London Calling: Top Black British Actors

Sophie Okonedo, Idris Elba and others are helping the U.K. take over Hollywood one role at a time.

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    Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje; Sophie Okonedo; Idris Elba

    A growing number of black British actors and actresses are booking roles in blockbuster films and television shows in the U.S., and yet most Americans learn of their British background only when the King’s English flows out of their mouths — ever so eloquently — during press interviews. The Root rounded up a list of the most prominent black stars who have trekked across the pond to take over Tinseltown one role at a time.

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    Idris Elba (Stuart Wilson/Getty Images); screenshot from The Wire

    Idris Elba

    What can you say about Elba, the most prominent of the bunch, that hasn’t been said already? The Root recently rounded up some of his most memorable roles, a record that has him on the brink of A-list fame and being mentioned in the same breath as Denzel Washington and Leonardo DiCaprio — in terms of both his acting chops and his ability to make women swoon. Elba will be playing Nelson Mandela in the biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, slated to be released later this year. There’s Oscar buzz about that performance, and rumor has it he’s on a short list of actors who could take Daniel Craig’s spot as the next James Bond. He would be the first black actor to do so. Forget his untimely demise in The Wire — Stringer Bell simply cannot be stopped.

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    Chiwetel Ejiofor (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images); screenshot from American Gangster

    Chiwetel Ejiofor

    Those beautiful lightning-bolt-esque scars on Ejiofor’s forehead are a result of a car accident he survived when he was young. “Chewy,” as his friends call him, has played Denzel Washington’s right-hand man in Spike Lee’s Inside Man from 2006 and in Ridley Scott’s 2007 film American Gangster. Ejiofor has two films on deck that may cement his place among the greats: fellow Brit Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, in which Ejiofor plays a free black man who gets sold into slavery in the antebellum South; and Half of a Yellow Sun. Like his Brit brethren Elba, his performance in the former film is getting Oscar buzz. Have a look at his recital of a passage from Shakespeare’s Hamlet here.

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    Thandie Newton (Valery Hache/Getty Images); screenshot from For Colored Girls

    Thandie Newton

    Newton‘s performance in 2006’s Crash was a pivotal reason the film inspired a national conversation about race in America. She has the ability to mimic all of Condoleezza Rice’s button-down mannerisms, as she did in 2008’s W., while easily switching gears to play a proud, promiscuous jezebel type in Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls in 2010. She’ll appear alongside Chiwetel Ejiofor in Half of a Yellow Sun.

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    David Oyelowo (Jason LaVeris/Getty Images); screenshot from Lee Daniels' The Butler

    David Oyelowo

    For most Americans, Oyelowo came to their attention as the hardheaded Tuskegee Airman in George Lucas’ Red Tails. They can see more of him in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, in which he plays a young man at war with Jim Crow America and his domestic-servant father, played by Forest Whitaker.

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    Sophie Okonedo (Samir Hussein/Getty Images); screenshot from The Secret Life of Bees

    Sophie Okonedo

    Okonedo earned an Academy Award nomination for her role as Don Cheadle’s wife in Hotel Rwanda. She played a depressed Southern black woman alongside Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson and Alicia Keys in The Secret Life of Bees. She’s black, British and Jewish.

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    Naomie Harris (Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images); screenshot from Skyfall

    Naomie Harris

    Harris is the first black actress to play Moneypenny alongside James Bond in Skyfall, the franchise’s 23rd installment. Harris appeared in Street Kings with Forest Whitaker and Keanu Reeves and will play Winnie Mandela opposite Idris Elba in Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom.

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    Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images); screenshot from Oz

    Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje

    Akinnuoye-Agbaje will always be known as the cunning inmate with the itty-bitty hat on the HBO series Oz, but in real life he has been on the other side of the justice system: He has two law degrees from schools in London. Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who also played one of the survivors on ABC’s Lost, will venture into the comic book genre as Kurse in Marvel Studios’ Thor: The Dark World.

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    Lennie James (Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images); screenshot from Jericho

    Lennie James

    James starred in the CBS series Jericho and is Detective Joe Geddes in AMC’s new series Low Winter Sun. He also had a prominent role in The Walking Dead.

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    David Harewood (Paul A. Hebert/Getty Images); screenshot from Homeland

    David Harewood

    Harewood recently starred as David Estes, deputy director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, in the popular Showtime series Homeland. He played an iconic American, Martin Luther King Jr., in a London production of the play The Mountaintop.

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    Nonso Anozie (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images); screenshot from Game of Thrones

    Nonso Anozie

    Anozie is most recognizable as the duplicitous Xaro Xhoan Daxos, who betrayed the Khaleesi, Daenerys Targaryen, in the popular HBO series Game of Thrones. He also appeared as Samson in the History Channel’s top-rated miniseries The Bible.

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    Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images); screenshot from Without a Trace

    Marianne Jean-Baptiste

    The first black Briton to be nominated for an Academy Award, for 1996’s Secrets & Lies, Jean-Baptiste may be best remembered for her role as an FBI agent in CBS’ Without a Trace. She’ll also be starring in the Robocop reboot slated for 2014.

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    Eamonn Walker (Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images); screenshot from Chicago Fire  

    Eamonn Walker

    Walker plays Chief Wallace Boden in NBC’s Chicago Fire. He also howled his way through the film Cadillac Records alongside Beyoncé and Adrien Brody as blues singer Howlin’ Wolf. He may best be remembered as prison militant Kareem Said in HBO’s acclaimed series Oz.

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