Posted on November 27, 2022

David Harewood: White Actors Should Be Able to Play Black Roles

Adam Bloodworth, City A.M., November 24, 2022

For some, being a role model can feel like a weight. Emmy-nominated Black actor Samira Wiley said recently it can be “overwhelming sometimes, representing so much for so many people.” And trans artists Travis Alabanza and Ezra Furman have spoken about how being seen as “inspirational” overlooks their daily struggles.

But not for David Harewood. Among Britain’s most successful and influential Black male actors, he has become as famous for talking openly and frankly about his experiences of psychosis as for his acting. Harewood experienced psychosis in his early twenties, believing he could control the weather, which led to him being sectioned.

His breakdown was a response to the discrimination he faced as a Black man, he has said, and in the past couple of years he has written a book on the subject, as well as making numerous TV documentaries to break what he describes as the “taboo” around psychosis. {snip}


In 1997, David Harewood made history at the National Theatre as the first Black man to play Othello, and he most recently enjoyed a meaty Hollywood role playing detective David Estes in Homeland. He’s also a regular on influential black power lists. It’s easy to see how Harewood has been successful at both acting and campaigning: he speaks with reassuring confidence on difficult topics with the air of someone who has completely thought through and utterly believes everything he says.


When it comes to his own acting career the 56-year-old has given his agent strict instructions not to turn away any script whatsoever, no matter who it’s sent from. It’s this open-minded approach that led Harewood to star in a short film, Man To Man, about the young male Black experience after an unsolicited script hit his desk. “I was really inspired, particularly by Sel who wrote the piece, and all the young kids I met that day, and I hope it’s not the last time I work with them. There’s a lot of young Black talent out there and I want to be able to harness it, so staying engaged with this younger generation is very important.”

All things considered, Harewood believes Black drama is in a good place right now. “When I was coming out of drama school we were told ‘Black movies don’t work’, and ‘Black plays don’t work in the West End’, and now we’ve got Get Up Stand Up down the road, a Bob Marley story in the West End doing really well.” And he believes the emergence of self tape rehearsals has democratised the process of finding work particularly for Brits. “That young Black kid an American manager is looking for on the streets of Brooklyn, he can find that in Peckham. John Boyega, from Peckham to Star Wars, so there’s more of a global awareness of the depth of black talent in this country now and that’s a good thing for the younger generation.”

How does a man in his mid-fifties keep down with the kids? “Drama wise, keeping an ear open for things that peak my interest, always leaving the door open – like I did with Man To Man – for this younger generation.” And he refuses to be absolutist regarding the debates around White actors playing Black roles. As with Best of Enemies, Harewood is attracted to nuanced depictions of characters that defy simplicity. “Look, if De Niro wants to play Othello, I’m going to go and watch it – you know what I mean?” he says. “I’d be interested to see what he does. I’m not saying it’s gonna be,” he pauses, laughing: “It might be odd, but that’s theatre – and if it works, it works, if it doesn’t work it doesn’t work, it’ll be off. All I’m saying is nothing should be off limits, if you can make it work, how about it? But if you Black up, it might look ridiculous and offensive, so you’ve got to find a workaround.

“I think we’re at a very exciting point in history where we’re not constrained by imagination as much as we used to be. Give it a go and see what happens.”