How Nigerian-Americans Are Changing the Face of Hollywood
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
This ethnic group is emerging as the latest force of change pushing Hollywood to become more inclusive.
By Molly Fosco
This story has been updated. It was originally published in June 2018.
Sam Adegoke loved acting out scenes from the Bible at church as a kid. But for two decades, that’s as far as his acting career went. Born in Lagos, Nigeria, and brought up in St. Paul and Mounds View, Minnesota, Adegoke — like many Nigerian-Americans — felt pressured to choose a secure career path. He got a business degree and a marketing job after college. But when his company relocated him to Los Angeles, he took the opportunity to start going on auditions and gradually became serious about a career change. Then in 2015, Adegoke won the third annual ABC Discovers: Digital Talent Competition, and the offers started coming in — including the role of Jeff Colby on the CW’s Dynasty reboot.
It’s the kind of leading role Black actors have long struggled to land in Hollywood. In the original Dynasty, Colby’s character was white. But the industry, criticized for a lack of diversity, is slowly starting to respond — even if only reluctantly. In the 700 top-grossing Hollywood films between 2007 and 2014, the fraction of white actors fell from 77.6 percent in 2007 to 73.1 percent in 2014, according to a 2015 study by the University of Southern California, Annenberg. The percentage of Black actors, just 10.3 percent as recently as 2010, was 12.5 percent in 2014. And while there’s no credible breakdown of actors by countries of origin, the growing success of actors of Nigerian descent is such that, on occasions, they’re even seen as usurpers by other Black actors with longer family histories in America.
The first wave of such Nigerian-origin actors came from Britain — stars such as Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave and David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma. Now, a growing set of Nigerian-American actors like Adegoke are joining them in shaking up Hollywood.
My background allows me to straddle those different worlds.
Sam Adegoke, Nigerian-American actor
Yvonne Orji, 36, plays Issa Rae’s BFF in the HBO series Insecure. Uzo Aduba, born to Nigerian parents, won Emmy Awards for her portrayal of Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren on the Netflix hit series Orange Is the New Black in 2014 and 2015. This year, she starred as Shirley Chisholm — the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Congress — in Hulu’s Mrs. America.
And if you peel back the curtain, you’ll see Nigerian-Americans emerging in major directing, producing and executive roles too. Nigerian-born Pearlena Igbokwe is president of Universal Television, the first African-American woman to head a major TV studio. “A lot of Black people in Hollywood still don’t have a huge network, but it’s growing,” says Igbokwe. “And for Nigerians, it’s because there’s a great amount of preparation and training we put into everything we do.”
They have a point or two to prove — including to their community. Adegoke wants to encourage other Nigerian-Americans to chase their dreams and understand that medicine and law aren’t the only ways to thrive. But he also believes his Nigerian origin brings something unique to Hollywood. “English wasn’t my first language, but I also grew up in Minnesota and was exposed to different cultures,” says Adegoke. “My background allows me to straddle those different worlds.”
And these actors’ performances are drawing critical acclaim to boot. “More Nigerian actors are starting to appear in mainstream Hollywood because of the quality of their performances — it’s opening up more opportunities for other black actors too,” says Gil Robertson, president of the African American Film Critics Association.
These Nigerian-American trailblazers aren’t alone. They’re part of a slow but definite shift in Hollywood that is giving starring roles to actors of color, such as Chadwick Boseman in Black Panther. And some, like Indian-American actor Aziz Ansari in Master of None, or Pakistani-American actor Kumail Nanjiani in The Big Sick, have been able to assume the lead creatively, both behind the scenes and onscreen.
Within the Nigerian diaspora, British actors have so far made it bigger in Hollywood. In HBO’s Game of Thrones, British Nigerian actor Nonso Anozie played the role of Xaro Xhoan Daxos, a powerful merchant in the city of Qarth who appears in five episodes. In one of them, Xaro, dressed in robes of gold and sky blue, walks next to a silver-haired Daenerys Targaryen through the echoing castle halls, debating the morality of conquering cities. By the end of the episode, Xaro screams in handcuffs as Daenerys locks him in his own vault. But unlike Xaro, Anozie’s fortunes have since skyrocketed — that performance helped him nab roles in dozens of films and TV shows.
Anozie was born in London to a Nigerian immigrant mother, trained in classical theater at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London and became the youngest person ever to play Shakespeare’s King Lear professionally. As a 6-foot-6-inch Black man, Anozie says he could’ve easily given in to the typecast roles of a “bouncer” or “security guard” he was initially offered. But he made the tough decision “to turn down those roles,” says Anozie, who’s also appeared in Conan the Barbarian, starring fellow Game of Thrones alum Jason Momoa, and The Grey, starring Liam Neeson. Growing up in London, Anozie says he dealt with racial stereotypes, like the assumption that all Nigerians are corrupt. On this side of the Atlantic too, the journey for Black actors remains challenging.
The industry is still largely about who you know, developing relationships and networking, says Igbokwe. As an actor, Anozie still deals with assumptions based on race because “stereotypes can stick a lot harder when you’re Black,” he says. “Normalizing the Black experience is still the hardest part.”
Within the Black acting community too, there’s not always a united front. In 2013, Oyelowo had to repeatedly answer questions and some criticism when he, a Nigerian-origin actor from Britain, was picked to play King, instead of a Black actor with generations of family history in America. Carmen Ejogo, whose father was Nigerian, played Coretta King in the film.
But Nigerian-Americans like Igbokwe and Adegoke are attempting to overcome those challenges in their own ways. Igbokwe’s family came to the U.S. in the 1970s to escape Nigeria’s civil war. Starting at age 6, Igbokwe spent her first few years stateside learning English from American television shows – an obsession with TV that never faded. Igbokwe’s mother wanted her to be a lawyer, but she was set on a career in entertainment. She worked twice as an NBC summer associate at 30 Rock in New York, and years later returned to the NBC family in her role at Universal, which she’s using to advocate for women and actors of color. “Hollywood is awakening to diversity,” Igbokwe says.
Films like Black Panther and Moonlight aren’t the only drivers of that shift. The rise of Nollywood — Nigeria’s film industry that produces the most movies in the world — has also helped African narratives seep into Western entertainment, Igbokwe says. She’s spotting more Nollywood movies on Netflix now than previously.
The work done behind the scenes is just as critical for creating opportunity. “The writing rooms have to be increasingly diverse,” says Adegoke, who’s starting to write some of his own scripts.
This meticulous planning and work for the future isn’t surprising for the Nigerian diaspora, including in America. “There’s a great amount of preparation and training we put in whatever profession we’re trying to get into,” says Igbokwe. That strategy has taken Nigerian-Americans to rare success in fields ranging from medicine to entrepreneurship. It could be Hollywood’s turn next.