The BBC picks a “Doctor Who” from Africa: Rwandan-Scottish actor Ncuti Gatwa

Damien Glez
By Damien Glez

A French/Burkinabé artist and editorialist.

Posted on Tuesday, 10 May 2022 18:56

The British actor of African origin Ncuti Gatwa will be the first black actor to play the main character in the cult series "Doctor Who". A victory for the community?

Good news for statisticians who list major roles given to actors with high melanin content, including characters previously played by caucasians, and especially when the new actor is of African descent. The 29-year-old Scottish actor Ncuti Gatwa was born in Rwanda. The BBC has just announced that he will play the lead character in “Doctor Who”, the science-fiction series that will celebrate 60 years since its first broadcast next year. The show has such a cult following that casting the lead is always an event. This time the event is historic, as Gatwa is the first Black man to take on the role of the Doctor, an alien of the Time Lords race who travels in the TARDIS, which travels across space and time.

Getting starring roles in Western broadcasting seems to be a parallel quest for Black men and women. It is actress Jodie Whittaker who is passing the torch to Gatwa. A few months ago, a new 007 agent, also cult and British, was played by Lashana Lynch, who is female and Black. But if she took on the role of the spy, it was not precisely in the skin of James Bond. Some bookmakers imagine that the latter could soon be played by the “Blacks” René-Jean Page – of British-Zimbabwean origin – or Alfred Enoch – of Brazilian and Barbadian origin, among others.

If Gatwa is playing the game of the big audiovisual family, by publicly enthusing about his new “really incredible” role, he has already had success with the series “Sex Education”. Similarly, the casting of the “Doctor Who” character as a Black man is not so unexpected, as the script calls for the alien to regenerate into different forms.

The guardians of authenticity

The guardians of so-called authenticity are more interested in the roles formally defined, in their writing, as Black or white. There is nothing specific on this point in the definition of Catwoman, played after a few adaptations by the mixed-race Halle Berry, or Kojak, reincarnated by the African-American Ving Rhames. As for Omar Sy and Michael B. Jordan, they are not playing either Arsène Lupin or Rocky Balboa in their respective productions “Lupin” and “Creed”. The “Black Superman” announced in 2021 would not be the version of journalist Clark Kent but that of another Kryptonian, Calvin Ellis.

The guardians of the “white” temple were more grumpy when Omar Sy played, perhaps anachronistically, Doctor Knock. As were the guardians of the “Black” temple, when the caucasian Gérard Depardieu played the mixed-race writer Alexandre Dumas.

In the end, is the goal of the African-American film community to infuse white culture by stepping into old, pallid roles? From the last audiovisual decade, we can point to, above all, the global success of “Black Panther”, which is not the umpteenth rehash of a withered white myth.

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