“Bro, we out here,” said a visibly humbled Daniel Kaluuya upon accepting his 2021 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Black Panther Chairman Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah. Becoming the first Black British actor in history to receive such an honour, the 32-year-old Londoner exuded excellence, veering between hood colloquialisms to elegantly thanking his family and team for bringing him to this point, via an unexpected quip about his parents that amused the masses and bewildered his mother. Striking a chord with many on UK shores who have seen his growth, the feeling was that a piece of us was up on the podium of the Oscars that night, for Kaluuya—who was born in Camden Town to Ugandan parents—represented us, unapologetic in his ascension to greatness.
Though everyone has their own journey that determines their course, it’s hard to imagine that a man who first grabbed our attention as a character named ‘Posh Kenneth’ would transcend his origins to become one of the finest actors of our time. Penning his first full play at the age of 9, about a pair of McDonalds’ workers—which was later performed at the prestigious Hampstead Theatre—Kaluuya’s star potential was realised early on. He first made a national impression when he played the aforementioned ‘Posh Kenneth’—a posh Black boy who talked “road”—in Skins, the hit Channel 4 series, from 2007 to 2009, where not only did he play a key on-screen role but he also wrote and co-wrote several of the first two seasons’ episodes.
With scriptwriting somewhat in the backburner and acting coming to the forefront upon leaving Skins, his star only continued to burn brighter, with roles in films such as Johnny English Reborn, Welcome To The Punch and Kick-Ass 2, and in TV shows like Silent Witness, Psychoville, Doctor Who and a star-making turn in Black Mirror. His wins on the silver screen—supplemented by continuous theatre work—would set the stage for his arrival on the international stage with his performance in Jordan Peele’s Get Out in 2017. Here, playing an uneasy Black man visiting his white girlfriend’s parents, who is sucked into a dark world of manipulation, the hit-flick was so universally acclaimed it garnered Kaluuya Oscar and Golden Globe nominations (not bad for a London lad).
The fact that someone who walks like us, talks like us and is intensely proud of where he’s from is making history in real time with every performance makes it impossible to not want to see him win, because his wins are also ours.
Coinciding with the rise of a new generation of Black British actors leaving their mark overseas, including John Boyega, Letitia Wright, Damson Idris and, more recently, Them star Ashley “Bashy” Thomas, Daniel Kaluuya began proving his powers, feature by feature, despite the ire of legendary cinematic figures such as Samuel L. Jackson, who have bemoaned the growing trend of Black Brits being cast in American films, stoking the flames of diasporic tension. Kaluuya has very gracefully taken critique in his stride however, telling The Breakfast Club last year: “I’m about union in the diaspora, so if someone’s feeling a way, I’ll listen and find how we can come together. There’s been a history of people ignoring and dismissing what African-Americans are feeling; I’m not going to contribute to that culture.”
A truly selfless professional, Kaluuya recognises the significance of each role he plays, as he carefully dedicates himself to building bridges between communities with intricate storytelling. This was evident in his next big slot in 2018’s Black Panther, a triumphant superhero flick that portrayed the excellence of Black pride and Black culture, and empowered generations of viewers. “You’ve got to be purposeful and truthful,” he told TRENCH Magazine in 2018. “And with the idea of storytelling, where a movie is often like a short story, you have to lean outward in order to put so much in.” Kaluuya would follow Black Panther with a small slot as a menacing mob enforcer in Widows (2018), an antihero on the run in Queen & Slim (2019) and his most recent portrayal—of the honourable Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton—in the harrowing Judas and the Black Messiah, each tapping into a new aspect of his acting repertoire.
Which brings us to the present day, the apex of Kaluuya’s professional career and a new terrain entirely for Black British actors. With an infectious personality to boot, his magnetism serves as a gravitational forcefield, pulling blessings towards him like Dragonball Z hero Goku’s Spirit Bomb. Now an Academy Award-winning actor, as well as an industry darling, young and fledgling actors and actresses here in Britain have a new, feasible benchmark to which they can aspire.
Daniel Kaluuya’s story is the perfect example of one of the mandem doing good, and there’s a collective pride that we—the Black British community—have in bearing witness to his successes. The fact that someone who walks like us, talks like us and is intensely proud of where he’s from is making history in real time with every performance makes it impossible to not want to see him win, because his wins are also ours. He continues to prove that regardless of surroundings, the glass ceiling can be shattered with hard work and dedication to one’s craft. Proof that, despite international success, the personal qualities that brought you to the dance need not waver.
Just look at the recent viral video of Kaluuya with fellow actor Damson Idris, artists Dave, Giggs and Not3s, football star Daniel Sturridge, and artist manager and DSS head honcho Michael ‘Buck’ Maris living it up in LA over Oscar weekend—a playful, exuberant showing of generations of Black British distinction. Because indeed, through King Kaluuya, we get a vessel of the Black experience—British and otherwise—its meteoric highs and its deepest lows, but always with purpose.