We sat down with Bambadjan Bamba, the actor working to put a human face on undocumented immigrants.
Bambadjan Bamba is living his dream as a working actor in Hollywood. While he hasn't landed that breakout leading role just yet, he's played a wide variety of characters in movies and on TV. He has a recurring role on the much loved network sitcom "The Good Place" and he plays a militant leader in the world's biggest movie right now—Black Panther.
Bamba is also an undocumented immigrant in America.
In a recent op-ed for the Washington Post, Bamba points out that in the comic book that the film Black Panther is based on, the superhero is in-fact himself undocumented.
Growing up in the South Bronx and Richmond, Virginia, the 36-year-old Bamba worked hard on honing his American accent. He put himself through acting school while dealing with obstacles stemming from his undocumented status.
In 2012, he thought he found some relief when he received a DACA approval notice. That all changed when the Trump administration decided to end the program last September.
In November, Bamba talked about his status publically for the first time. Until then only few knew. He did it in an interview with the LA Times that also featured a video about his journey by Define American. Bamba is now an ambassador for the organization and has become a vocal advocate for DREAMERS, people who were brought to America as children without papers.
We met in a restaurant in North Hollywood, not far from where he lives with his wife (also Ivorian), and his one-year-old daughter.
The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity
Bambadjan in Black Panther
Tell me about your family deciding to come here.
No one really asked my permission, but when they said we're coming I got excited. I was ten years old. America has the whole world believing that it's the best place in the world. When you watch movies you are like "Oh my God this is amazing I want to come to America." So I watched a lot of movies and was really excited about meeting, you know, Mickey Mouse.
Who did you come with? What about family that stayed there?
My brother and sister and my mom. When we got here, they started applying for political asylum, to get protection from persecution. As I got older I started understanding that it was because of the political situation that they decided to move. And then came the civil war in Ivory Coast. So if they hadn't moved, I don't know, maybe we would have been in danger. A lot of people died.
I had a very close friend and cousin who got murdered at a road stop, because he is from my ethnic group (Jula).
Bambadjan (center) on The Good Place
Did you know any English?
No. They put me in a Spanish ESL class. It's the South Bronx, it's kind of rough. And I don't understand what the heck's going on. And they put me with this other African kid from West Africa and he also spoke French so he was supposed to be my mentor. But he kept tricking me the entire day.
What did he do?
I ask him, "Hey, how do I sound when I want to go to the bathroom?" He says, "Kiss my ass." Then I raised my hand and I'm like "Kiss my ass."
Which country is he from?
Oh, he's from freakin Guinea.
So was there a rivalry?
I don't think so. But he's a ten-year-old kid. What does he know, right? Just bullying and playing me all day. At the end of the day we got into a fight. And that started my mission to learn English as fast as possible because I ended up getting in trouble, because I didn't understand.
We later moved to Richmond Virginia, that's where I got introduced to theater and acting. There was actually a structured school program. My teacher, after the first play I did she was like, "Oh my God, you could be like Tom Cruise." And for some reason I never forgot that. This was like middle school.
Do you want to be like Tom Cruise?
I kind of want to be like Denzel, but okay.
What theater did is, it allowed me to communicate and express myself. And people really connected to me. I started becoming cool, when before I was the weird African kid with the weird accent.
Growing up, what did you know about your papers and your status?
All I knew was, that I have everything that I need. I was no different than anyone else. It only became apparent when we had to deal with this immigration thing. I figured, you know, that's what my parents did. But I know that every time there was a hearing or whatever they would stress out—they would talk to the lawyers. It was very confusing for them because they spoke French, and the lawyers spoke English. Asylum is not an easy case to prove. So there was definitely a lot of drama with that. But because it takes so long—I don't know, it just became like the norm.
When it was time to go to college, that's when I realized that, with an asylum case pending it means that you can't avail yourself to any financial aid. So, I like to say I've been on temporary status my whole life. Nothing has ever been permanent. When I found that out, I was like "Man, does that mean I can't go to college? Does that mean all these dreams that I have to be an actor? Is that all over?"
I had a conversation with my parents, and that's when they kinda told me, "You know, whatever you wanna do, we'll support you." And they helped me pay my way through school, through conservatory acting school in New York City. So I drove cabs, you know, just did everything I could to pay the tuition.
Some of Bamba's many roles:
At what point did you lose the accent? And how hard was it?
Well I was forced to learn English very fast, like I told you. So I would listen to a lot of hip-hop, I'm a big hip-hop fan. And memorize the lyrics and rap 'em, just like the rappers. So that probably taught me the American accent better than anything else. But there's still words, sometimes when I get too excited that actually comes out, slips out.
Tell me about your favorite hip-hop artists
My favorite I would have to say is K'naan. Cause he basically rapped my story. He's an immigrant, like me, he's from Africa. And I used to play his albums while driving a cab actually, to just stay awake. It was very inspiring to me. Artists like him—Blitz the Ambassador is actually a good friend. They all talk about the immigrant experience and my vision or goal for every project that I do is try to bridge the cultural gap between Africa and the world.
As an actor you probably get cast all the time as African-American
I'd have to say at the beginning of my acting career there wasn't that many African roles or even African actors my age at the time. But now, I mean we're everywhere, there's African actors everywhere. There's African characters, lead roles. Ever since Obama, there's just been like an explosion. Obviously it's not enough, we still need more. But there's a lot of shows created by Blacks. As far as me playing African-American roles or African roles, to me I just have a leg up, cause I'm actually from Africa. And I know the culture. And I'm also American, and I know the culture.
So you define yourself as African-American?
It's the perfect definition of who I am. When I say I'm African, you know the culture, the tradition, and also the struggle. Same way African-Americans, I understand the struggle, I lived in the hood. It's all like a common fight. Like this immigration struggle—every right that African-Americans fought for during the civil rights, benefited immigrants. We're fighting together. Politicians are trying to separate us or put us against each other "Oh we're taking these people's jobs." Mm-mm, we've always been working together to give progress, cause it helps all of us.
Between when you realize you're undocumented and 2012, what kind of obstacles are you running into?
I would avoid auditions that traveled anywhere internationally because I couldn't travel. When you're undocumented, a simple traffic stop could put you into deportation proceedings, right? So you walk on eggshells you don't know what's going to happen. Then you go see lawyers and they tell you there's no option for you just, "Hide." So you really feel dehumanized like a second-class citizen. You're like put to the side, put apart. You don't get to be a part of society, even though you're paying taxes and you're doing everything that you can, you're working. In my mind I'm like "Hey I'm successful, there's at least gonna be an option." But there's no option.
And then whenever politicians talk about immigration, it's almost like they hold your heart in their hands. Cause every little decision they make, every word they say, can have real effect on your life, and your family's life.
Trailer for Bamba's web series:
So how was it like when their decision was finally in your favor in a way?
I was really excited. And what really inspired me the most was young undocumented people basically saying "We're undocumented, we're unafraid." And they fought for DACA, they pushed Obama. When it came through I was one of the first ones to apply because I was like "Finally, there's a way." It gave me some kind of hope.
But you still felt like you had to hide it
In the industry I did have to hide it because I don't know, people don't really talk about immigration especially in the African community.
DACA is not founded on anything really because it's just an executive order that Trump decided to rescind. So it's just like up in the air so you don't know. And the requirements are so high that any little thing that you do, you can lose your status, you can lose your DACA.
And I guess with what you do everything feels way more risky because you're visible.
Right. I am. But then again, I have a platform and if I don't say anything and DACA gets canceled or nothing happens, I feel the responsibility. I just had to stop being scared and take a leap of faith. Thank God, it's helping to amplify the message a little bit.
So what drove eventually to do that was Trump cancelling the program, right?
Yep. When he canceled I looked at my daughter who just turned one and I was like "Man, what is that gonna mean? Can I be separated from her? From my wife? From everything that I've worked for?" And I feel like we've come so far, that we can just can't, go back another 10 years.
Do you hear from other African DACA recipients? I feel like when people hear DACA they think about Latinas usually.
Most people who reach out to me are actually Africans who are undocumented. And they're really happy because no one talks about Africans in the conversation. When I talk to people they're like, "I thought that this was a Mexican problem." And I'm like "No it affects everybody." So that's a part of the work too, to shatter all those stereotypes and demystify and try to help people understand that immigrants are Americans. And sometimes they're actors in TV shows you love, with characters you love.
If you could've travelled internationally—would you want to do African productions?
I was just sent a script today. I get Nollywood scripts all the time. And then in the Ivory Coast there's a budding film industry—so they're like—Man, come back we want you to be in this movie.
There's one more thing I want to say. I want to tell people that I'm undocumented but I'm here legally under DACA, which gives me the right to work legally—so please hire me. PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE.
Bamba's headshot Photo: OG Pics