It’s not black or white: Idris Elba and the issue of race on screen

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Defying expectations of the black performer in Hollywood, Thor and Luther star Idris Elba is a good ideological fit for Mandela.

Idris Elba is the man everybody is watching: he is the man of the moment, poised to snatch up numerous awards for his portrayal of Nelson Mandela in Long Walk to Freedom. The London-born actor has been making waves for a while now. His name was made when he shot to stardom playing erudite drug dealer ‘Stringer’ Bell in The Wire, Detective John Luther and the ‘whitest of gods’ in Thor. He has taken on roles that have challenged not only him creatively, but also cultural stereotypes. With recent roles in Prometheus and Pacific Rim turning heads, Elba has caught our attention. Has the screen finally caught up with the stage in terms of mixing up the boundaries or is it Elba himself that’s pushing cinema forward because of his choice of roles? How has Elba made skin colour not matter in a medium that’s obsessed with it?

If we can suspend our disbelief for an imaginary world like Thor’s then skin colour becomes of no consequence

The offers have started piling in for Elba lately, with big blockbuster offers knocking at the door. Elba surprised many by appearing in a major Marvel, Kenneth Brannagh’s Thor, playing the mythical god Heimdall. The decision angered and bemused many fans of the comic book with some claiming this was a travesty and ‘political correctness gone mad’. Said one fan (according to The Guardian): “Norse deities are not of an African ethnicity! … It’s the principle of the matter. It’s about respecting the integrity of the source material, both comics and Norse mythologies.”

Elba fought back: “I was cast in Thor and I’m cast as a Nordic god,” he said. “If you know anything about the Nords, they don’t look like me but there you go. I think that’s a sign of the times for the future. I think we will see multi-level casting. I think we will see that, and I think that’s good.” He went on to add that this is a mythical story – it isn’t real so why does it matter about skin colour? If we can suspend our disbelief to believe in an imaginary world then skin colour becomes of no consequence. If it’s Thor or a fictional detective, who cares?

thor idris elba

Back in the real world, Elba plays detective sergeant John Luther, the brilliant but ultimately flawed cockney copper doing the best he can in an imperfect world. Like the best anti-heroes, we fall for him – hook, line and sinker. Elba’s presence and his clout make Luther addictive and so much more than a reductive whodunnit (Elba has also once again shown his ingenuity, as Luther is set for the big screen next year). Elba has made it clear that referring to John Luther as a black detective was dangerous – he may be the first of many black detectives, but the colour of his skin is irrelevant; Luther is a complex character who summons angels and demons together in the streets of London.

A man should be judged on his talent and not his skin colour; Elba has proved time and time again that he has bags of the former

The decisions to take major lead roles haven’t always been easy for Elba, though. The actor wasn’t sure whether to take the starring role in Long Walk to Freedom and needed to be persuaded. Elba (who at 41 is at the top of his game) didn’t want this to be the end of his career if it bombed, and understandably was unsure about the risk.  It could have been career suicide. Elba looks nothing like Mandela – prosthetics help him look more like the older Mandela, but a mirror image it certainly isn’t.

It’s ironic that as an actor playing Nelson Mandela, Elba has again opened up debate about who’s entitled to play certain roles and skin colour as an issue. With the words ‘Elba’ and the ‘first black Bond’ in the name sentence you can see right wing institutions such as the Daily Mail spontaneously combust at the proposal, but Elba has opened up the debate: why not? A man should be judged on his talent and not his skin colour; Elba has proved time and time again that he has bags of the former. He’s a fit ideologically even if not physically. And you’ll remember the name – after all, it’s pretty hard to forget. The name’s Elba – Idris Elba.


Featured image: The Weinstein Company

Inset image: Marvel

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