie Ayo, is the first and only son of two doting, if not obsessive parents, with whom he Skypes every so often from an unnamed Nigerian city. Elba himself is of West African descent, born to Sierra Leonean-Ghanaian immigrants who moved to London before having him. So I’d hoped the show might reflect some nuance about the culture clash, being a second-generation kid, having to move into your aunt’s spare room… you know, the good stuff.
Getting into the first episode though, my optimism quickly dissipated as I realized that Charlie’s Nigerian-ness was more of a comedic sidebar to the main plot. Worse still, we were going to get the same caricatured TV version of “the African relative”so common in today’s pop culture. From Charlie’s brash-but-loving aunty Lydia—who sounded nothing like any Nigerian I’ve ever met or spoken to—to the cartoonish Ayos themselves, who still believe their son is dating (and potentially engaged to) a woman they haven’t actually seen or heard from in months, his family seemed like more of a mishmash of pan-African stereotypes than anything unique to Nigerian culture.
But that’s not to say that they got everything wrong. The show definitely captured the culture clash, as well as the nuance of maintaining those important relationships and dealing with familial expectations. And to be fair, a lot of it was funny. It just wasn’t authentic.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t brand new either. In fact, historically, the entertainment industry’s relationship to Black people and culture has always been fraught. In the early days of cinema, they rarely appeared except as stock characters like the servant or help (think Hattie McDaniel’s “Mammy” from Gone with the Wind or, more recently, Viola Davis’ character in The Help). Or sometimes, these characters were simply played by white actors in “blackface,” a racist legacy that still rears its ugly head fashion, social media, and other popular culture today.
A large part of this problem stems from white ignorance about African cultures. TV and film studios tend to prioritize audience over subject, and so Hollywood consistently finds itself pandering to white audiences who simply don’t know any better. Even supposedly well-meaning productions put big names and box office numbers over authenticity. Consider 2013’s Concussion, Will Smith’s take on Dr. Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian neuropathologist who first discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (known as CTE) among football players. For a film that should have immortalized Omalu’s legacy, all I’m left with today is the memory of Will Smith’s Nigerian “accent,” etched indelibly into my memory.
And while it’s easy to make this a Hollywood problem, there’s also a slippery slope when it comes to how we reflect on ourselves. Tropes like the “back home” family member or the “poorer cousin or aunty” have always featured predominantly even in more culturally specific film and TV. Even when you look at viral content online today, a lot of that stuff is us poking fun at cultural nuances and experiences that are unique to our ethnic backgrounds.
Popular comedian Majah Hype does sketches featuring everyone’s favorite Jamaican aunties, hair stylists, and check-out clerks. Instagram personality Jessie Woo made a name for herself on social media doing impressions of Haitian church moms. And that’s fine. It’s all fine, and it’s a great way for us to feel connected to our backgrounds, especially in the diaspora. The problem starts when these highly exaggerated caricatures of our parents, grandparents, and siblings become the only reflection of these cultures that the rest of the world gets to see.
“It’s entertaining and it’s funny and it’s a good way to tell our specific stories,” writer and radio host Bee Quammie told VICE. According to her, this type of content is a big part of second generation culture and how we relate with our heritage. But the danger, she says, is that these characters then “cease to [be] real people,” and then become those one-dimensional tropes that are so popular today.
That is why, for her, a large part of this conversation is about reckoning with our own diasporic privilege and how that plays into these stereotypes. “We do them a disservice when we are not presenting them as whole people,” Quammie said. “We want to be seen as whole people, so we’re reflecting our heritage, but then we’re not reflecting them as whole people, so it’s not fair.”
Media is, in a lot of ways, how people all over the world form their perceptions about places and things that they have yet to come in direct contact with themselves. That means that many people’s first and maybe only contact with some of these cultures is through these TV shows, films, or viral videos. So while there’s room (and sometimes it’s even necessary) to poke fun and laugh at ourselves, I would argue that we lose something when those satirical nods become the dominant cultural narrative. And when it comes to Hollywood itself, the conversation about representation in film and TV isn’t just about slapping on a couple of ethnic characters for a diversity checkmark, it’s also about what kind of space those characters are taking up. Representation shouldn't just happen, it needs to be nuanced and truly reflective and genuine for it to mean anything at all.
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