Dr Umar Johnson’s Xenophobic Video Rant About Black British Actor Daniel Kaluuya is as Dangerous as it is Highly Ignorant.

I’m upset. I went to bed feeling disturbed after watching a video of Philadelphia born, African-American psychologist, author, lecturer and self-proclaimed community leader, Dr Umar Johnson tearing down British actor Daniel Kaluuya, for playing African-American activist and former Black Panther Party Chairman, Fred Hampton in his latest film release – Judas and The Black Messiah.

The trailer for this film gives me chills. It brings me so much joy watching a fellow Black Brit rising to fame in Hollywood, with accolades to his name including Black Panther and the highly-acclaimed Get Out – a film that had the world talking at the time of its release. A film made by a Black director, with a Black lead. Something I had hoped to see in my lifetime. A film that proved to us that talent transcends countries and showed us what the diaspora can do when we create together. 

But beneath the successes of Black Brits in Hollywood, lies a murky truth; there are some African Americans who are just not happy about it. 

I can’t seem to get my head around this notion. For me, being Black can be such a heavy and hard road full of twists and turns that only we can understand. So when I see my Black brothers and sisters shining in Hollywood, I couldn’t care less what their background is. Whether they’re from Detroit or Paris, Lagos or Rio de Janeiro – I feel happy for them, and I also feel represented. Hollywood has a historically racist and sexist past (and present), with movements such as #MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite putting these issues on blast. Change is in the air, despite how long and slow it may feel. So why are people mad at Daniel?

Me at a Silent Black Lives Matter Protest, Brighton & Hove, June 2020

“He is biologically African….is he psychologically a Pan Africanist? I don’t know. Maybe he’s on some British tribalism, I don’t know. If he is, he don’t need to be playing no ancestors of mine.” 

What exactly does Pan Africanism mean to Dr Umar? The Collins dictionary defines the adjective Pan-African as of or relating to all African countries or the advocacy of political unity among African countries and the noun Pan-African is defined as a supporter of the Pan-African movement. I hate to break it to you Doc, but both you and Daniel are children of the diaspora. Your versions of Pan-Africanism would, in theory, be totally unique to one another. Daniel’s parents moved to London from Uganda before he was born, making him British by birth and Black British should he wish to identify as such. Of course, his accent will be British, much like Dr Umar’s is American because of where he was born and raised – America. To have any other accent would be absurd and preposterous. It is impossible that Daniel could be making up his accent, as Dr Umar claims.

Let’s get into this British tribalism he speaks of. I had never heard of this phrase before, nor do I wish to entertain it. As a Black British woman who has travelled to, lived in and worked abroad in many cities around the world including North America, I can recall several times where certain people refused to understand my Black British heritage. I’ve been told that there is “no way” I could be British, three times when I lived in France and was even told that it was “impossible”. I was asked several times which parts of the States I was from when I worked in Canada, followed by a look of confusion when I said that I am English. At work, I deal with international clients who simply refuse to believe that a Black woman can speak with the accent that I have. So why is it so hard for people to wrap their heads around our existence? Are we failing to educate the world about what it means to be Black and British? Are we still seen as a subculture? 

Through in-depth research, Historian and writer David Olusoga states in his incredible book Black and British that Black Britons have existed since the 3rd century, informing us that some form of multiculturalism has existed in Britain for literally ages. The ignorance around a whole culture leads me to believe that a lack of representation is the only answer to this confusion. This is why the Black Lives Matter movement is so important, particularly in the UK – not only is it enough to be actively anti-racist, but we simply call for inclusion and equality. We are not invisible.

“If he has a Pan-African spirit, I have no problem. But if he is just a Black British coming over here making some money playing Black heroes, I have a problem”.

Echoes of that line racists have used time and time again, “they come over here, and steal our jobs”. To hear this from a fellow Black man is worrying; what exactly is the problem with a Black British man playing a Black hero? If I dared to say that the Black Panthers are heroes of mine – would that not be allowed because I am not American?

When the Black Lives Matter Movement accelerated around the globe last June 2020, I felt for the first time as though we as Black people, were one community – regardless of where we lived or came from. The Pan-Africanism that I know of symbolises unity, a unity which is strongly lacking in Dr Umar’s rant. Instead, I see baseless, false claims which further perpetuate a division in a Black community that fundamentally needs to be united as one in the face of racism.

“That’s not an African tongue, the reason you speak that tongue is because the British came into your ancestral homeland of Uganda [mispronounced in video] and colonised it” 

In comes the hypocrisy with full force. Is the American accent not one of a “coloniser”? Does being a Pan Africanist involve tearing down other people from the diaspora? I suggest a strategy rethink, sir. 

“I’m just concerned that he might be a Black British negro, making money in Hollywood. I hope that’s not the case, I hope he has a Pan-African consciousness. I have no problem with Africans in the diaspora playing my heroes, if they consider themselves to be one of me”.

Is the real root of Johnson’s frustration the fact that he believes that Brits should play Brits and Americans should play Americans? This makes me think of that sad phrase “not all skin folk are kin folk”, a phrase dating back to slavery, used by African Americans to state that although a fellow black person may share your racial identity, they do not share your community. Again this is a strong contradiction to the Pan-Africanism movement, which aims to encourage and strengthen bonds between different ethnic groups of African descent. 

Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton in Judas and The Black Messiah Photo credit: goldderby.com

“I’m a little concerned because I am not seeing no ‘American Africans’ being cast in ancestral roles….starring ‘American African’ Heroes”

Denzel Washington as Malcom X, Will Smith as Muhammed Ali, Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in Ray, Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae and Octavia Spencer in “Hidden Figures”, Chadwick Boseman as baseball hero Jackie Robinson in “42.”, Kadeem Hardison in Panther, Queen Latifah as jazz legend Bessie Smith, Octavia Spencer as Madam C.J. Walker…..shall I carry on? 

I tried my best to unpick the most shocking parts of the 5-minute extract I watched of Dr Umar’s long rant. What stands out to me, are the contradictory and outlandish statements he makes, kicking off with Umar – a self-proclaimed Pan African – incorrectly pronouncing Daniel’s Ugandan surname, a mistake that I feel was intentionally left in the video either as a form of disrespect or left in haste as he was so, damn, furious. I am concerned that a Black community leader, would release such a video to the public. Confused almost.

If I were to psychoanalyse Dr Umar from this rant alone, I would say that he is suffering from an identity crisis and needs to brush up on his knowledge of the diaspora, along with what it means to be a Pan-Africanist.

 

5 thoughts on “Dr Umar Johnson’s Xenophobic Video Rant About Black British Actor Daniel Kaluuya is as Dangerous as it is Highly Ignorant.”

  1. Loved your article and agreed with most of what you said. But I have to admit, as Black Brit of West Indian parentage, I was suspicious when I noticed fellow Black Brits getting these roles. Yes it’s great that they get these roles but are they not getting these roles because there is some mischief making happening somewhere within Hollywood? A sort of divide and rule thing? The thing that I am annoyed with Dr Omar is that he is supposed to be an intellectual and an academic, so I expect him to delve into this instead of blaming these guys just because they have been offered the roles. Afterall, haven’t a number of AA actors have played African, Caribbean, Latin American and of course British roles (such as Denzel Washington in Queen and Country). But yes, I am saddened that Omar is just so invested in this rant, if you check his most recent video of a few days ago, he continues to talk about Daniel and Cynthia Erivo

  2. OMG. You all dont get it and never will. Tha Black American Experience is quite unique. Anyway, this article justifying Mr. Kaluuya taking the role was just as annoying as the rant. Diaspora? Stop. Carribean, South African? Stop. Sounds more like simple race peddling to earn a buck. Power to Mr. Kaluuya, but he’s just an actor. Cmon, right? He’d play the Queen too, wouldnt he?

  3. The phrase “All Skinfolk ain’t kinfolk” is in reference to the very reality that Black people have been betrayed & hurt by one another. Black doesn’t automatically equal community and descendants of slavery would know this better than ANYONE. It amazes me how West African internationals(African immigrants of western nations) will rant & rave about how DIVERSIFIED Africa has always been UNTIL it’s time for them to gain something or make some money— then, “we all black”. The phrase was also popularized by author & scholar Zora Neale Hurston. She explains the meaning—which you completely ignored. Until Black Brit’s have built & established and entertainment industry that Black Americans can equally exchange opportunities with—Black Brit’s just look opportunistic & intellectually dishonest. Why build a foundation similar to what Black Americans have done for decades & centuries when you can just slither in & out of our House whenever it suits you??? Like a snake. Black Brit’s are pathetic & lazy. Diaspora Unity is just a lazy solution to a centuries old problem & is largely dependent on the hope & expectations of the Diaspora culminating in America—which is no surprise. Where else can the Diaspora go to “unite”? Nowhere!
    Black Americans feel this relationship is one sided. & it is!

    1. The ‘intellectual laziness’ of black Brit actors is the reason why they are given preference by US directors?
      Apart from Denzel, Morgan, James Earl, Forrest and a few others, the typical American black actor appears to be some rapper/singer masquerading as an actor. Good for starring in hoodflix but not much else.
      Show me an American black actor who can convincingly mimic a British accent. The only American negro actors worthy of respect also happen to have played roles involving African or Caribbean heroes – there are too many to list. Notice the American actors listed above are all close approximations to Brit actors – ie classically trained, well-spoken etc.
      Also please stop sounding off as if American blacks have a monopoly on black roles in Hollywood. The film industry in America wouldn’t survive without American negro contribution or subscription? Hollywood has a global fan base (money base) and Brits are simply better actors and a breath of fresh air. American black actors need to step up. The fact is, black Brits can play black American heroes better than black America actors. Why not just stick to rapping about them instead?

  4. The premise of this debate saddens me. The adherents to each side of the argument seem to simply tear into one another with little regard to courtesy and seemingly no attempt at historical analysis or research. I agree with the recommendation that we view the enthusiasm with which white casting directors recruit Black British acting talent for roles portraying American-African historical figures with suspicion. American Africans have fought for inclusion and parity within the entertainment industry and at the point at which they have forced the industry to concede, the powers that be appear to fall head over heels with people who made no contribution to the struggle that American Africans waged for so long. Additionally, there has been no sustained campaign waged by UK-based Africans (I know that UK-based negros hate this phrase, but similarly I detest using the adjective Black as a noun, my complexion attaches me to a continent and a culture that I am proud to be associated with) within the entertainment industry beyond periodic complaints by individuals. Rather than agitate for representation and for opportunities to portray UK African heritage icons, such as Claudia Jones, Shirley Bassey, Olaudah Equiano or Walter Tull, ‘Black Britons’ seem happy to take bottom dollar to play Harriett Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr, Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin and others and then act indignant when the people who claim lineage with these giants question their commitment to the cause that agitated for over so many years.
    This is the aspect of the phenomenon which I believe should have been highlighted, but instead most American African commentators simply revert to behavioural mode of their nation’s dominant culture (i.e. redneck bigotry) and launch into issuing pejoratives and flag waving which is almost as offensive as the implication that an actor or actress should be denied the opportunity to take on a role because of their place of birth.
    Daniel Kaluuya is definitely one of the most talented thespians on the planet, he stole entire scenes in Get Out and his portrayal of W’Kabi in Black Panther added vigour to the entire production and let’s not even start to dissect the way he ignites dynamite in Queen & Slim. However, despite him having proven himself in these roles, theses were all fictitious characters, additionally, despite him having put in another prima performance (he won the Oscar, G), it is NOT wrong to question his appointment to portray Fred Hampton in Judas & The Black Messiah. Brother Hampton is one of the most celebrated participants in the Black Panther Party and his importance in the modern history of the USA cannot be overstated. Mr Kaluuya has never made a public statement answering these voices of dissent, nor should he have needed to. However, the world is not perfect and the portrayal of national heroes and sheroes of a community which has suffered as much as the American African nation has are bound to stir up emotions.
    OK, soapbox disassembled. One last point, if I hear of the discredited Black Lives Matter mentioned in the same paragraph as the Pan-African movement ever again – I think I might puke

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