Originally written for and published in Caribbean Beat Magazine (May/June 2015)
It was sixty-five years ago that Cyrano de Bergerac was released, a film that would make Puerto Rican actor José Ferrer the first Caribbean person to win an Oscar (for best actor in a leading role, 1951). He also won a Golden Globe, and a Tony award for the Broadway production, and ultimately donated his Oscar trophy to the University of Puerto Rico. Born in 1912, he would earn more Oscar and Emmy recognition in his career, and effectively clear the way for a generation of Caribbean actors born after him who would command American and British stages and screens — breaking new ground, and some records, along the way.
Ferrer’s homeland of Puerto Rico is the birthplace of some of the most dynamic performers in film and television history. Exactly ten years after Ferrer’s win, legendary actress Rita Moreno became the second Puerto Rican to win an Oscar (and a Golden Globe), as best supporting actress, for her role in West Side Story. She is among just twelve individuals worldwide, and the first Hispanic, to have won all of the Oscar, Grammy, Emmy, and Tony awards. Notably, when that list is extended to include winners of honorary awards, another Caribbean-American star — Harry Belafonte — is among the prestigious number.
Four years older than Moreno, Belafonte was born in 1927 in Harlem to a Jamaican mother and a Martiniquan father. An actor, singer, songwriter, and activist, he first appeared on the silver screen in films like Carmen Jones and the controversial Island in the Sun, filmed on location in Grenada and Barbados. His album of calypso and mento recordings, Calypso, was released in 1956. Now eighty-eight, and considered a living legend, Belafonte counts three Grammys, an Emmy, a Tony, Kennedy Centre Honours, a United States National Medal of Arts, and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award among his many accolades.
There was another very notable birth in 1927, when Sidney Poitier — though raised in the Bahamas to Bahamian parents — was born in Miami. Poitier would become the first African-American, and third Caribbean man or woman (after Rita Moreno) to win an Oscar. In 1964, he took both the Golden Globe and the Academy Award for best actor in a leading role for his performance in Lilies of the Field. An actor, director, author, and diplomat, Poitier is one of the most celebrated artists of his generation, with recognition that includes a knighthood, Kennedy Centre Honours, the US Presidential Medal of Freedom, and numerous lifetime achievement awards.
Esther Rolle was also born in Florida to Bahamian parents, just a few years earlier than Poitier, in 1920. A theatre, film, and TV actress, dancer, and singer, she aptly became best known for her role as Florida Evans on 1970s US TV series Maude and its spin-off Good Times, a role for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe. She made history in 1979 by winning the very first Emmy for outstanding supporting actress in a limited series or special, for the TV movie Summer of My German Soldier.
Twelve years later, Jamaican actress Madge Sinclair (born in Kingston in 1938) made more Caribbean Emmy history, winning for best supporting actress in a drama series (Gabriel’s Fire), and receiving another Emmy nod for her role in the TV miniseries Roots. The voice of Simba’s mother in The Lion King film, she notably performed in the UK miniseries adaptation of Dominican Phyllis Shand Allfrey’s novel The Orchid House, directed by Trinidadian Horace Ové. After she died of leukaemia at just fifty-seven, Sinclair’s ashes were scattered in her hometown in Jamaica.
Further south in the island chain, the multi-talented Geoffrey Holder — who passed away in 2014 — was born in Trinidad in 1930. Holder conquered stage and screen, featuring in films like All Night Long, Annie, and Boomerang; narrating Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; playing James Bond henchman Baron Samedi in Live and Let Die; and becoming 7Up’s “uncola” spokesman in the 1970s and 80s (later reprising the role for an appearance on US TV show The Celebrity Apprentice). An actor, choreographer, director, dancer, painter, costume designer, and singer, his accolades included two Tony awards and a Guggenheim Fellowship in fine arts.
Since those defining moments in the 1940s onwards, when these trailblazing artists from the region first appeared on global screens, dozens more — both Caribbean-born and children of Caribbean immigrants, a majority of them women — have made their mark, continuing the tradition of winning top industry prizes and starring in popular films and TV series. We profile just a few of them.
Born in Britain in 1967, to an Antiguan mother and St Lucian father
Jean-Baptiste made her mark early in her career by snagging an Oscar nomination for supporting actress in Secrets & Lies in 1996, becoming the first black British (or black Caribbean) actress do to so. An actress, singer-songwriter, writer, director, and composer (she wrote the score for Mike Leigh’s film Career Girls), she’s perhaps best known for her roles on the US TV series Without a Trace, the UK series Broadchurch, and films like last year’s RoboCop.
On her Caribbean roots: Jean-Baptiste was appointed a tourism ambassador for Antigua and Barbuda in 2007, and believes the islands are perfect potential film and music video locations. Proud of her Caribbean heritage, she says: “It has informed who I am and how I see the world. A deep love for my culture, firmly grounded in family and tradition, keeps things in perspective for me. Family first, always. I still have family back in Antigua who I visit whenever I’m there,” she told Caribbean Beat. “I think there is a sense of community among Caribbean actors in film and TV. And though it might not be that we all hang out, there is definitely a sense that we are from the same tribe, a sort of shorthand… I like my fellow islanders to know how proud I am of my heritage”
Born in the US in 1977, to a Jamaican mother and American father
Her iconic Emmy- and Golden Globe–nominated role as Olivia Pope in US TV series Scandal has made Washington a household name. This actress and activist is the first black female lead in an American network TV drama since 1974. Other notable screen appearances include Save the Last Dance (starring Guyanese-American actor Sean Patrick Thomas), The Human Stain, Ray, The Last King of Scotland, the Fantastic Four films, For Coloured Girls, and Django Unchained. She was listed as one of the hundred “most influential people in the world” by TIME magazine in 2014.
Born in Guyana on Christmas Day 1962, as Carol Christine Hilaria Pounder, and grew up in the US and the UK
Currently appearing in the US TV drama NCIS: New Orleans, Pounder is also known for her past roles on ER (for which she received one of four Emmy nominations), The X Files, Law & Order SVU, The Shield, and Sons of Anarchy, and in films like Face/Off, RoboCop 3, Prizzi’s Honour, Avatar, and Bagdad Café. She also starred in Home Again, a movie filmed in Trinidad in 2012 (an island she has visited with friend Lorraine Toussaint). Pounder nurtures emerging African and Caribbean diaspora visual artists through the Pounder Kone Art Space in Los Angeles and the Musée Boribana in Senegal, co-founded with her husband. She received an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from her alma mater, Ithaca College.
On her Caribbean roots: Grateful for the support and appreciation of Caribbean fans, she says: “I love that it makes you proud when you hear I’m from ‘home’.” She told Caribbean Beat:
“Having left Guyana so young one would think that it was long left behind in my lifestyle, but my parents never lost what they brought with them and I was always the most curious in my family to go back and reconnect with what I remembered of Versailles Estate. I made my mother join me on one of my trips to Guyana to show me where she grew up (New Amsterdam)… With the few aunts my mother was connected with, I sat and listened to Ole Haig stories, ate black cake, sugar cake, curry and roti, drank mauby and ginger beer and made myself at home once again. I revisited all I remembered from childhood: where Ms. James’ school was opposite Bishops high school; where the Catholic school was; Fogarty’s; Farage’s — which no longer existed, at the school corner where I bought roti and a strawberry soda instead of milk; I raced the setting sun from Vreed en Hoop to Parika with friends to watch the moon rise out of the water. Roamed old estates like Rose Hall, Bellevue, Wales, Uitvlugt and travelled up the Essequibo with my handsome cousins, the Downes boys, second generation. The impact of these journeys has been indelible and holds me closer to a country I now rarely see but never forget and always claim.
My dear friend Lorraine Toussaint has always invited me to Trinidad and Tobago, her islands, and I find the same relaxing welcome waft over me when I arrive before I start my expeditions of buying cloth, bedding and Carnival costumes. Roaming waterfalls and strolling through bamboo cathedrals. Having lost my mother I’ve also lost many connections to Guyana but not the Guyanese people who seem to be scattered to the four winds in Canada, England other Caribbean islands and the United States. We cross paths enough for our presence to be known (at dances, deaths and life celebrations)…
We [Caribbean actors in Hollywood] often do not know that we share a Caribbean heritage until we are working together and somehow the subject comes up!… There is a commonality of certain age categories and styles, e.g. a remarkable amount of Caribbean artists may have been educated on a British system and therefore have a different discipline in the approach to their work…”
Benicio del Toro
Born in Puerto Rico in 1967, as Benicio Monserrate Rafael del Toro Sánchez
Beginning his career with bit parts on TV playing the stereotypical Latino drug dealer, del Toro graduated to playing a James Bond villain in License to Kill (still the youngest actor ever to do so), and popular and critically acclaimed films like China Moon, The Usual Suspects (considered his breakout performance), Basquiat (about the Haitian- and Puerto Rican–American painter of the same name), Snatch, 21 Grams, Sin City, Guardians of the Galaxy, and the title role in Che. He joined the ranks of a handful of Caribbean actors (and became the third Puerto Rican) to win an Oscar, Golden Globe, and other awards for his supporting role in Traffic, in which his character predominantly spoke a language other than English (most of his lines were delivered in Spanish). Coming up? A film with maverick director Terrence Malick.
On his Caribbean roots: On receiving a lifetime achievement award last year, del Toro said: “I want to dedicate this award to the piece of land where I come from, where I was born, where I learned to throw rocks and had them first thrown at me, where I learned to take risks, and where I learned not to do things just to do them.”
Born in Trinidad and Tobago in 1960, migrating to the US as a child
Acclaimed for her performance in the hit series Orange Is the New Black, the Juilliard-trained actress — whom Caribbean Beat interviewed back in 2008 — is also known for roles on US TV series Forever, Saving Grace, Any Day Now, The Fosters, Friday Night Lights, Crossing Jordan, Ugly Betty, and Law & Order, as well as films like Hudson Hawk, Dangerous Minds, The Soloist, Middle of Nowhere, and the recently released Selma, in which she grippingly played iconic civil rights activist Amelia Boynton Robinson. These days, Toussaint is focusing more on producing, with an eye for projects that are Caribbean-based, and a desire to invest in Trinidad and Tobago’s film industry and develop young acting talent.
On her Caribbean roots: Toussaint returns to Trinidad regularly, and has hosted workshops for developing filmmakers and actors back at home through the national film company. She sees no reason her homeland can’t be the mecca of the film and theatre industry in the Caribbean. Toussaint has said that her Trini roots, and identifying as a Caribbean woman, have served her well. Being from the Caribbean is “an empowering perspective on the world,” she says, “coming from a place where being a person of colour doesn’t render you a minority. To be part of the majority as a person of colour is very important, so I keep bringing [my daughter] home. So that she’s got roots there . . . My daughter considers herself a Trinidadian. I am glad we’re a part of this.”
Born in Britain in 1976, to a Jamaican mother and Trinidadian father
Millions saw her performances as Tia/Calypso in two of the wildly popular Pirates of the Caribbean movies, but Harris’s film, television, and theatre roles on both sides of the pond include more literary fare, such as the BBC TV adaptation of Jamaican-British author Andrea Levy’s Small Island (filmed in part in Jamaica) and the mini-series adaptation of Jamaican-British writer Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. She’s also played Winnie Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and Eve Moneypenny in the James Bond films Skyfall (2012) and Spectre (due for release later this year) — both of which are directed by Sam Mendes, himself of Trinidadian descent. Harris is the first black actress to play the role of Moneypenny.
On her Caribbean roots: Asked about her heritage, the graduate of Cambridge University has said: “I was raised within the Jamaican culture in Britain. I was surrounded by these incredibly powerful women growing up — independent, opinionated, strong-willed women, like my mum and my aunt.”
Born in the US in 1974, to a Guyanese father and American mother
Luke’s breakout performance was his film debut in Antwone Fisher, in the title role and alongside Denzel Washington. These days, he’s best known for heating up the screen in the new hit US TV series Empire. Other notable screen appearances include Spike Lee’s Miracle at St Anna, Captain America: The First Avenger, Madea Goes to Jail, Sparkle, Biker Boyz, Friday Night Lights, and playing Sean “Puffy” Combs in Notorious. He’s also been featured in music videos by Alicia Keys (“Teenage Love Affair”) and Monica (“So Gone”).
Born in the US in 1978, as Mayte Michelle Rodriguez, to a Puerto Rican father and a mother from the Dominican Republic, spending some of her early years living in both those Caribbean countries
Her breakout role (as a boxer) in the film Girlfight won her an Independent Spirit Award. She went on to star in S.W.A.T., the surfing movie Blue Crush, the Resident Evil and Fast and Furious film series (including this year’s seventh instalment of the latter), and Avatar, as well as popular TV series Lost. She’s been described as “the most iconic actress in the action genre” in Hollywood, becoming known for “tomboy” roles — and she moonlights as a DJ.
On her Caribbean roots: In 2012, Rodriguez travelled to the DR for the PBS series Finding Your Roots, and was also part of National Geographic’s Genographic Project. Of the impact of her heritage, she told Caribbean Beat:
“The Spanish language has come in handy throughout the years helping me connect with people all over the world in ways they’d never expect to connect with an English speaking American. The culture has made me a laid back warm hearted seeker of joy in life I blame that on salsa, Spanish love songs old and new as well as the warm weather in Puerto Rico every summer has helped build a happy predisposition about life in general.
I’ve flown from the coupe taking the most beautiful aspects of my culture and spreading worldwide the best way I know how through my work. I’ll eventually come back and buy some land in either Puerto Rico or the DR so I can enjoy some of the nature I love so much in my retirement.
I’m personally an avid believer that the world should be one with many accents, eccentricities, and gifts from all the cultures worldwide participating in making the planet we know and love. Being the type of person who focuses on one group, race, or culture, is not my thing, I’m way too curious about the world and all it has to offer to follow any specific community that isn’t all encompassing.I love the Caribbean it has a warm welcoming spirit and a zest for life I can’t compare to any other place I’ve been to. I’ll always have a place for the Caribbean in my life.”
Born to Jamaican parents
He is best known for roles on US TV series The West Wing (for which he received an Emmy nomination) and Psych.
On his Caribbean roots: He visits Jamaica fairly regularly, and even had his wedding in Montego Bay. He told Caribbean Beat:
“I believe every aspect of my Caribbean heritage has had a significant impact on my journey. The child of two Jamaican parents, I was raised to fully embrace my Caribbean roots. From the food, to the music, to the way we gracefully move through the hills and valleys of life each day; my heritage has taught me to enjoy each moment to the fullest. To persevere in the midst of all adversity and to give my all in building on the foundation that has been laid by those who’ve come before me.
I love everything Caribbean! No matter where I travel; I can’t seem to help but connect with island people. You give me some jerk chicken, rum, along with some reggae, soca and dominoes and I am good to go!
I also consider myself a carnivalist (I know it’s not a real word but you know what I mean.) This year, I’ve already gone to Trinidad for carnival. I’m off to Jamaica next. Then I have plans to reach the Bahamas, Barbados, London, Los Angeles, NY and Miami all for the carnival season. “I is a Feter!” (in my bootleg Benjai voice.
I love my family dearly, through the highs, the lows and everything in between. I try my best to stay connected with as much family as possible. Whether it’s JA, Miami, NY, Toronto or the UK, I make sure I see as much family as possible. I’m a family man so it comes natural to me. Simple tings.
There is a certain level of admiration and respect that we all [actors of Caribbean heritage] share whenever an island connection is made. I won’t say that there is some “Island People Club” in TV/Film land but we are aware that we are here. I will say this, even though we are aware of each other and it’s always love, I believe we could do a better job of staying connected to expand our awareness and support each other along this show biz journey.
To all my brothers and sisters from the lands of sea and sun, I say this: we are a great and magnificent set a people. A perfected melting pot of histories and cultures brought together to create this wonderful root called Caribbean. No matter how far we expand and grow, we are always connected. We are family. With out you, there is no me. I am truly thankful for all the love and support that has been shared over the years. I pray that you are proud to call me one of your own. Let us continue to dare to dream because all things really are possible. See you along the journey. One Love.
Sean Patrick Thomas
Born in the US to Guyanese parents
Known for roles in Conspiracy Theory, Courage Under Fire, Cruel Intentions, Save the Last Dance, Barbershop 2, Halloween: Resurrection, and TV series The District.
On his Caribbean roots, Thomas shared with Caribbean Beat:
My Caribbean heritage has had an enormous impact on my journey. My parents came here to a brand new country when they were barely twenty years old to go to college, and they were married and I was born before they graduated. In fact, even as an immigrant and a young dad, my father graduated early. That type of work ethic, drive, and determination informs every part of my life to this day. In my home, education and academic achievement was of paramount importance. I believe that the culture and experiences of my parents laid the groundwork for me to have maximum flexibility in terms of whatever discipline I chose to pursue in life. My family in Guyana was accustomed to seeing black doctors, lawyers, teachers, even the Prime Minister of their country. So in a racially polarized place like the U.S., they felt unencumbered by whatever limitations were initially placed upon them. I’d like to think that I am a continuation of my Guyanese heritage in that respect.
Because over the years all of my family has immigrated to the US, I don’t actively have ties with the Guyanese community in Guyana itself. However I have strong ties to the Guyanese community here in North America, encompassing Delaware, the Washington D.C. area, Brooklyn NY, Atlanta, and Toronto. I have Guyanese family and friends in all these areas.
There is a feeling of community among those of us [actors] of Caribbean descent in the film/TV industry in the sense that many of us don’t know that some of our colleagues are West Indian, but as soon as we find out about each other, there is an instant form of bonding and shared experience where you think, “Of course this person is West Indian”. I should have known all along.
To my Caribbean fans, first I say thank you! I take great pride in representing the culture of my parents and grandparents, who put so much love and time into making me into the man I am today. I know that if I do anything to make my Guyanese people take notice, I’ve done well because of our high standards. I appreciate your support, and will continue to represent us in a way that can make all Guyanese proud.
More of the stellar cast
Sheryl Lee Ralph
Born in the US to a Jamaican mother, she spent some of her childhood in Jamaica, and is best known for US TV series Moesha, It’s a Living, and films like Sister Act II, White Man’s Burden, The Distinguished Gentleman, and The Flintstones.
Born in the US to a Trinidadian father and Panamanian mother, she’s best known for US TV series The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, The Young and the Restless, and films like Kiss the Girls and Home Again, which was filmed in Trinidad in 2012 and co-starred C.C.H. Pounder.
Born and raised in Jamaica, moving to London as a young adult, Anderson is an actress/performer, producer, photographer, and filmmaker, best known for her roles on UK TV series The Avengers and films like A Warm December (with Sidney Poitier); co-producing/writing/directing Bob Marley: The Making of a Legend; and her involvement in the development of Island Records. Caribbean Beat featured her in a profile in 2013.
Born in Haiti, migrating to the US as a child, she’s featured in roles on US TV series The Jaime Foxx Show and NYPD Blue, and films like Coming to America, Wild Wild West, and White House Down. She also starred in the US TV movie Girlfriends Getaway, shot on location in Trinidad and Tobago in 2014. On her Caribbean roots, Beauvais told Caribbean Beat: “My Caribbean roots can be seen in my home through the art work we have, the food we sometimes eat like rice and beans, grio, plantains and also in the way I parent my kids, I tend to be strict and manners are very important! I was in Haiti [recently] with an organization Fonkoze. I love to support my birth place! It will always be in my heart.”
Born to a Puerto Rican mother, she’s best known for Men in Black II, the Sin City and Clerks films, Rent, Alexander, Seven Pounds, Unstoppable, and the new Daredevil series.
Born to a Trinidadian mother, she is best known for US TV series like Sister, Sister (with Tia and Tamera Mowry, who are of Bahamian heritage) and 227, for which she has the distinction of becoming the first and only black actress to win the Emmy for outstanding actress in a comedy.
Born in Jamaica, this iconic model, songwriter, model, record producer, and Grammy-nominated singer is best known as an actress for roles in Conan the Destroyer alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger, the 1985 James Bond movie A View to a Kill, and Boomerang with Eddie Murphy.
Born in England to Jamaican parents, he’s best known for film roles in movies like Malcolm X, Get Shorty, Ransom, The Cider House Rules, and Gone in 60 Seconds. He was also nominated for a Tony Award for Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.
Born to Trinidadian parents, she’s best known for roles on TV shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Third Watch, and in films like Boyz n the Hood, Made in America, Love Jones, Soul Food, The Best Man, and Big Momma’s House. She’s been spotted from time to time visiting Trinidad, and says: “I will always be an island girl. The food, the music, the people are beautiful. My grandmother was born in Grenada and raised in Trinidad. She taught me to fear nothing and no one but God. She is a fearless warrior and my hero. I am kind of a hippie in many ways. Open to most things, cultures and non-traditional ideas. Always barefoot and would rather be close to the water than on the red carpet.”
Born in the US to Trinidadian parents, he’s best known for roles in US TV series like Weeds, and movies like The Forty Year Old Virgin, the Think Like a Man films, Baby Mama, and Blades of Glory.
Born in St Lucia, he is best known for US TV series The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (co-starring with three actors of Trinidadian heritage) and films like Cry Freedom. He plays influential Trinidadian writer C.L.R. James in Trinidadian director Frances-Anne Solomon’s upcoming film Hero. Caribbean Beat profiled Marcell in 2014.
Born in the US to Trinidadian parents (and the grandson of Trinidadian calypso legend Rafael “Roaring Lion” Leon), he won US TV series Dancing with the Stars last year, but is probably best known for his role in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air with Will Smith (and co-starring with Tatyana Ali, Karyn Parsons, and Joseph Marcell).
Born in the US to a Puerto Rican mother and father from the Dominican Republic, she spent some of her childhood in the DR before returning to New York City as a teen. Known for Drumline, Pirates of the Caribbean, Guardians of the Galaxy, Avatar, and the rebooted Star Trek films (playing Uhura), and the forthcoming Nina Simone biopic, Nina.
Born in the US to Cuban parents, she’s appeared in US TV series Suits and the Matrix films. She is married to fellow Matrix co-star Laurence Fishburne.
Born in the US to parents from St Kitts and Nevis, this decorated veteran actress of stage and screen has starred in films like Sounder (Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for best actress), Hoodlum, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Idlewild, The Help, and countless US TV movies and miniseries, including Emmy-nominated performances in Roots, King, The Marva Collins Story, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, The Trip to Bountiful, as well as The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (Emmy for outstanding lead actress, and actress of the year). Recently she played Viola Davis’s mother in the hit series How to Get Away With Murder.
And did you know these Caribbean connections?
- Beyoncé (Bahamian father)
- Tyson Beckford (Jamaican mother)
- Naomi Campbell (Jamaican mother)
- Stacey Dash (Barbadian father)
- Cameron Diaz (Cuban ancestry on father’s side)
- Cuba Gooding, Jr. (Barbadian grandfather)
- LL Cool J (Barbadian grandparents)
- Tia and Tamera Mowry (Bahamian mother)
- Gwyneth Paltrow (Barbadian great-grandmother)
- Kyra Sedgwick (Trinidadian-American grandfather)
- Jada Pinkett Smith (maternal Barbadian/Jamaican ancestry)
- Karyn Parsons (Trinidadian mother).