I’ve considered myself an anglophile for years, ever since I discovered shows like Benny Hill and Monty Python on PBS. I preferred shows such as Masterpiece and Mystery (before and after they merged) and lived for shows like Are You Being Served. When I lived in Ann Arbor and had access to CBC, I still found myself drawn shows such as Wooster & Jeeves and The Grand that aired on the Canadian station.
However, I’d be the first to admit that the overwhelming amount of shows I watched imported from BBC (because it’s always the BBC and now sometimes Channel 4) were whiter than the North Pole. Yet there was something about the tone and pacing I loved about these shows that I just didn’t find over here in the States. So I continued to make PBS a priority and relished the times I had access to BBC America.
Recently, I’ve found another reason to love British imported television. I’m seeing more Black women. I’m seeing more Black women as leads. I’m seeing more dark-skinned women as leads. And it’s not just that they are Black and dark-skinned. They remind me more of myself than Black women I’m used to seeing on the screen. And the stories are about them. They are well-developed characters, perfectly flawed and human.
Some of my favorites right now are young 20-somethings although there are a few closer in age to me. I’ve made many of them face claims or fancast them in in my original fiction. But for now here are a few of my favorite actresses from the UK who give me the type of representation I never thought I would see for Black women.
We all fell in love with Michaela Coel when Chewing Gum first appeared. I heard about the show from Tumblr and went through my “usual” channels to find the show. After catching it, I practically begged Netflix or Hulu to pick up the show. We eventually got our wish with Netflix and now everyone I know loves this show.
Michaela is the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants with a devoutly religious mother, an upbringing that served as an inspiration for her play Chewing Gum Dreams that eventually became the series. In addition to Michaela’s impeccable comedic timing and wit, she has also shown herself to be multitalented, particularly with her other series The Aliens in which she gets to show off her much sexier side.
And her eyes. She has such lovely eyes. Furthermore, when she accepted her BAFTA for the best female comedic performance, she proudly represented Ghana with her beautiful dress. (And took a beautiful picture with fellow Ghanaian Idris Elba!) And she’s also promised her beloved character Tracy would sport a natural hairstyle on the upcoming second season of Chewing Gum, about to air soon in the UK’s Channel 4.
Face Claim: Abby, Let the Child Weep
Michaela Coel was not the only shining star to come from Chewing Gum. Susan Wokoma, who plays sister Cynthia, had some of the best lines and moments from the show. Cynthia’s religious fervor and plain stubbornness matched well with Tracy’s eccentricities. And Susan played it all to perfection, making Cynthia one of the stand out characters in a show full of oddballs and other quirky folks.
So of course when I found out Susan had her own show, Cr*zyhead, I immediately looked for it. Fortunately, it came to Netflix not too long ago and I binged the entire six-episode season. At times, the show tries very hard to deny Susan’s Raquel as the show’s lead, but Raquel manages to come across as the focal point with Amy as more of a point of view character, a stand in to let the audience learn about the world of demons along with her.
But Raquel by far has the best lines and completely makes the show. She has a mysterious past the audience must learn about as the show progresses. Most importantly, she has people in her life who care about her including a brother and a “father.” And I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to see a dark-skinned plus size Black woman actually have a sex/love life — onscreen. Furthermore, Raquel may love her position as a “kick arse hell bitch,” but she is far from a Strong Black Woman stereotype and brings to life a quirky English girl.
Susan also appears in another comedy series, Crashing, but all too briefly. However, when she does appear, she shows yet another side of herself. While Cynthia appears every bit as school marmish as her Christian upbringing implies and Raquel comes across as a plain jane, Jessica is stylish and metropolitan, very much a young modern, cosmopolitan London woman. Unfortunately, Jessica only appears in a few episodes and no story arcs seem to revolve around her yet.
Like much of the Black talent coming out of England these days, Susan is of Nigerian heritage. She appeared on stage with Michaela Coel and is also an award winning actress. Knowing she portrayed Beneatha Younger in a stage production of A Raisin in the Sun further testifies to her range as an actress. It also tells you why she is my acting crush of the moment.
Face Claim: Raven Moody, The Raven Moody Chronicles
The first time I saw Wunmi Mosaku, she appeared in an episode of Black Mirror. She had her natural hair braided back and wore glasses. She looked familiar, like someone who could be in my family or grew up down the street from me. I then found out she appeared with Chewital Ejiofor and Angel Coulby in the mini-series Dancing on the Edge and binged it the Saturday after binging Black Mirror. And after watching Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice a few weeks ago, I found she had an essential role in the blockbuster film. But even before that, I decided she was the face claim I needed for a crucial character in my novel.
I’d be lying if I said her striking beauty wasn’t one of the first things I noticed about Wunmi. She’s Nigerian and grew up in England, making her part of a class of Nigerians making headway in Great Britain’s acting community. In fact, she has nearly 40 acting credits to her name and if she’s done stage work like most other British actors, then she is probably one of the busiest working actors today with three films in post-production and filming two series for 2017.
As I said before, Wunmi is quite a beauty, probably too beautiful for my face claim, but this could work to an advantage in an ironic way. In the meantime, I plan to find more of her work and get to know her better as an actress.
Face Claim: Raelynn Crawford, Let the Child Weep
I’ve been enamored of Nikki Bird since I first saw her as Erin Gray in Luther. Here was a pretty dark-skinned woman, a professional who experiences lots of stress on the job. Not surprising, she was born in Nigeria and raised in the UK and Antigua. However, I was surprised to learn that she is 40, nearly the same age as me. No wonder she was my pick for any actor I’d like to portray me in a film.
While most of us know her from Luther, Nikki also has a devoted following among scifi fans from a turn in the popular series Torchwood and a role in Jupiter Ascending. Admittedly, she was one of the only bright spots in that atrocious film (along with Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and I’d love to see her in more roles that make her an authority figure.
However, her most recent roles are the ones that show me I was right to fancast her in my novel. Her turn in the adaptation in Zadie Smith’s NW is superb, showing a British spin on a common experience most displaced Black people know. She portrays a woman who reinvents herself for the sake of upward mobility yet still feels disenchanted with her idyllic life. She searches for satisfaction outside that existence under her given name, hoping it all doesn’t come crashing down on her.
I’ve also recently discovered Nikki stars in a Cinemax series, Quarry. Set in 1972 Memphis, Nikki sheds her British accent for an American one and embodies the person of a Black wife and mother unaware of shady events that led to her husband’s death. Between NW and Quarry, Nikki has become the perfect embodiment of everything I’d hope for if my own work was adapted (even though she is technically too young for the role).
Face Claim: Mary Crawford, Let the Child Weep
There are many other Black British actors sharing the spotlight, but these ladies are among my favorite. My hope is that American productions will take more chances on Black women who have not been represented very well in films and television. I’m seeing it more with older actresses who have already paid their dues and had to work well more than 20 years before getting roles that showcased their full range of humanity. However, it’s rare for me to see a younger dark-skinned woman who isn’t the angry best friend or sidekick. So I’m eager to see more work from these young women and their contemporaries.