Welcome to Don’t Sleep On Them, our weeklong series marking the launch of Unbothered UK. Not a single actor of colour was nominated for a BAFTA this year, so we’re using the week leading up to the awards to spotlight incredible black British actresses. Join us in celebrating the women slaying the game and see who else we’re rooting for here.
Cynthia Erivo is a stone's throw away from becoming the youngest person ever to win an EGOT – an extra prestigious combination of having received an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony award. If you’ve seen her in absolutely anything over the past few years, this comes as no surprise. What did come as a surprise, however, is her not being nominated for a BAFTA for her latest role in the historical film Harriet – but it seems women of colour weren’t invited to the celebration this year.
It was a former tutor seeing her potential that persuaded a younger Cynthia to apply to RADA, propelling her into the world of acting, glitz and glamour (she's rubbing shoulders with both Oprah and Whoopi Goldberg these days). And while her early role in Chewing Gum garnered her some attention, it wasn’t until she moved to the US that her career really took off, with her playing the lead in a Broadway adaption of Pulitzer-winning novel The Colour Purple. Her singing was so mesmerising it prompted a spontaneous standing ovation mid-show.
Before I’m British, I’m a black woman. The first things people see are the colour of my skin and my sex. That’s how I have lived my whole life.
But Harriet is the film that has had her fans on the edge of their seats. It's a narrative the world has been hoping to see on the big screen for a long time. It depicts a part of the life of American abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who travelled 100 miles in 1849 to the free state of Philadelphia to escape slavery, just to turn back around and make the same trip again at least 13 times to help her family and dozens of others become free. Harriet is an integral part of black history and many are stunned that this is the first major film to tackle her life story. Even this one took 25 years to reach us (with one person even suggesting Julia Roberts play the lead). Nonetheless, Cynthia’s powerful depiction of Harriet is why she has been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar (and why she should’ve been nominated for a BAFTA too).
Despite her jaw-dropping performance, not everyone has been pleased with the idea of a black British woman playing an African American hero (a debate that goes beyond this film alone). Cynthia wasn’t much fazed by that, though. In an interview with the Guardian she said on the subject: "Before I’m British, I’m a black woman. The first things people see are the colour of my skin and my sex. That’s how I have lived my whole life."
Cynthia has made a point of looking extra every time she hits the red carpet, always donning extravagant attire. In an interview with Billboard she said: "I want to try and make sure that when people see me, it's not just for me to enjoy, it's for everyone else to enjoy."
Soon Cynthia will be playing Aretha Franklin in the next Genius series for National Geographic. She won’t be going anywhere anytime soon – but who would want her to?
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