Arts, Culture & Media

Teaching American actors how to do African accents


Actor Will Smith poses as he arrives for the New York premiere of the film "Concussion" in the Manhattan borough of New York City, December 16, 2015. "Concussion", which stars Smith portraying Dr. Bennet Omalu, the pathologist who a decade ago first linked brain damage to the deaths of NFL players.


Mike Segar/Reuters

'Tis the season of the blockbuster movie releases.

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

One of the big budget films released this holiday season is the Will Smith film "Concussion."

It tells the story of Nigerian doctor Bennet Omalu and how he raised alarm bells about the effects of head injuries in the NFL.

Here's the trailer.

That's American actor Will Smith playing the role of the Nigerian doctor.

So do you think he sounds Nigerian? Well, Nigerians don't.

Here's Nigerian comedian and satirist Elnathan John on a Youtube video spoofing Smith.

Ouch. And he's not the only one.

Will Smith hasn't been getting any Twitter love from people who've heard his version of the accent.

“First of all, you have to determine what ethnic group or what tribe you’re working from,” explains Beth McGuire, professor of acting at Yale University and author of the new book, African Accents: A Workbook for Actors.

McGuire works with actors to help them master a number of African accents.

“The challenge has been that there are very few materials out there for African accents and the bar has been very low — which has spurred me on to write a book about it.”

McGuire’s book prepares actors by offering audio clips of native speakers from countries like Kenya, South Africa and Liberia.

“One of the big things, particularly for African accents, you have to really look at which country colonized that African nation. Some of those countries have been colonized by French people. Some of those countries have been colonized by English people. Some have been colonized by Portuguese, Dutch, English and French people — so you have a huge mishmash.”

And are there certain films, McGuire can’t watch because of the bad accents?

“Yes, and I’m not going to tell you what they are!” McGuire says with a laugh as she explains why she doesn’t criticize actors who don’t get it quite right. “I’m not a basher, because I know how difficult it is. I also know that until producers really decide that accents and dialects are important and that you need somebody on set and you need actors prepped — they’re just not going to be good.”

And she says the best accents are the ones that aren’t heard.

“If the accents are good, you don’t notice them.”

Are there films you can't watch because of the cringe-worthy accents? Let us know in the comment section below.