Why, exactly, are Ugandans so proud of Daniel Kaluuya’s Oscar nomination?

Daniel Kaluuya with his NAACP Image award for Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture for “Get Out”.
Daniel Kaluuya with his NAACP Image award for Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture for “Get Out”.
Image: Reuters/Danny Moloshok
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The news of Daniel Kaluuya, the Get Out star’s nomination for the Oscars has been received with so much excitement in Uganda it’s brought the country’s neglect of arts and culture and its relationship to the diaspora into sharp focus.

NTV Uganda reported that “Kaluuya is the first actor of Ugandan origin to get nominated for an Oscar.” The state-owned New Vision followed, claiming the actor in the headline, “Ugandan film star Kaluuya nominated for Oscar award.” Africanews captures some of the nationalist sentiments expressed by Ugandans on receiving the news. “Ugandans now have one more reason to wait for the Academy Awards Gala on March 4.”

It’s not just Uganda, in the UK, where Kaluuya was born, hard questions are again being raised about the pattern of black British actors needing to move to the US to find career success. Kaluuya follows in the steps of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Idris Elba and others. This pattern, has seen black British actors playing African American roles in movies about race, something of which Samuel L Jackson disapproves. In 2017, he singled out Kaluuya’s Get Out role, to argue that African American roles should be ring-fenced for African American actors.

Kaluuya responded to Jackson’s comments by shining the light on the complexity of his identity. He told GQ that his whole life has been, that of being seen as “other”. “Not fitting in, in Uganda, not Britain, not America.” Directly addressing Jackson, he said:

“I’m dark-skinned, bro. When I’m around black people I’m made to feel “other” because I’m dark-skinned. I’ve had to wrestle with that, with people going “You’re too black.” Then I come to America and they say, “You’re not black enough.” I go to Uganda, I can’t speak the language.”

The strangeness of Ugandan claims to Kaluuya go beyond the ‘othering’ diaspora Ugandans suffer at the hands of citizens who have lived all their lives in the country. As with many African countries, Uganda follows a neoliberal (free market capitalist) ideology, under which the state’s primary role is to support investment and big business, to the detriment of labour and citizenship rights. The arts and culture sector in Uganda has therefore been surrendered to the vagaries of free market competition.

The Uganda National Cultural Centre (UNCC), whose statutory role is to “preserve, promote, popularize and develop Uganda’s arts and culture” is under-funded. It is the UNCC’s role to not only promote Ugandan arts and culture at home, but also internationally. Instead, the state earmarked the 3.624 acre piece of land on which the National Theatre sits, for redevelopment in a Private-Public Partnership. The Nommo Gallery, is set for demolition and replacement by a five-star hotel.

There is nothing Uganda has done to help Kaluuya’s career. He was raised by his Ugandan mother on a council estate in London and did not connect, according to a New York Times interview, with his Uganda-based father until he was fifteen. He describes his teenage self as “working class and black.” He honed his craft at Hampstead and Anna Scher Theatres, acted parts in British television shows, and performed at The Royal Court. Like other black British actors, he realized that there was a glass ceiling in British film and theatre, and so “set his sights on the US.” Before Get Out, he was part of Sicario, and is involved with Widows and Black Panther, out this year.

While Uganda, the country of Kaluuya’s parents, does not invest in its arts and culture, let alone promote the work of diaspora born abroad or international Ugandans, Hollywood’s global market power is supported by the US government. Hollywood has long been supported through decades of tax credit schemes, film commission assistance and State and Commerce Department representation.

Instead of waiting for individuals of Ugandan origin, to “hustle” their way, and celebrate their success as a cause for national pride, the Hollywood-addicted Ugandan middle class should wage a struggle for a cultural revolution at home.

To remember that Kaluuya is of Ugandan origin, after he has attained career success in Hollywood by way of London, reflects the emptiness of Ugandan national pride. A truly independent African nation does not look to Hollywood for cultural achievement.

As the Martinique-born philosopher and revolutionary Frantz Fanon told the Congress of Black African Writers in 1959, “a nation which is born of the people’s concerted action and which embodies the real aspirations of the people while changing the state cannot exist save in the expression of exceptionally rich forms of culture.”