Ask anyone to name a Black British actor and names like Thandie Newton, Idris Elba and Naomi Harris immediately come to mind. These and others prominently fly the flag for the UK both here and abroad, but what about those faces you may know well but were never able to put a name to? They are a talented pool of actors, filmmakers and writers who are making an indelible impact in the film and television world. Here is an introduction to just a few of the people making waves in the industry and helping to bring Black British talent to the forefront. Look for a feature on the more prominent talent in the next issue.
The Chameleon: David Oyelowo
David Oyelowo has convincingly played King Henry VI in the Shakespeare’s play of the same name (2001), a MI5 agent in Spooks (2004), and a Jamaican immigrant in Small Island (2009). This father of two has established a notable career on stage, on television and in film. Born in Oxford in 1976, his most recent appearance was in the critically acclaimed BBC2 drama Blood and Oil (2010) with his Small Island co-star Naomi Harris. His films credits include the Last King of Scotland (2006) and Kenneth Branagh’s As You Like It (2006.)
This year David Oyelowo is part of two large scale Hollywood films; Red Tails penned by director George Lucas and Selma, directed by Lee Daniels (Precious), where David will portray the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The Thespian: Chiwetel Ejiofor OBE
This East London native, born in 1974, first came to mainstream prominence with his leading role in Dirty Pretty Things (2002) for which he won a British Independent Film Award. Ejiofor’s career maintained momentum, with an appearance in ensemble comedy Love Actually (2003), a flamboyant role as Lola the transvestite in Kinky Boots (2005). Ejiofor added a few more awards to this belt (BAFTA, Gotham Awards, Indepdendent Spirit Award) and was even nominated twice for a Golden Globe Award. Ejiofor has also appeared in audience favourites such as Inside Man (2006), American Gangster (2007), and 2012 (2009).
2010/2011 will see him appearing opposite Angelina Jolie in the action-thriller Salt and in horror film The Suffering.
The Lens Master: John Akomfrah OBE
Born in Ghana in 1957 John Akomfrah is a respected British screenwriter and director. He has directed various documentaries, television and feature films since 1986. In that same year he made one of his most celebrated works, Handsworth Songs, which looked at race and civil strife in 1980s Britain. Dr Martin Luther King: Days of Hope (1997) and The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong (1999) are just two of his BBC productions. Akonfrah co-founded the Black Audio Film Collective in 1982 with seven other industry insiders to explore the issues of Black British identity in art and film. John is also well known for his writings on African Cinema.
Akomfrah’s latest work Mnemosyne, debuted at The Public in West Bromwich in January 2010 to much critical praise.
The One to Watch: Nikki Amuka Bird
This Nigeria born actress has become a familiar face on British television. Her hard work has landed her parts on popular TV favourites including Bad Girls, The Bill, Holby City and Robin Hood. Nikki Amuka Bird’s intense presence is as unforgettable as her name. Most viewers will know the thirty four year old from her recent roles in The No 1 Ladies Detective (2008), Small Island (2009) and BBC1’s Survivors (2008-2010.) Her onscreen husband in three productions (including Born Equal and Shoot the Messenger) has been fellow Brit David Oyelowo.
Nikki’s most recently played Det.Supt. Gaynor Jenkins in the BBC 1 series Silent Witness.
The Rising Star: Gugu Mbatha-Raw
Gugu Mbatha-Raw was born in Oxford in 1983 to a South African doctor Patrick Mbatha and English nurse Anne Raw. She has been forging a career in television and on stage since her graduation from The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in 2004. Mbatha-Raw has been a regular face on Bad Girls (2006), Spooks (2006), Dr Who (2007) and in Bonekickers (2008).
In 2009 and 2010 Gugu Mbatha-Raw played Ophelia opposite Jude Law’s Hamlet, first in the West End and then on Broadway. The play’s director Michael Grandage has frequently been quoted as describing her as “one of the most remarkable young actresses around.”
Gugu will be bursting onto the American small screen as the lead actress in the new J J Abrams directed TV show Undercovers in 2011 starring opposite Boris Kodjoe. The show has been described as being a cross between Mr and Mrs Smith and The Bourne Identity.
The Writer: Biyi Bandele
British Nigerian novelist and playwright Biyi Bandele has exhibited his brilliance in many different media, having written for radio, television and film. He is most famous for his adaptation of Chinua Achebe’s book Things Fall Apart for the theatre. Born in Nigeria in 1967, Bandele first came to London in 1990. He has written five novels, adapting one of them ‘The Street’ for the stage in 1999. He has also directed plays for both the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Court Theatre.
Biyi is currently working on his first screenplay for a biopic about the afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti. The movie will be directed by Steve McQueen.
The Artist: Steve McQueen
This London artist-turned- director is known for his experimental and unique films. Steve McQueen is a video artist who also does sculpture and photography. Born in 1969 McQueen grew up in West London but now calls Amsterdam home. He was the recipient of the Camera D’or at the Cannes Film Festival and the London Evening Standard’s Best Film Award for his first full length film Hunger in 2008. He also won the Turner Prize for his art work in 1999. Steve represented Britain at The Venice Biennale, a contemporary art festival, in 2009. Despite his foray into feature length films McQueens says he is an artist first.
McQueen’s latest project is co-writing and directing a biopic about Fela Kuti, the famous Nigerian musician and political activist.