Friday, June 5, 2009

The Nigerian diaspora: Actors

More on the impact that people of Nigerian origin have had on popular culture. For my earlier post on Nigerian diaspora musicians, click here.

London-born to Yoruba parents, Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje is hardly a household name, let alone an easily pronounced name. Yet fans of the hit series Lost will no doubt remember his performance as Mr Eko, the African child-soldier-turned-priest. Triple A (as he is often nicknamed) has also had cameos in The Bourne Identity and The Mummy Returns. But his defining role was undoubtedly in HBO's gritty prison drama Oz, as the coolly menacing Simon Adebisi. Does it seem strange that someone who once worked as a catwalk model in Milan would be such a natural in the role of a brutish Nigerian gangster with a penchant for sadistic revenge and making people his bitch?
Interestingly, despite being born in Britain, almost all his roles have been as Africans and involved him invoking a Nigerian accent.

Sophie Okonedo was also born in London to a Nigerian father, but was raised as Jew by her Ashkenazi mother. Her 20-year acting career includes roles in films such as Aeon Flux, The Jackal and The Secret Life of Bees, but she gained the most recognition for her Oscar-nominated turn in Hotel Rwanda.

London-born Jocelyn Jee Esien has the honour of being the first black woman in either the US or UK to be given her own solo comedy sketch show, entitled Little Miss Jocelyn. She also starred earlier on the hilarious hidden-camera show 3 Non Blondes, sort of a black women's version of what Borat would later become known for.

One actor I think is bound to win an Oscar eventually is Chiwetel Ejiofor. The London-born actor (of the Igbo ethnic group) made his big breakthrough in 2002's Dirty Pretty Things. His soulful portrayal of an African doctor and illegal immigrant in Britain won the Black Reel, San Diego Film Critics Society, and American Black Film Festival awards for Best Actor. Since then his many roles have included a transvestite in comedy Kinky Boots, drug dealer in American Gangster, and charming assassin in the cult sci-fi flick Serenity.

There was a time when I was addicted to The Bill and would stay home to watch it without fail. Don't ask me why. But one of the standout actors on that British television stalwart was Cyril Nri as Superintendent Adam Okaro. Like Ejiofor, he has also acted onstage as the lead in Shakespeare's Othello. An openly gay man, I find the number of famous Nigerian diaspora folks who have come out (John Amaechi, Justin Fashanu, Kele Okereke, Labi Siffre) interesting when you consider the huge cultural taboo that homosexuality is in traditional African culture.

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