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“Remember Us?” Leading Ladies Of Color In British Cinema History

"Remember Us?" Leading Ladies Of Color In British Cinema History

There’s been a lot of recent Internet chatter about the upcoming sports drama Fast Girls, and how it features the first lead performance by a black actress in a British film.  Not to take anything away from actress Lenora Crichlow, but that just isn’t so.

In an interview last month with the London Evening Standard, Crichlow dropped this little nugget:

But perhaps we should concentrate on a more remarkable fact. I’d been told that the Londoner sitting in front of me is the first black female actor to lead a British film. “This is according to Damian [Jones], the producer, and he knows his stuff,” she says when I mention it, as if she can barely believe it herself.

“It’s a double-edged sword, though. All my favourite actresses are women of colour, and it saddens me that they’re not household names. But what a positive place to start from. The majority of our lead characters are black females, representing their country, in strong, positive roles. It is something we should see more of.”

It’s a positive sentiment but, thankfully, it isn’t completely accurate.  Several actresses before Crichlow have had opportunities to shine in front of the camera, their performances immortalized on film.

Just last year we saw Zawe Ashton star in the docu/drama Dreams Of A Life, and even got a chance to speak to her about her lead role.

Having already appeared in several memorable supporting film roles, Sophie Okonedo took the lead in the 2008 Anthony Fabian-directed drama Skin.

Danny Boyle’s 2002 thriller 28 Days Later featured a star-turning performance from a then-relatively-unknown Naomie Harris*However, after watching the film’s trailer, one would never know it.*

SPOILER ALERT:  (Don’t watch the below clip if you haven’t yet seen the film.)

Marianne Jean-Baptiste received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her performance in the 1996 drama Secrets & Lies.  But anyone who saw it knows that she and Brenda Blethyn (who was nominated for Best Actress) both carried that film.

Following her 1986 feature film debut opposite Bob Hoskins in director Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa, actress Cathy Tyson was on track to make a name for herself in Hollywood.

In 1981, director Menelik Shabazz’s Burning An Illusion featured a lead performance from Cassie McFarlane that still puts butts in seats at film festivals worldwide.

And these are only the films I could remember.  If anyone can name others, please feel free to share.

I wish Crichlow and the rest of the Fast Girls cast much success with their film this summer. Let’s just keep in mind that there are British actresses out there whose performances should not be forgotten, and whose best work we likely have yet to see.

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Saw the film at last nights premiere, all the actresses were brilliant. It was refreshing to so many,beautiful black girls toegether on film, and yes there were stereotypes, but almost every film has those, they create talking points on the way home. Lashana was amazing, a new talent to watch.We must give kudos to the actresses who have gone before , but please support our up and coming young artistes. Go and see the film,it's a feel good movie, no guns, no crime,no killings. And the soundtrack is amazing, again supporting british made 'urban' music.


Don't forget Carmen Ejogo…the lovely Black Brit actress who is married to our national treasure — Jeffrey Wright!


I think right now the MOST successful black British actress is without a doubt Naomie Harris! Harris is currently filming the new James Bond film Skyfall. According to Naomie she was surprised at the amount of screen time she gets! She gets to use guns, had to train and do a lot of running. Naomie was also in Pirates of the Caribbean, and in 28 Days Later. And Naomie is ONLY thirty five she's done incredibly well even better then the black American actresses. Naomie has taken on diverse film roles from indie dramas to big budget movies. I am keeping an eye on Naomie Harris.


anyway, for me Black USA / UK, African films are the best…

see for example fm UK/Kenia, trailer of "PEARLS OF AFRICA"



The british "bring it on" imho. Full of stereotypes why did the white girl have to come from money and mixed girl from poverty and the blk girls are typical hood one dimetional characters i will definately pass on this but sadluy in the past this kind of movei would have a black lead but with the likes of Jessica Ennis being the golden girl of athletics and Christine Ohuruogu roundly ignored its not surpriseing they chose a more "marketable" lead.


leonora is mixed race im SICK of people using these people to represent bw they're NOT BLACK and the casting agents know this they know they can get away with putting a girl like this up there but they cant do that with the men everyone seems to know the diference between idris elba/samual l jackson and terrence howard/boris kudjo but not thandie newton and kerry washington wtf?!

Screen Nation

Glad this posting has been made as we corrected the statement made by Lenora as soon s we heard it as we knew it was wrong. I would have thought she or her people would have at least been aware of a small ambitious British athletics movie called The Girl with Brains in her Feet, which had a little known actress Joanna Ward in the lead as 'the girl'. Its just a shame that many of these super talented women who have been leads in British films before the lovely Leonora have unfortunately been thrown by the wayside by the UK movie industry. Good post as there are other hidden gems when it comes to this question.


Nikki Amuka-Bird was featured on season 2 of Luther, and teaches acting at RADA. Here's her imdb Just adding her to this list! I loved this post btw and mentioned it on my blog at

Let's keep this list growing and show these ladies support!

– Masha Dowell


I agree with Lea, I'm not familiar with Lenora but from the trailer she is clearly the lead. I'm glad you mentioned Secrets and Lies in the write up. I love that movie! It is a very good movie, I saw it when it came out…it was on pay per view back in the late 90's(yeah remember that lol). I definitely felt Marianne Jean Baptiste was a lead being as though the movie centered around her and the family, they just focused on the white family more in the movie. Sophie Okonedo is a great actress!! Whatever she's in I'll watch it lol. Funny though, I'd like to see more movies that let black british actresses shine, more in the light of Secrets and Lies/Skin. There are a lot of 'I'm from the hood' british movies that have been highlighted lately…although kidulthood/adulthood were good but would like to see a diversity.


Whatever happened to the fabulous Alphonsia Emmanuel. In "Peter's Friends", she was illuminatingly beautiful and exceptionally talented. And then…..NOTHING! Would you please see if you can find any information about her at all? She's seemed to have simply disappeared off the face of the earth. Thanks much!


To be fair, the bulk of these roles have women of color as a lead, yes, but often as a supporting-player to the lead male (often white). Lenora is the lead actress in her film, first-billed, and the star of the film, which is perhaps what they were getting at. There is a white male and female in Fast Girls, but they are the supporting players to HER, not the other way around.

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