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‘Watch Something Else’: Damson Idris Chimes In on Debate About Black British Actors Playing Black American Characters

Damson Idris is one of Hollywood’s fastest-rising stars.

The Black British actor’s role on the hit FX series “Snowfall” has made him an “it” guy, carrying the cachet elite enough to receive private piano lessons from rap star Saweetie and hang with celebrities like Rihanna, LeBron James, and Jay-Z at the 2022 Super Bowl. The influencer is so in with Jay-Z that he has shared that the RocNation founder gave him a reference when he applied for his green card — a document that people who are not U.S. citizens need to stay in the country for an extended length of time.

Damson Idris attends FX’s “Snowfall” season 5 premiere at Grandmaster Recorders on Feb, 17, 2022 in Los Angeles. (Photo: Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

Despite being so popular with fans and members of entertainment’s cool club, the fact that he is a foreigner successfully gigging in America’s competitive film & television world has ruffled some people’s feathers.

Many believe that Black Brits, born in Europe and not in the states, shouldn’t get roles that are based on people with American origins. Top-notch thespians like Idris Elba, Thandi Newton, John Boyega, Letitia Wright, that Oscar-nominated Cynthia Erivo and Chiwetel Ejiofor, and the Oscar winning Daniel Kaluuya seem to dominate on the big screen, and that has left some American Blacks furious.

Actor Samuel L. Jackson spoke out two years ago when Jordan Peele’s hit movie “Get Out” hired Kaluuya as its lead.

He said, “There are a lot of black British actors in these movies. I tend to wonder what that movie [Get Out] would have been with an American brother who really feels that. Daniel grew up in a country where they’ve been interracial dating for a hundred years. What would a brother from America have made of that role? Some things are universal, but [not everything].” 

In an interview with GQ Magazine, Idris gives an answer to the blacklash that critics are forgetting … he and others like him are actors.

While detailing all the work that goes into his mastering the role of Franklin Saint, a character whose very essence is seven time zones from where he grew up, Idris says he is good at it because he pays attention to the notes from others who understand the story authentically.

“I honestly believe it’s about listening,” Idris states. “To make a movie, TV show, play a character, so much goes into it. It’s not all just put on the person that’s playing it. We have advisors, just like when I did “Snowfall” the first season, and the second season, I had Dub-C with me every single day, who’s from there, I had John Singleton, who’s from there … and that’s how good actors approach characters that they play.”

He also believes people don’t have to watch British actors playing American figures.

“If you have a problem with people playing characters that are not them, one, watch something else. Two, watch a documentary,” he submits.

Regina King agrees that it is about casting who’s best for the role regardless of nationality.

When talking in London last month at a BAFTA event about “One Night in Miami,” a film she directed, she spoke about why she booked a Black Brit for one of the leads.

She stated the movie was “just a love letter to the Black man’s experience in America. But then taking that step back and really taking in marginalized people across the world. There are feelings and experiences that black people in the UK, in Brazil feel that are the same as in America. While the history of how a country came to be may be different, the marginalization of a black man is the same, colorism is the same in all of those places.”

“Kingsley [Ben-Adir] was the best actor for that role [as Malcolm X], and Eli [Goree] was the best actor for that role [as Muhammad Ali],” she continued. “Sure, neither one of them are American. But can they relate to the experience and the pain felt by a Black person for being disregarded just because of the color of your skin? Absolutely, they can. Can they take it upon themselves to make sure they educate themselves on the ways it’s specific to America in the history of how black Americans had built this country; it was built on the bodies of black Americans? They can definitely educate themselves on that, and they did.”

The late John Singleton had the same philosophy when casting. When first promoting the show in 2017 and faced with the same question about casting Idris in ”Snowfall” for such a Black American role, he simply stated to the Redding News Review, “He was the best actor for the job.”

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