Idris Elba is a hunk, a bonafide sexiest-man-alive type whose every move is figuratively and literally soundtracked by impassioned oooohs and aaaahs from his motley contingent of adorers. Even President Obama is aware of Elba’s babeliness, having had to implore attendees at a recent White House screening of Mandela to “give [Elba] a break, ladies.” It’s undeniable and overpowering: now 41, Elba is six feet and three inches of smooth muscle, with a pleasantly symmetrical face, smouldering eyes, and the type of wink-heavy charm conferred only on fictional Disney characters and mythical movie stars.
Elba, who was born to a Sierra Leonean father and a Ghanaian mother in the East London borough of Hackney, has slowly been cementing his role as Hollywood’s next go-to black leading actor since up and leaving a factory job in favor of an uncertain future and a one-way ticket to New York City. His has been a fanciful, almost-too-perfect rags-to-riches tale that begins in the big city with no money and plenty of lofty ambition. But will he be able to translate his acting prowess into household-name-level success?
His casting as Stringer Bell on David Simon’s lauded HBO series The Wire can best be described as Elba’s breakout role and the one for which he is still the most recognizable; his uncanny portrayal of the conflicted Baltimore gangster, a cruel but unexpectedly sympathetic character, has in many ways come to define him in the public’s eye. Despite the many major roles he’s played, and played well, in the decade since The Wire—including blockbusters like Pacific Rim, Prometheus, and Thor, and as the eponymous character of acclaimed BBC detective drama Luther—it is time more than emotional distance that separates him from his turn as Stringer Bell.
But Elba has recently displayed all the signs of an ‘it actor’ on the come up: in the past year alone, he’s played the lead in four major films and the third season of Luther; in 2014, he’s slated to star in at least four more films; he’s taken on both Tom Cruise-style action movies, like Pacific Rim, and more serious, craft-driven projects, such as Mandela, in which he steals every scene; he’s beloved editorially, having appeared on the covers of GQ and Esquire; even during the peaks of his acting schedule, he’s gone full steam ahead with his music side hustle, rapping to somewhat cringe-inducing effect as Driis and DJing, to much more success, under the same name.
Meanwhile, the Hollywood machine, which currently seems to be as taken with him as some of his fans are, is positioning him as the mega-movie star of this generation; given the dearth of leading black actors who are cast in “mainstream” (read: not marketed specifically to a black demographic) films, Elba’s looks, charm, and acting chops make him an obvious choice to fill the gap left by an aging Denzel Washington and an increasingly disengaged Will Smith, both of whom have found success at the box office and among diverse audiences.
Smith and Washington, arguably the two most successful black movie stars to have crossed over into “mainstream” cinema while playing heroes, each has a distinguishing quality that offsets the black stereotypes that hold other actors back. Smith is the goofy former rapper who is classified as safe because of his sitcom background and Washington is the principled, craft-obsessed actor who is magical and unthreatening. Elba, despite having proved himself as a fantastic actor and a sex symbol, has not found an analogous niche, so to speak. By virtue of being one of a handful of black actors getting high-level work in Hollywood, he must take on all the niches at the same time, while owning none of them.
Some studies suggest that white audiences are not interested in films starring black leads; one revealed that the more non-white actors starring in a movie, the less likely white audiences are to be interested in it. Also, recall the USA Today flub, in which a telling characterization of a handful of recent successful films starring black actors as “race-themed” revealed the extent to which mainstream—again, read: white—audiences are thought to feel disconnected from non-white casts.
Despite suggestions to the contrary, Hollywood is no more post-racial than Obama’s America is and Elba is aware of the implications of his race on his career and is, rightly, frustrated by it and by the continued discussion of it.
“Are there differences between black actors’ opportunities and white actors’ opportunities? Yes, there are. It’s been said. I’d rather a young black actor read about success as opposed to how tough it was. I get these roles because I can act and that’s it. Hopefully that’s it. The less I talk about being black, the better,” he said in a 2012 interview. It’s not the first time race has defined him, nor will it be the last. There is no precedent for any celebrity being seen as a celebrity before being seen as a black celebrity and, until that changes, Elba will have to reckon with it.
Beyond that, however, he is doubly affected by his foreignness. His British accent adds to his perceived charm, to be sure, but his name—is it pronounced eye-driss? ee-driss? ee-drees?—is a significant bump in the road to household recognition. Studies have shown consistently that people with names perceived as “black names” have a harder time gaining entry to professional settings. Is it a stretch to imagine that similar socio-cultural barriers are erected even when that name is plastered on billboards? We’ll know soon enough.