Black Londoners are setting Hollywood alight
- Daniel Kaluuya won the Rising Star Bafta award last week, voted for by the public
- The London actor, 28, is also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor
- Fourth black Londoner nominated for Oscar or Golden Globe in as many years
Published: 22:01 GMT, 23 February 2018 | Updated: 22:01 GMT, 23 February 2018
Not so long ago, the identikit Oscar nominee from these shores was cast from a very distinct mould. Well-spoken, posh and possessed of a peculiarly British charm, they were also white.
Today, that mould has been not so much broken as shattered into fragments, courtesy of a generation of extraordinary actors.
Last week Daniel Kaluuya, the 28-year-old son of Ugandan immigrants, won a Bafta as Rising Star — voted for by the public. But that might prove to be merely a curtain-raiser for something even more dramatic. Next weekend, he will take his place at the Oscars in the running to win the Academy Award for Best Actor.
Bafta Rising Star Award winner, Daniel Kaluuya with his sister (L) and mum (R) to whom he dedicated his award
The former home of Daniel Kaluuya, ground floor flat No.45, Camelot House Estate, Camden
Equally fascinating is that this makes him the fourth black Londoner to be nominated for an acting Oscar or Golden Globe in as many years. And of those, two were raised in a council flat by single mothers, a third grew up in one of the most deprived streets in the capital, while the fourth’s parents were refugees fleeing war in Africa.
The announcement of Daniel Kaluuya’s Oscar accolade shows that the British acting firmament has changed fundamentally. Along with Naomie Harris, Idris Elba and Chiwetel Ejiofor, he is living proof that with hard work and determination anything is possible.
He may not be a household name — this will be the first time many people have heard of him — but that is all set to change with a series of high-profile movies.
Foremost among them is Get Out, a Bafta-nominated horror film which became the surprise U.S. hit of last year. Made on a budget of just £3 million, it grossed £175 million at the box office, for which much of the credit goes to Daniel’s bravura lead performance.
He also stars in new blockbuster superhero movie Black Panther, which has broken box office records in recent days.
Not bad for a young man whose father walked out when he was a baby. By Daniel’s own account the first two years of his life were spent in hostels with his mother, Damalie Namusoke. And while he has never seen his father, Stephen, now 59, Daniel took his surname.
Daniel Kaluuya, who won the Bafta last week, lived on the Camden council estate from the age of two with his mother Damalie Namusoke
Touchingly, when Daniel won the Bafta last week, he said in a moving acceptance speech: ‘Mum, you’re the reason why I started, the reason why I’m here and the reason why I keep going. Thank you for everything. This is yours.’
When he was two, Damalie managed to secure a flat on a Camden council estate. Rather than remain on benefits she found work at a special needs school, encouraging Daniel to focus on his studies at St Aloysius College, a Catholic school in North London.
A naturally gifted student, he was easily bored, and there were plenty of distractions. ‘It was a boisterous school — a lot of fighting energy,’ he said.
‘There was a time where we had all-year detention, where the school would lock up our whole year because there were fights and knife crime.’
The estate in Camden, where Daniel grew up, was built in the Thirties and residents created a strong community in the immediate postwar period — there was even a song, sung with pride by its younger inhabitants. But it was a tough area, too.
Daniel describes a Camden far removed from its trendy, bohemian image. ‘The biggest drug market in Europe,’ he says. ‘It was where the Sex Pistols were born, as well as punk. Amy Winehouse lived there. It can be quite a dark place, because there are loads of drugs and all the drugs went into homes.’
Daniel grew up with a mix of challenging school career and loving home, in which intellectual pursuits were encouraged.
‘The narrative is always that you have to be in some gang s**t,’ he explained. ‘I went to a rough school and I was a normal dude, cool with all the rough kids and the geeks.’
Today, his mother still lives in the same flat on the estate. Neighbours are discreet about their local-boy-done-good.
‘I can’t talk about him — they asked us not to,’ says the man at the next-door flat.
Idris Elba, nominated for a Golden Globe for playing Nelson Mandela in Long Walk To Freedom, lived in a council flat in Dalston, East London
Idris Elba's childhood home, a council flat, was in the notorious Holly Street estate in Dalston, East London
‘I remember him,’ says a male black resident. ‘Yeh, done well. On for the Big One [at the Oscars]. Best of luck.’
Like other estates in desirable parts of London — it is handy for Camden Market and the borough’s other delights — it has undergone partial gentrification, with flats commanding half a million pounds.
Daniel’s salvation came in the form of art. Damalie encouraged him to write and, partly to keep her happy, he wrote his first play at the age of nine. Daniel took it to the local Anna Scher theatre group, it won a competition and was performed at Hampstead Theatre.
He signed up for acting classes where, for a £5 fee, he could lose himself in improvisation for three hours. He landed his first two acting jobs, in the TV play Shoot The Messenger with British actor David Oyelowo and drama series The Whistleblowers, by himself.Once Daniel secured an agent, the big break soon came. His writing came to the attention of TV station E4, which hired him as a scriptwriter and actor, playing a character known as Posh Kenneth in the series Skins.
Daniel says of discovering acting: ‘I thought I found my tribe — people who were from the estates who loved being creative, but weren’t flowery or lovey. That really resonated with me.’
That he did so in such straitened circumstances makes it all the more impressive. While his father still lives in London, employed by the NHS, he has never made a contribution to the family he left.
At one point in his childhood, Daniel was so short of money he would snack on free sauce sachets from McDonald’s.
But if anybody expects him to lament his background, they will be disappointed. Proud of his achievements, he hit back strongly last year when the veteran Hollywood star Samuel L. Jackson criticised the casting of an Englishman as an African-American character in Get Out.
Naomie Harris, Oscar nominated last year for her performance in Moonlight, is from the same acting school as Daniel Kaluuya
Naomie's Jamaican-born mother, Carmen, was 18 when she was abandoned by Naomie’s father, so she worked at the Post Office and brought her daughter up in a two-bedroom council flat in Finsbury Park
‘I was working class, I had to fight for this, and I had to out-work everyone in order to get anywhere and anything,’ Daniel said.
As for his status as part of an oppressed minority, Daniel is having none of it. ‘I’m not a minority,’ he says. ‘There are a billion white people in the world and a billion black people in the world. What part of me is a minority?’
The similarities between Daniel and his cohorts are striking. Naomie Harris, Oscar nominated last year for her performance in Moonlight, is another alumnus of the Anna Scher theatre school.
Her breakthrough came in the Pirates Of The Caribbean films, and she has made the part of Miss Moneypenny in the Daniel Craig Bond films her own with a blend of sass and sexiness. Her Jamaican-born mother, Carmen, was 18 when she was abandoned by Naomie’s father. Undaunted, Carmen worked at the Post Office and brought Naomie up in a two-bedroom council flat in Finsbury Park.
She studied for a sociology degree once Naomie was at school, then landed a career as a screenwriter. This diligence was followed by her daughter, who was landing roles on children’s TV at ten and won a place at Cambridge to read Social and Political Sciences.
The street, where Naomie spent a part of her early life, sits between salubrious Crouch End and less affluent Finsbury Park. The Victorian houses there were turned mainly into flats, and it is still less than ‘exclusive’ with discarded rubbish in the stairwells.
As for Idris Elba, nominated for a Golden Globe for playing Nelson Mandela in Long Walk To Freedom, his childhood home was probably the toughest of the lot — a council flat in the notorious Holly Street estate in Dalston, East London.
Idris lived in one of four tower blocks that dominated the area. His parents, Winston and Eve, were hard-working immigrants from West Africa. Winston worked as a press operator at the Ford car plant in Dagenham while Eve became a typist.
For Idris, born in East London in 1972, the acting bug bit early. To finance his studies for a bachelor of technology degree in performing arts at Dagenham College he would work night shifts at Ford.
He then had to turn down a place at drama school because his parents, who had scraped together the money to buy a small terrace house in East Ham, needed his wage from those night shifts. Even today, the street they moved to is said by the council to be in one of the top five per cent ‘most deprived areas’ in the UK. A few years ago, parcel firm DHL added the area to a list of ‘no-go’ places deemed too dangerous to deliver to — alongside Afghanistan, Iraq and parts of Cambodia.
Chiwetel Ejiofor attends The Olivier Awards at The Royal Opera House, in 2014 he was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in 12 Years A Slave
The former home of Ejiofor in West Norwood, a well-to-do area but in 1988, his father was killed in a lorry smash and he spent weeks in a coma, aged 11
But if that was a tough place for a child — Idris attended a series of gritty local state schools — then the Holly Street estate where he first grew up must have been even more challenging.
Known as the ‘Snake’ because of the winding covered walkways that connected the four main blocks, it became a place of fear.
Tony Blair, no less, lived in one of the Victorian houses bordering Holly Street and recalled the sense of menace as he canvassed for the Labour Party. When Blair came to power, Holly Street was on his hit-list of urban hell-holes.
Tom Hunter, a photographer who chronicled the estate’s final years, lived in a flat vacated by residents moving to a safer environment.
‘It had the longest walkways in Europe,’ he recalls. ‘And it was grim. There were corners everywhere, so you would walk around one and there might be a group of lads standing around, which was a bit worrying. They were usually fine, but it was a shock.’
Schoolchildren on their way home would avoid the estate — marked by burnt-out cars.
‘Anywhere that is not maintained goes downhill,’ says Mr Hunter. ‘From the outside, it was a concrete jungle just left to rot. The lifts, often urinated in, were always breaking down and there was rubbish in the shared spaces.
‘You never felt particularly safe. It was a dark, unfriendly, poorly maintained place and people started distrusting each other. Towards the end it became horrible. As people moved out, so squatters moved in — crack addicts some of them.’
Yet the old white working-class residents and their Afro-Caribbean neighbours persevered for years, maintaining comfortable homes in the 19-storey blocks.
By the time Idris was 30, he’d moved to New York in search of work. An audition video landed on the desk of a TV casting director, who offered him the role of drug-dealing anti-hero Stringer Bell in the smash-hit crime series The Wire. Idris never looked back. The last member of this extraordinary quartet has a slightly different story — one which includes a tragedy that would have shattered many young men for good.
Chiwetel Ejiofor’s parents fled to the UK from Nigeria in 1967 during the Biafran War. Arinze, a doctor, and Obiajulu, a pharmacist, retrained so they could practise in the UK and married in Camberwell, South London.
Chiwetel was born in 1977. He originally hails from East London, so close to Upton Park stadium that, as he puts it, ‘you could hear the West Ham roar from the house’. But when he was seven his family moved to West Norwood in South London. His mother still lives in a large detached house in the area.
Not as posh as neighbouring Dulwich, the area was nevertheless affordable and respectable.
Indeed, by the time he went to senior school, his hard-working parents had saved up enough to enrol him at nearby Dulwich College, the famous public school.
Money, however, cannot buy luck. In 1988, while the family were visiting Nigeria, a car carrying Chiwetel and his father was struck head-on by a lorry. Arinze died instantly, while his 11-year-old son spent weeks in a coma.
Chiwetel’s first words on waking up were: ‘Does this mean I can’t go to school?’ And while finding the fees was a struggle, his mother did everything she could to make sure he carried on at Dulwich College.
The sacrifice paid off. A star actor at school, at 18 he was asked to play Othello by the National Youth Theatre. The production was seen by a scout for Steven Spielberg, who promptly cast him in the movie Amistad, about the American slave trade.
Success was instant and Chiwetel has become the leading stage actor of his generation. In 2007, his Othello at the Donmar Warehouse was so popular that tickets changed hands for £1,300.
He was awarded the OBE in 2008 and in 2014 was nominated for an Oscar for his unforgettable performance in 12 Years A Slave.
Now, with Daniel Kaluuya counting down the days until his red- carpet appearances in Hollywood, the spotlight is once again turned on the new British acting royalty.
Young, gifted and black, to this day this golden quartet all live within a four-mile area of London, north of the Thames.
The main qualities they have in common, however, are an appetite for hard work and lashings of pure, God-given talent.