A list of actors that could affect progressive change in Britain

by Shane Thomas

CONTENT NOTE: Some of the video links in this piece are NSFW due to strong language.

While it’s less of a rarity to see non-white actors on our television screens these days[1], there’s no doubt that it remains difficult for actors of colour to find work in Britain. And while I’m generally not an optimistic sort, the following is a list of actors that could hopefully affect progressive change in this respect.

Rather than focus on more mainstream names such as Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, or Chiwetel Ejiofor, or on older names who are less known, like Nadine Marshall, Benedict Wong, or Dona Croll, this is a list of younger actors of colour who are worth keeping an eye on:

RuthNegga
Ruth Negga

I first noticed Negga on the BBC show, Personal Affairs, although genre-fiction fans may know her best from her role in the second series of Channel 4’s, Misfits, where she played the character of Nikki.

However, Negga flashed loud & bright on my personal radar, when she played Shirley Bassey, in Shirley, a biopic of the iconic singer. While the TV movie was flawed, Negga’s performance was one of iridescent brilliance, which should have got a lot more award recognition than it received. It was a display that demanded attention, and it definitely grabbed mine.

Negga has just been cast in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, the television spin-off of Avengers Assemble. And with roles in World War Z, 12 Years a Slave, and the Jimi Hendrix biopic, All Is by My Side in the can, Negga may end up as the breakout star on this list.

Jessica Henwicklarge

Jessica Henwick:

It’s still the embryonic stages of Henwick’s career, but she’s already made a significant impact on the British television scene. Starring in the children’s show, Spirit Warriors, Henwick was the first East Asian actor to play the lead role in a British television series (which probably owes something to the show being authored by another woman of East Asian descent, Jo Ho).

She’s more recently been part of the cast of the third series of the BBC legal drama, Silk. One gets the impression that this is the beginning of a career that’s already laid down a landmark for actors of colour in Britain, and aged only 21, Henwick’s got nothing but time on her side.

Aml Ameen

Aml Ameen:

Ameen’s first came to my attention when he played Trife, the lead in the Menhaj Huda movie, Kidulthood. The film was a compelling (if uneven) portrayal of inner-city life in London, but Ameen shone. Often the juvenile, patriarchal “rude boy” is a reductive stereotype on screen, but he added a strong layer of empathy that one doesn’t always see from this archetype. The same could be said for his role in the Channel 4 drama, Fallout.
Ameen is more likely to be seen on the other side of the Atlantic these days, with minor roles on both the small and big screen, in Harry’s Law, Red Tails and Lee Daniels’ The Butler. However, he more than has the ability to be end up as a leading man – I hope it happens sooner rather than later.

London Evening Standard British Film Awards 2012
John Boyega

Like Ameen, he’s another who imprinted his ability onto my consciousness playing the “kid from the ends” in Attack the Block. While I found the film enjoyable – if problematic in some areas – Boyega has a natural screen charisma that led him to outshine the rest of the cast (a cast which included more established names like Jodie Whittaker and Nick Frost).

Boyega will soon appear in our cinemas as Ugwu in the movie adaptation of the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie novel, Half of a Yellow Sun. Still only 21, he’ll be sharing the screen with the likes of Thandie Newton and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Despite his relatively young age, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him become one of the most prominent actors of colour in the business before he turns 30.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw

Gugu Mbatha-Raw:

She’s another actor who can be a common source of pop-culture trivia. Genre-fiction fans will likely recognise her from Doctor Who, when she played the sister of Martha Jones. She followed that up by starring opposite Aml Ameen, in the aforementioned, Fallout – which was when she first stood out in her own right.

Since then, Mbatha-Raw has mostly been seen in North America, with leading roles in the television shows, Undercovers, and Touch. But she may become a more familiar name to all as the lead in Belle, the new film from Amma Asante. The story tells a much ignored piece of British history, and while the cast contains many established white actors (Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Matthew Goode, Miranda Richardson), it’s Mbatha-Raw who will be front and centre in the movie. All being well, it won’t be for the last time.

Daniel Kaluuya


Daniel Kaluuya:

Kaluuya is likely to be one of the more recognisable names on this list, as he’s popped up on a number of mainstream programmes, such as Skins, That Mitchell and Webb Look, and Doctor Who.

He was part of the cast in the much underrated Random, before building upon his genre-fiction filmography with The Fades – which won a BAFTA, before being cancelled (no, I don’t understand why the BBC did that, either). He also starred in an episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror (which, to my mind, is one of the greatest pieces of UK television in years). It’s already a strong body of work. I only hope it continues for many more years.

Zawe Ashton

Zawe Ashton:

Interesting tidbit about Ashton. She was part of the cast of Sherlock (yes, that Sherlock), but the opening episode was re-shot, with Vinette Robinson taking over the role of Sally Donovan.

She gave a stellar display in the low-budget film, Dreams of a Life, and currently plays Jason Isaacs long-suffering secretary in the BBC’s Case Histories. However, Ashton came to my attention for playing the hard-partying, hedonistic, foul-mouthed Vod, in the Channel 4 sitcom, Fresh Meat.

Full disclosure, I think Ashton is the most talented actor on this list. She was far and away my choice to play the 12th Doctor, and she’ll be my choice to play the 13th.

Riz Ahmedlarge
Riz Ahmed

Not just a superb actor, and skilled rapper, but Ahmed is one of the more socially aware people in the British entertainment industry at present. A look at the nature of his work, from Dead Set, to Ill Manors, to The Reluctant Fundamentalist is evidence of an actor who seems to care about more than just fame and a burgeoning bank balance.

For me, Ahmed’s finest work was in Four Lions. In what was a scathing, problematic, and at times very funny slapstick caper movie – using the topic of terrorism as a backdrop – Ahmed gave an astonishing central role, which stopped the story dissolving into incongruous farce. Personally I’d have given him an Oscar nomination. However, I expect that he’ll end up getting one of those for real.

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Amara Karan:

To make your screen debut in a Wes Anderson movie says a lot, holding your own with a cast including Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman says even more.

She was also in the drama, Kidnap and Ransom, and the first movie of the St. Trinian’s reboot. However, it looked for a while as if Karan’s career had begun to stall after showing such early promise. So it was good to see her impress in a one-off role in a recent episode of Doctor Who. Here’s to seeing more of her on our screens in the coming years.

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One of the potential issues you may have noticed with this list, is that many of these names have had to go to North America in order to progress their careers. One hopes that the structure around British film and television can be overhauled to be inclusive of everyone – not just those marginalised by race, but also by their gender identity, sexuality, body type, or disability.

I should also state that the above list of actors is by no means definitive. As I type my final few lines, I can already see that I’ve omitted names like Arsher Ali, Lenora Crichlow and Antonia Thomas.

And yes, this is a British-focused list, but I’m sure that there are many other actors of colour from other nations who deserve more attention as well. So feel free to add your suggestions in the comments below, as I would love for this piece to get us all talking about how good acting isn’t just the preserve of white people.

[1]One of my few childhood memories was the reaction of my household when the Tavernier family was introduced in Eastenders. You’d have thought that this was the “promised land” that Martin Luther King Jr has spoken about all those years ago.

A mixed-race film graduate, Shane Thomas comes from Jamaican and Mauritian parentage. He has been blogging about sport since 2010 at the website for The Greatest Events in Sporting History. He is also a contributor to Simply Read’, the blogging offshoot of the podcasting network, Simply Syndicated. A lover of sport, genre-fiction, and privilege checking, Shane can be found on Twitter, both at @TGEISH and @tokenbg (and yes, the handle does mean what you think it means).

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