“I’m just Daniel, who happens to be black”

Pavandeep Khosa unpacks Daniel Kaluuya’s frustrations and sentiments towards the everpresent need for more racial diversity in TV and cinema.

Daniel Kaluuya has aired his frustrations with critics and interviewers who constantly – and sometimes obsessively – search for racial messages in the roles he plays. The critically acclaimed actor and writer is currently promoting his new film Queen and Slim, the story of a couple whose first date goes wrong when they get pulled over by a police officer. Whilst the racial undertones of the film are clear, Kaluuya states that it is the complex love story that attracted him: “Yes, it’s got those moments [about race] but that’s more of a catalyst.” He makes it clear that he doesn’t want to be known as “the race guy”, an actor whose roles are determined by the racial issues they can explore. Why, then, are critics still obsessed with viewing non-white actors through their race rather than through their theatrical talents?

Kaluuya himself began his career in improvisational theatre and has gone on to star in a wide range of TV shows and films since. The films that spring to mind when we hear his name, however, are likely to be Get Out and Black Panther, both of which have racial issues at their core. Whilst it can’t be denied that the films are extremely well-made and significant in highlighting racial issues, it is clear that the media have chosen to solely draw attention to his films that explore issues of race and dismiss any other of his worthy roles in films such as Sicario and Widows.

If anything, this habit of critics is a form of discrimination in itself: by trying so hard to find racial aspects in any of his roles, and prioritising these, they disregard his other work, leaving him, and many other black actors, limited in a field that should encourage their creative potential rather than restrict it. 

Kaluuya even admitted to moving to America in order to escape the restrictive framework of the British film industry, hoping to gain more freedom in the roles he wants to play. By restricting black actors in this way, they are not afforded the same creative freedom as their white counterparts, so it’s not surprising that Kaluuya has grown frustrated. 

As well as stifling the creative freedom of actors, people of colour also face a burden of representation in an industry like the film one. Because they have successfully made it in the industry, and therefore represent the positive growth and change the industry has experienced in recent years, they are burdened with the pressure to represent their whole race. 

When actors do take on important roles and are critically acclaimed for these, they are often characters that are structured to fit certain Hollywood tropes. Lupita Nyong’o’s 2014 Oscar win for 12 Years a Slave, or Viola Davis’ 2012 win for The Help, are prime examples: one woman portrays a slave, whilst the other plays a servant. For years, Hollywood has continued to employ black actors to fit certain roles that reinforce their racial history, forcing a narrative of race on their art, which is one that Kaluuya disputes. In 2020, it is surely only right that they are given more opportunities to embrace the creative freedom they deserve in their field of work. 

Ultimately, it is still clear, of course, that race relations continue to be an issue at the forefront of the film industry, and rightly so, especially considering the recent controversies surrounding the notable lack of diversity in the Oscar nominations. Films that have these issues at their core, then, are needed now more than ever. But along with this need, there comes a restricting of creative potential for black actors, limiting them to roles that are defined by their race. This has had a direct impact on actors like Kaluuya, who are often faced with a “lack of challenging roles” compared to white actors. Thus, rather than trying to force actors into films about race in order to appear progressive and diverse, the industry should allow them the same creative freedom as their white counterparts, judged through their talent as actors and not their race.