There’s a movie about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. headed to theaters. Selma looks like one of those that’s going to stay with viewers for a long time after they’ve watched. There are A-list stars, including Oprah Winfrey, in some of the leading roles. And a black woman, Ava DuVernay, directed it!
I was a bit in awe when I realized that four of the lead actors, including David Oyelowo, who played Dr. King, and Tom Wilkinson, who played former President Lyndon B. Johnson, were British with heavy native British accents.
There wasn’t a hint of their native accents in the promos, and I’m sure once we get lost in the portrayal of the actual movie, we won’t notice them there either.
This realization left a huge impression on me because of an interview I once did with a Caribbean thespian. She had been told that a thick Jamaican accent wouldn’t work in the American theater, film and TV industry for a big star. Though she had garnered tremendous critical acclaim, she decided that she would live with fewer work prospects because she considered it an insult to even be asked to change her accent.
I’m as proud a West Indian as any, and in truth it irks me to think of ever modifying my identity to suit anyone.
But to build our brands, to expand our footprints, to broaden our horizons, isn’t there a time and place for the “when in Rome” principle?
I’ve heard of Caribbeans in prominent TV roles before.
Geoffrey from the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, for example, was actually born in St Lucia. Sheryl Lee Ralph is Jamaican. C.C. Pounder was born in Guyana.
They’ve each built a fantastic international on-screen presence, not by denying their Caribbean roots, but by embracing the needs of the genre they cater to.
“Real West Indians” often want to call that selling out. But I think it’s time we start to think of it as just … selling.
Hopefully we can change that mindset, and then maybe some of us too can jump on the road to A-list celebrity status.
Calibe Thompson is a personality, author and the producer of The Caribbean Diaspora Weekly. For your free preview of her 2015 collection of writings, Things I Probably Shouldn’t Say, visit www.calibe.net.