Karma Kaluuya

images.jpegIt is a long time since I last wrote a blog about Daniel Kaluuya.  I meant to give my views on Get Out. But I was stopped in my tracks by Daniel himself.

On Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show he spoke about how ‘white people say weird stuff‘.  He is referring to a conversation in which a white woman started explaining what racism is, in a one-to-one dialogue with him.

This struck a bell with me as I realised that I had been trying to do this very thing in my earlier blogs – the Kaluuya Challenge and is it cos I is black?  As a white woman, I had been trying to point out the ways in which racism was being experienced by, Daniel Kaluuya, a black man.

I was silenced and wrote no more about him.  I did however do an interview for BBC Radio 4 in which I spoke about him.  In it I described Daniel’s feeling of always being ‘other’.

As a man with Ugandan heritage he is blacker than most English black people.

As a black person he is not white.

As an English person he is not American enough for black Americans.

He uses the word ‘alienated’ to talk about his position in the world.  Of the movie Black Panther he says that for the first time in his life, moving about the set, he felt ‘like I belong’.  Some months previously, however, one of his American ‘brothers’, Samuel L. Jackson objected to Daniel being cast as Chris Washington in Get Out because of his Englishness.

Jordan Peele, director and writer of Get Out, who first saw Daniel in Charlie Brooker’s ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ episode of Black Mirror, defended his choice by saying that Daniel was the best actor for the lead part.  I  have always thought that Daniel was the best actor for nearly any part and feel quite offended when I see him given parts as the ubiquitous black sidekick.

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Peele wrote Get Out because he wanted to address a ‘void in the way we talk about racism’.  He says that he wanted to give his truth as a black man.  He speaks about the comments made to Daniel’s character, Chris Washington, at the garden party.  These remarks he says seem ‘on the surface’ to be ‘ a harmless thing … but they are connected to the real, deep horror’ which is racism.

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Peele speaks of the one black character in The Night of the Living Dead saying that the character is ‘ready to fight zombies because he’s been fighting white people off all his life’.  Daniel agrees with Peele’s stance and states that Peele ‘cinematically articulated an experience that millions of people go through and they are made to feel crazy’.

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Peele reckons that the experience of watching Get Out is different for black and white people.  He says that as soon as black people see the protagonist is dating a white woman, they say ‘Oh he’s in trouble.  I don’t like where this is going… get out brother!’.  For white people it’s different: ‘Oh my God, I think I’ve said that thing that the villains are saying in this movie’.

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Now I have seen Daniel in Widows and I want to write about him again.  Here, as in Get Out, he has the advantage of a black director in Steve McQueen.   Unlike Get Out, which Peele describes as a documentary, Widows is a genre movie; it’s a heist.

The villains in Widows are extreme and caricatured.  There is Robert Duval’s character, a racist bigot who regards black Americans as illegal immigrants and similar-to-rabbits in their ‘breeding habits’.  There is the Liam Neeson character who betrays his devoted and moral wife (Viola Davis) in many and appalling ways.  Daniel’s character, Jatemme, is a violent sadist.  The other widows have each been victims of their husbands’ treachery in covert or overt acts of cruelty or neglect.

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With Brian Tyree Henry (Jamal)

So McQueen is attacking more than racism in Widows.  Mainly he is attacking the lack of agency which is caused by inequality and/or poverty.  But disappointingly Jatemme does not address these issues.  Daniel’s character lurks and sidles.  Generally he is not centre stage.  He is hidden behind his brother, Jamal, or his henchmen.  His shadowy profile is half seen.  He is a cypher.  A one dimensional character.  His name should be je te tue or je t’ai blessé rather than je t’aime.   That’s what Jatemme does: he hurts and kills people.  He does not love.

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With Brian Tyree Henry (Jamal)

In an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival Daniel explains that Jatemme does what he thinks he has to do.  Jatemme is as he is because of how he was brought up.  And, says, Daniel, the despicable part of Jatemme is that he does not realise that he is despicable.  The script writers, Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl and Sharp Objects), provide no backstory.  Sidekick Jatemme’s amorality comes from Daniel’s work just as he had to create, Reggie, his sidekick character for Sicario or Colin Tucker in Johnny English Reborn.

It is extraordinary that so many reviewers of Widows pick out  Daniel’s performance for special mention.  He’s not even in the top billing list on the IMDb site.  I suppose this proves just how extraordinary an actor he is, when in an ensemble piece, in which his part is a cartoonish sidekick, his excellence stands out.

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In Roy William’s Sucker Punch

For Daniel acting techniques such as accents require drill.  He needs to pay attention to such things as diction and projection.  He has to keep himself physically fit.  But he also has to use his imaginative skills to flesh out the, often two dimensional, characters he is given.

What he does not need to do is develop his pure talent as that has been there from childhood.  Skins writer Bryan Elsley says that it was fun ‘to be briefly jogging beside Daniel, trying to keep up’.  And Steve McQueen talks about the ‘truth’ of his acting, which he says is very rare.  He continues ‘it’s in you, you can’t teach that’.

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When people say to me that I must be proud of what I taught him I demur. I know that I did not teach him how to act.  That was inside him.  I did not teach him how to be the thoughtful, moral man that he is.  His mother did that.  All I could do was to recognise a peerless actor and support him in his endeavours.  As much as I could, I protected him from an education system which conspired to constrain him.

On The Late Show Daniel said that ‘people talk to me in London slang but they shouldn’t because I understand English…  I’m bilingual’.  He says in an audition filmed by W. Magazine, ‘Racism sucks, inn’t?  It’s kind of fucking shit’.  Daniel’s life is dedicated to realising his ambitions as an actor and as a black man.  This is his mantra:

We got to keep going.

We got things to do.

We got to elevate.

We gotta a long way to go.

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Lena Waithe, writer of Queen and Slim.  Daniel will play Slim.  Starts filming Jan 2019.  Apparently it’s a Bonnie and Clyde story.

 

 

 

 

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Call me Kaluuya?

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Tipped only days ago by the Metro as the next James Bond, Bafta award winning Daniel Kaluuya is surrounded by hype.  He is up for an Oscar for his role in Jordan Peele’s Get Out and is a constant on the red carpet for premiers of Black Panther.  27650266_1574631462628922_376591037_o.jpgHe seems to be hitting the ground running as a fashion icon with shoots in both GQ Magazine and the Guardian newspaper.  How did this happen to the boy from the council estate in Camden, and is it a good thing?

Kaluuya has always been a natural comic.  His recent invitation to Stephen Colbert’s  Late Show provides a platform for him to make a few jokes about white racism.

Watching that clip I felt that he had not changed much since he was my student on A level Drama and Theatre Studies at Camden School for Girls (we took boys in the sixth form).  There is his cheeky grin, and his willingness to put others on the spot.  There is his London accent and dialect (not slang) and an articulate seriousness and focus.  There he gently deigns to explain the new version of the key line in Get Out, ‘I would’ve voted for Obama three times if I could’ve’.  Now one of the ‘weird things that white people say’ to prove that they are not racist is ‘I’ve watched Get Out three times’!  He mocks Colbert’s body language mercilessly but refers to Christianity, like his mother’s, as something to be respected.

Unknown-2.jpegAlthough, unlike Black Panther, Get Out is not made entirely by black actors and black crew it is not, in my view, racist (although Kaluuya has something to say about white people like me policing racism i.e. they shouldn’t).  Get Out is not racist because it is fundamentally and in-yer-facedly about racism.  Despite the excitement in the black community about the power of Black Panther it is, when all is said, a superhero movie.

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I have seen Get Out only twice – but I would’ve seen it again if it had not left the town cinema.  In Get Out Daniel had a decent part like the one that Roy Williams wrote for him in Sucker Punch. He was playing with white actors, but he was not there only to support them, as he was when playing Emily Blunt’s sidekick in Sicario.

It’s not that Reggie, in Sicario, is a completely pallid character; he is to some extent, as Kaluuya argues, the moral compass of the film.

But when you look at the clip you can see that for the most part he is a shadow flickering behind three white characters – holding his nose because there is a smell of rotting corpses.  When Emily Blunt, playing the lead, and apparently too strong to be affected by the stink, sends him outside, he starts to gag.  Then he is blown up.  Watching this film to see Kaluuya act, I was bitterly disappointed.

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It felt the same at the screening of Black Panther – which I have seen only once.  I was wincing when he was onscreen.  He played a stereotypical African chief – yes I know it was a Marvel story and I know that the character may develop in future versions of the franchise.  BUT…  Kaluuya’s character, W’Kabi, had few moments on screen.  He had to stand around a lot looking African but was rarely given an opportunity to use his skills.  Unknown.jpegHis character changed his mind in an instant without any explanation.  I felt that these was no underlying motivation to his role.  I know, I know… It’s just a version of a comic.  The war-rhino was a nice touch but Kaluuya isn’t really a horseman and didn’t look comfortable on it.

As I white woman I don’t want to disagree with Zack Linly in the Washington Post when he writes of Black Panther, ‘we’ll be watching a black movie that doesn’t rely on caricatures and recycled tropes’.  Get real!  Black Panther absolutely does rely on ‘caricatures and recycled tropes’ and its presentation of Africans, if not Oaklanders, is deeply embarrassing.

Get Out is a different kettle of fish.  Jordan Peele’s script is brilliantly conceived and written.  The idea at the core is very clever and the black actors playing the ‘vehicles’ carrying the ‘passengers’ emit a horrifying creepiness.  Chris Washington (Kaluuya) realises that he is surrounded by died-in-the-wool racists in sheep’s clothing and then sees them strip their fleeces before his eyes and become wolves.  It’s as if Obama was stripped down to reveal Trump beneath the skin.

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The gore and violence with which the film ends is more or less unnecessary.  Perhaps the alternative ending would have been better?  In this Chris becomes a ‘vehicle’. And if I were to be truthful I would have advised Peele against some of the final shots. images.jpegKaluuya can communicate with his eyes, face, voice and body.  He does not need the aid of arty lighting or camera angles to be terrifying.

During an interview for BBC Radio 4’s Profile on Kaluuya presenter Mark Coles told me that no one they interviewed had a bad word to say about him.  Of course not! I just hope that, as a white person, I did not say anything too weird myself.

Previous blogs

The Kaluuya Challenge  irishwriting.wordpress.com

Is it cos I is black?   josephinefenton.wordpress.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Kaluuya challenge

A long time ago, in 2005, Daniel Kaluuya came to study for his A levels at the school in Camden where I taught Drama and Theatre Studies. He is an outstanding actor – way beyond anyone else I have worked with before or since.

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Kaluuya as Posh Kenneth in Skins. E4.

In his practical exam he played Mark in Roy Williams’s Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads.  The play is set in a pub and the visiting examiner and I sat at a table on set.  At one point Daniel walked through the door and up to the bar.  He took a phone call.  The examiner looked at me anxiously but I was calm.  Afterwards she told me that she thought he was just a random person wandering around.  He did not seem to be acting.

He scored full marks for this performance.

images.pngThe play deals with football tribalism as well as racism.  Daniel’s character, Mark, is an ex-soldier from the British army.   The regulars at the King George Public House can’t get their heads around his Englishness.  His colour is more apparent to them than his place of birth and his service to his country.  I won’t say that this was an astonishing piece of casting by me but it was prescient in terms of what being black has been like for Daniel.

Purely coincidently the same playwright, Roy Williams, became a mentor for Daniel.  He selected him from among the young performers at Hampstead Theatre‘s now defunct Heat and Light Company to co-author a short play, It ain’t that easy.  This was performed in the Downstairs theatre in May 2006.  This was not Daniel’s first piece of writing. He had already won a competition to have a play produced by the same company when he was nine.  And when he was 16, also at Hampstead, I saw him act in a one-man show, which he had written himself, about an evangelical preacher.  It was an astonishing monologue delivered with panache and punch.  Around about this time he was also writing episodes for the E4 cult programme Skins, in which he played Posh Kenneth.  In an interview Daniel states “I was into acting, I just knew it was for me.  But I was poor, so if I failed, what did I have to lose?  I don’t think I could have been any poorer – I was eating McDonald’s sauces.’

Roy Williams wrote a play, Sucker Punch, about boxing.  The sport was, he says, the escape route for impoverished black boys when he was young.

Williams told me when I met him at a performance of Sucker Punch that he wrote the part of Leon for Daniel.  I said that I thought it was a bit like Hamlet in that Leon, the central character, is on stage for almost every minute of the full-length play.

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Kaluuya as Leon in Sucker Punch. Photo: media.westendtheatre.com

Williams replied that it was a huge risk for a 21 year old actor but that he had been confident in Daniel’s skill.  Performed in a real boxing ring at the Royal Court Theatre in London, the 2006 production received great reviews and won Daniel awards. Before starting rehearsals Daniel and his co-actor, Anthony Welsh, had trained with professional boxer Errol Christie for six months.  I think that is an indication of what sort of young man Daniel was and is.  The play, as do most of Roy Williams’s plays, tackles racism.   Welsh’s character, Troy, calls Leon ‘a white man’s bitch’.  Williams, according to Simon Hatterstone who interviewed him for the Guardian, does not see racism as simply black and white.  Hatterstone writes ‘ In his 2001 play Clubland, British-born blacks discriminate against immigrant blacks, and African-Carribeans against Africans, while whites talk patois and aspire to being black in all but skin colour’.

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Kaluuya in Sucker Punch.

 

I felt entirely comfortable watching Daniel in Sucker Punch as although Leon suffers from racist oppression, Williams, as a black man himself has the actor’s back. As in Sing Yer Hearts Out Williams is looking at tensions between blackness and Britishness.  His writing is not racist and neither was Sacha Ware’s direction.  But in terms of Daniel’s theatre career this relaxation on my part was not long-lived.

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Kaluuya as Tom Wrench in Trelawny at the Wells. onestoparts.com

In 2013 Daniel was cast by Joe Wright in a production of Trelawny at the Wells presented by the Donmar Theatre, London.  I was horrified by the way he’d had been directed.  I would have left the theatre had I not been expecting to meet Daniel at the stage door after the show.  Susannah Clapp, on the other hand, in the Observer, found him ‘beguiling‘.  Michael Billington, for the Guardian, recognises my issue with the production.

Daniel is a great comic actor but I felt that he was completely betrayed by director, Wright, and designer, Hildegard Bechtler, into resembling some sort of organ grinder’s monkey.  I do not think this was at all malicious on Wright’s part and he obviously respected Daniel’s work as he cast him as the supporting actor in his next theatre production.

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Chiwetel Ejiofor and Kaluuya in A Season in the Congo. Photo: Official London Theatre

Also produced in 2013, this was  A Season in the Congo at the Young Vic.  Daniel loved the experience, especially working with Chiwetel Ejiofor.  It was great to see Daniel in an ensemble with an entirely black cast. If the play is about racism, which it is, the argument focusses on the vile behaviour of the Belgian imperialists, described by Billington as ‘colonialism’s tainted legacy’.  Daniel is, for once, not the character suffering racism although he does play a vile ‘turn-coat’ dictator.

 

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Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kalauuya (in military uniform) and ensemble in A Season in the Congo 

It will be clear by now, to the attentive reader, that this blog is about Daniel Kaluuya and his career as a stage actor.  It is also about his being a black man and about how he is cast and directed.  Most people will know Daniel only as a TV and film actor.  They will remember his work in Skins, Silent Witness, Black Mirror, Dr Who, Psychoville, Johnny English Reborn, Sicario, etc etc. But they will no have had the pleasure of watching his development in the theatre.

The next and, to date, final, stage play that I saw Daniel act in was Blue/Orange by Joe Penhall, also at the Young Vic.  This is a play on which I have written at length in my previous blog, Is it ‘cos I is black?  I do not blame Joe Penhall, or director, Matthew Xia, but I found this play and production quite disgustingly racist.  

It made me consider whether any white director or playwright could avoid racism when writing black characters or directing black actors.  And I fear that my own concern over racism in terms of my ex-student, it racist itself.

But I was excited when I discovered that Daniel was in the film Get Out.  Here is a piece written and directed by Jordan Peele, a black comedian.  And the fallout from Daniel’s work in Get Out will be the subject of my third Daniel Kaluuya blog.  Watch this space…

Works cited (many are cited within the links)

A Season in the Congo. By Aimé Césaire. Mobutu. Performance. Young Vic theatre, London. 17 Jul 2013. Performance.

It ain’t that easy. By Daniel Kaluuya. Hampstead Theatre, London. 9 May 2006. Performance.

New plays from four fresh young voices. By Roy Williams & Daniel Kaluuya, Besna Musaddaq, Marie Osmand & Aitha Sen-Gupta. London: Hampstead Theatre. 9 May 2006. Performance.

Sucker Punch. By Roy Williams. Daniel Kaluuya as Leon. Performance. The Royal Court Theatre, London. 11 June 2010. Performance.

Skins. Daniel Kaluuya as Posh Kenneth.  Performance. E4, 2008-09. Television.

Williams, R. Sing Yer Hearts Out for the Lads. London: Methuen. 2002. Print.

—. Sucker Punch. London: Methuen. 2010. Print.