Friday, November 11, 2005

On African and African American Actors

Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo in "Hotel Rwanda"


Ah, Bra John, "Their blacks are better than yours"? I think you're a little misguided on this...

Much respect, John Matshikiza--much respect... Don't get me wrong--your work in theater, stage, film and television is uncompromising. I loved you in that artful, stupendous film, "The Heart of the Country." Between the breathtaking scenery, shining cinematography, and passionate portrayals of idiosyncratic characters karmically entwined in the Free State, I saw a glimpse of the possibility of what real, world-class South African cinema could be. And you had me in sitches when you were steppin' around in the white baas' boots and taking his daughter's virginity! As a director, writer and actor, you know your craft, and you know how to bring out the best in folks. I can't help agreeing with most of what you've said--for years I've longed for really seeing more of what South Africa has to offer the world on the silver screen--I think the issue is a little more complex. African Americans and Americans aren't the only ones who are making the decisions and controlling what ends up as the final film product. I'll give you an example, and I'll even start with the 1950 version of "Cry the Beloved Country," which you point out as the genesis of baffling accents and confusing African Americans taking South African roles. Personally, I thought both Sydney Poitier and Canadee Lee did fantastic jobs in that film. When Anant Singh and Darryl Roodt remade "Cry the Beloved Country" in 1995, they captured the splendour of the Drakensburg and added rich textures and great scenery that gave life to Sophiatown and Jo-burg in the 50s. But Canada Lee delivered an eerie line with a singular grace that gave the movie its intense emotional power. But Anant Singh and Darryl Roodt wouldn't touch that line, maybe for fear of offending the "Rainbow Nation New South Africa" 'I'm okay you're okay' ethos. Or maybe because they're not Black (is Indian really "Black"?) James Jarvis has an eiphany, after accepting his son's death, he see's his son's humanity, and he recognizes his own failings. He turns to the Black minister, Rev. Stephen Khumalo, and says:

James Jarvis: "All my life I have lived in darkness."
Rev. Khumalo: "Every white man I have ever known..."

My point is that even the most respected South African producers and directors can make their own decisions and their own mistakes. And sometimes they get it things right, and they have an extraordinary capability of telling their own South African stories. Whatever resistance you might have to African American actors, Anant Singh did the right thing in casting James Earl Jones as Stephen Khumalo. Maybe he didn't speak with a Zulu accent as you know it, but his performance was impeccable nonetheless. I may not have liked what Anant and Darryl were up to with changing the climax and most powerful part of the film, but they did a lot of other things very well. At the end of the day, having Richard Harris as Jarvis and James Earl Jones as Rev. Khumalo brought international attention and acclaim to the film that otherwise would not have been.

As you pointed out, this thing of African American actors and South African films and themes goes way back, and I often hate the marbled accents as much as you do. But sometimes really good actors have a way feeling a part, and making it their own, even when the character comes from a different culture. I'm thinking of Don Cheadle's performance of Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda. He played the role well, and he drew the audience that that film deserved. And many South African actors benefitted from the African American element in that production. The actors learned from each other and pulled together something dramatic, powerful and haunting, something that hopefully opens people's eyes to a cinematic journey beyond comfortable suburban mindsets. The genocide in Rwanda was a story that very much needed to be told, to as large and wide an audience as possible.

Maybe Don Cheadle is one of the few African American actors who has enough talent and verbal dexterity to really immerse himself in an African accent. Nonetheless, I'm sure there are ways in which African American and African producers, directors and actors can collaborate constructively, as they did in HBO's "Sometimes in April." And none of these productions--however fabulous or flawed--precludes South Africans from making their own bold and intelligent independent films that can grab attention at Cannes or Sundance. South Africa definitely has the industry infrastructure and abundantly talented writers, producers, directors and actors.

But this thing of South African actors and American actors has a history, and it's something we're all trying to work through. A lot of African American models and actors have been coming to South Africa since the early 90s and were getting parts and opportunities that they couldn't access in New York or LA. I remember meeting a young African American brother at a Gallo record launch in 1995--after a few introductory remarks he escalated into a bragging spiel about how successful he had become. "Man, the opportunities that are out here are FANTASTIC!" he told me emphatically. At the time he was more of a curiosity to me, and I was more interested in listening to him and observing. Our involvement in South Africa stemmed from completely different understandings and motivations. All the while I was thinking, "God damn, man--do you realize that some people gave their lives so that this country could be open and free?" He should read Don Mattera's poem, Child.

As I spent more time in South Africa, I learned that there were a good number of young brothers like the one I met, and it seemed to me that the South African advertising industry was quite happy to accommodate them. Then, after a little more observing, talking to people etc., I also began to see that there was a lot of racism in the South African advertising industry, a kind of racism that an outsider might not expect from surface appearences. Once I was on the set of a commercial shoot where a Black transvestite donned a platinum wag and did a hilarious imitation of Marilyn Monroe singing "Happy Birthday, Mr. President," for some kind of advertisement. It was a funny concept, and very well executed, but there were no Black folks on the set save the transvestite and the caterers (and myself). After years of observing White people, one becomes sensitized to certain things... The conversations of the director and the crew, their facial expressions, body language and the way they treated their talent spoke volumes about their insulated arrogance and the kind of social environment they are accustomed to operating in. I could also see that this was an environment that in many ways was more welcoming to African Americans than Black South Africans. Some of this has to fit into the equation you have titled, "Their blacks are better than yours."


The larger picture is that in this era of globalization, Africans from all over the planet need to collaborate and come together to do great, creative things in the film industry. We need to look beyond tribal and national identifications to reach a new, higher definition and understanding of Africanness. After all, Don Cheadle can play an Rwandan with subtlety and Idris Elba, a Brit, can play an African American with chilling intensity. Black actors in New York City like Giancarlo Esposito have often demonstrated incredible versatility with performances that bridge culture and point the way to a new African multi-ordinal identity. Our traditions, our experience, our cultures, our heritage and the stories that made us are a tremendous source of wealth.
Hugh Masekela really spells this out when he talks about "cultural synergy" as a potential engine of economic growth for African people. But if all we see is an "African American" actor, or a "South African" actor, or a "Nigerian" actor or a Zulu or Xhosa or Hausa or Yoruba or whatever, we miss the greater vision...

Note: John Matshikiza is a columnist for the Mail & Guardian and is an acclaimed playwright, actor, director and producer. He's a brilliant, talented brother with a crooked smile, an easy manner and a hilarious sense of humour that belies his seriousness and depth. You can read his "With the Lid Off" column here.

Their blacks are better than yours

John Matshikiza: WITH THE LID OFF
23 September 2005 03:30

Thank goodness I’m too old to join the humiliating queue of black actors looking for work these days. I no longer have to fret about black Yankees being cast in roles that African actors can fulfil with ease, grace and, dare one say it, the whiff of authenticity. I’m at peace, way beyond the petty debate.


It was never a debate anyway. It was, and is, a transatlantic monologue, occasionally interrupted by cheeky, indignant, heckling interruptions from down here in the South -- out-of-work Bantu would-be actors yelling: “Why can’t we be given a fair crack of our own whip?”


You can fool yourself into believing that the phenomenon first raised its futile head in the 1980s, with the likes of Denzel Washington as Steve Biko in Cry Freedom, my buddy Danny Glover in the title role of the HBO television movie Mandela and as “Boesman” in the dead-in-the-water Boesman and Lena, starring alongside Angela Bassett as typical Korsten coloured trash. Then there was Sydney Poitier in another Mandela television film (while Morgan Freeman chafes in the wings to play the same role in Anant Singh’s endlessly upcoming epic based on Long Walk to Freedom) and James Earl Jones as the humble Zulu vicar in the remake of Cry the Beloved Country. The roster of heavily sponsored black-on-black exploitation is brought right up to date with Samuel L Jackson in the film adaptation of Antjie Krog’s Country of my Skull, and, of course, Taye Diggs in Zola Maseko’s glossy, hollow Drum.

Then there are the ubiquitous Slovo sisters making Hollywood hay while the sun still shines on the memory of their father Joe’s impeccable struggle credentials, conniving in the casting of a black British actor in Red Dust (written by big sister Gillian) and yet another honky black American in the gritty, gory Umkhonto weSizwe thriller Hot Stuff, written by middle sister Shawn, and co-produced by baby sister Robyn and currently shooting on location on various white-owned farms in the Transvaal.

No, you’d be wrong in thinking that the “our blacks are better actors than your blacks” thing began as recently as that. Poitier and Canada Lee twanged through the native roles in the first version of Cry the Beloved Country in the 1950s. And even before that, Negro extras jumped around pretending to be Zulu warriors in a long line of B movies shot in New Jersey and California way back in the early days of cinema itself in the 1920s and 1930s.

The directors of these films, all white (with the noble exception of Maseko) have always argued, as does Hot Stuff’s award-winning director, Philip “Rabbit Proof Fence” Noyes, that exclusion of the authentic African article has nothing to do with discrimination against Africans. “I looked at everyone there was to look at all over the world, and simply chose the best actor for the job,” they cry with one, well-rehearsed voice.“So there. Go make your own movies.” Conveniently forgetting that the cash to make movies, like the Negroes who end up starring in them, is over there, not over here.

While our leadership berates the West at the United Nations for continuing to subsidise their own farmers as a way of blocking the potentially wealth-creating export of African produce into their own countries (Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 metaphor of the American government paying American farmers not to produce alfalfa come to prophetic fulfilment) they make not the slightest suggestion that films shot on the African continent should empower African actors and screenwriters (Maseko was kicked out of that role in favour of an American writer in his own movie).

And, of course, it would be Hollywood sacrilege to expect an African actor to get the chance to even audition for the role of Shaft in Shaft, or for one of Washington’s drearily upright vigilante detectives in any number of American skop, skiet en donder flicks. Imagine the embarrassment of Third World “Angel of mercy” Angelina Jolie or Meryl “I had a farm in Africa” Streep struggling to introduce Seputla Sebogodi at the Oscars -- wouldn’t work.

There is something distinctly odd in standing on set with Denzel, cameras rolling as he struggles half-heartedly to emulate Biko’s Eastern Cape accent. The producers are paying him a cool few million US dollars to do his best, no more. But we cannot exclusively blame our slave-escapee “African- American” brothers and sisters for kicking dust in our faces, laughing over their shoulders as they rush back to Beverley Hills with the loot. I-job-I-job, after all -- even over there.The more flamboyantly political brothers have taken the fight into their own camp on our behalf. A burly cat with a stack of menacing talent gave himself the Ghanaian sounding name of Yaphet Koto, and continues to make a good living playing burly, menacing American gangsters. Then there was the late, great Adolph Caesar, who cocked a snook at the establishment by naming himself after two of the Western world’s most ruthless dictators, swaggering like a warped, high-yellow mirror of the society that made him, while still showing that, when it came to serious acting, he was up there with the best.But these are the exceptions that prove the rule. We can surely look forward to nothing better in the future than Will Smith playing Oliver Tambo, or Ice-T cast in the role of Kwame Nkrumah.

All of this is beyond my concern nowadays, however -- except when my daughters drag me along to see the latest, big screen travesty of our tough yet dignified history, told the American way. At that point I feel a strange hotness under my collar and an even stranger burning sensation somewhere in the seat of my pants.

That’s when I try to persuade them to switch screens in the Eastgate multiplex and go and have a good old laugh at Shrek instead, for the umpteenth time. At least he’s green, mean and a Glaswegian-accented anti-colonial freedom fighter -- with a genuine, ghetto-Negro donkey as a sidekick.

That’s what I tell myself, anyway.

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